What is the symbolism in the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes?

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price7781 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem “Mother to Son”, by Langston Hughes, is an uplifting, hopeful poem about never giving up.  The main symbolism in the poem is when Mother compares her life to a staircase.  She says, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”  By this, she means that life has not been easy, and her journey through life has been like climbing a staircase.  As a black woman, her journey has been hard, and as she describes it, the staircase she has had to climb has “tacks in it”, “splinters”, “boards tore up”, “places with no carpet”, and is “bare”.  It has not been a smooth and easy journey of life; the kind of life that a crystal staircase would provide.  Instead, the Mother has led a life full of obstacles and hardships in her metaphoric climb up the stairs from birth to death.

She is hopeful for her son, and she encourages him to keep climbing like she has.  She tells him in his own personal journey to not turn back or “set down on the steps.”  Like her, he must keep going and reach for what he wants in life. 

The staircase is symbolic of progressing through life and having the will to keep climbing.   It is also a symbol for the journey we all take in life.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Mother to Son," Hughes uses a number of symbols. First of all, in lines four to six, the "splinters," torn-up boards, and floor without carpet are symbolic of the mother's hard and problematic life.  This is further reinforced in the seventh line with the single word "bare," which emphasizes the difficulties she has encountered. The staircase itself has significance since it acts as a symbol of life's journey. 

Later in the poem, the mother again uses symbolism when she talks about the course of her life. Reaching the landing, turning corners, and navigating in the dark, for example, are all symbols of the specific obstacles she has faced and overcome during the course of her life.

Finally, in the first and last lines of the poem, the word "crystal" has symbolic meaning. Specifically, the word suggests wealth, affluence, and luxury; it is used by the mother as a symbol of the life she hoped to have.