What techniques does Hughes use to characterize the mother in Mother to Son?

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes uses a variety of poetic devices, or figurative language, in "Mother to Son" to characterize the mother as a hard-working, determined woman who cares deeply for her son. 

Extended Metaphor

Hughes uses the extended metaphor of "the crystal stair" throughout the poem to reveal that the mother has endured much in her life.  As a metaphor for her life, the mother's staircase has been worn down and decrepit at time, full of difficulties, and even sometimes in the dark, "where there ain't been no light."  Hughes' powerful use of metaphor endears the mother to the reader, because she has faced extreme difficulty and poverty and has persevered through all of her darkest moments.


Hughes further characterizes the mother in the poem by his use of plain, simple dialect which reveals her humble origins.  Phrases like "I'se still goin'" and the use of contractions and dropped syllables suggest that the mother is less educated or did not have the benefit of formal education.  If the reader is familiar with dialects from the United States, he or she might also infer that the mother's speech suggests she is probably from the South.

The mother in "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes feels almost real to the reader; Hughes' gifted characterization leaves the reader with an impression of a strong, caring woman who knows well the meaning of perseverance.