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Tone is generally determined by several factors.  In Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem," tone can best be determined by his use of imagery.  This work has a simple structure: it is a series of images which draw a picture of the answer to a question he asks but never answers:  "What happens to a dream deferred?"  The images that follow are possible answers to that question and full of sensory details which lead to a feeling of hopelessness. 

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Here we have the visual and tactile image of something once full and ripe which is now shriveled and dried up--like a dream deferred.


Or fester like a sore—
And then run?

This image is one of a partially crusted but mostly open sore which has not healed; instead, it oozes its ugly fluids and never really heals--like a dream deferred.


Does it stink like rotten meat?

The image here is one of a life-giving substance which is now inedible and has the look and smell of decay--like a dream deferred.


Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Here I think of something like maple syrup left to dry up on a plate--hard and crusty and no longer smooth and usable--like a dream deferred.


Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

This image is one of pure weight, a burden which will not be lifted.  Visually, the word "sag" depicts an utter hopelessness--like a dream deferred.


Or does it explode?

Finally, all the senses are invoked in this image--sound and sight and touch and smell and even taste, as the smoke and dust of an explosion fills the mouth.  There is nothing left; all is lost--like a dream deferred.

This structure of rhetorical questions replete with sensory images and details is designed to create a growing sense of hopelessness, which it seems to me is both the tone and the theme of this poem.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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