What figurative language is used in Langston Hughes's "Mother to Son"?

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The speaker employs a vernacular that would be common for a black mother in this historical context to use in speaking with her son. This accounts for the colorful language such as "I'se" and "kinder" that would be easily accessible for her son's understanding, which is the goal of her advice.

Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound in a single line, such as in the line "’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard" (emphasis added). This long i sound slows down the line, forcing the son to pay close attention to this line. He may struggle and life might be hard, but he can't sit down now.

The symbolism of the bright crystal stair is juxtaposed with the mother's actual experience, symbolized by "the dark / Where there ain't been no light." These symbols of darkness represent the mother's struggles when she felt alone and isolated. The darkness symbolizes her own inner hopelessness in her situation—yet she has persisted. Although she could not find her way, she kept "turnin' corners," a symbol for making new choices that would take her to the next landing.

Caesura, which is an intentional pause within a line of poetry, is also strategically used after the opening word: "Well," the poem begins. This immediately engages readers, making this poem feel like a conversation that we have fallen into the middle of. This mother is employing a technique to get her son's attention (in my mind with a tone similar to "Let me tell you something...").

There are few lines which use enjambment; instead most lines end with a hard stop, forcing the reader (and son) to stop and reflect upon each obstacle with the mother. The shape of the poem itself becomes a metaphor in the end, its jagged shape of varying line lengths mirroring the harsh climb the mother has faced in her quest to continually climb over life's obstacles.

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The main example of figurative language in Langston Hughes's poem "Mother to Son" is the central extended metaphor comparing the speaker's life to a staircase. The speaker of the poem, the titular mother addressing her son, expresses the hardships and struggles she has faced in her life through this metaphor of a staircase: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." A stair made of crystal is an image that calls to mind luxury and ease.

In contrast, the mother describes the staircase of her life as being full of splinters and broken boards, meaning she had to struggle far more to keep moving onwards and upwards than others around her. Each issue with the staircase that she describes, from patches without carpet to stretches of darkness, is in turn a metaphor for a hardship she has faced in her life. Despite how difficult the climb has been, the mother's inspirational message to her son is that he needs to keep going, saying:

Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now
This advice operates in the same metaphor as the rest of the poem, describing various ways her son might be tempted to give up in his life as ways in which one might fail to keep climbing up the stairs.
Hughes also employs dialect to convey the character of the speaker, writing in a conversational tone and using slang words and unconventional grammar to convey the character of the speaker and the tenor of the conversation.
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"Mother" compares life to stairs, and contrasts her life (or stairs) against that of a "crystal stair," which, in this poem, becomes a symbol of luxury and ease. The smooth delicacy of crystal is contrasted with the rough textures that she has known in life:

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

It's had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor --


"Tacks" and "splinters" indicate danger and pain. Torn boards signal dilapidation -- a sign of poverty -- while "places with no carpet" indicate discomfort. Notice the use of anaphora, or repetition, at the beginning of each line" with the continuous use of "and." Her suffering reads as a catalog which suddenly stops with the imagistic use of the word "bare." "Bare" refers literally to the absence of carpeting in this context, but also has connotative meaning: there was absence, perhaps also loneliness.

Nevertheless, she emphasizes the importance of persistence:

But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,

And reachin' landin's,

And turnin' corners,

And sometimes goin' in the dark 

Where there ain't been no light.

She signals the shift from negative to positive with the use of "but." The dialect becomes starker here, signifying a lack of education and Southern origins. The poem may also address the migration of blacks from the South to Northern cities where their lives were easier, but still difficult. 

The use of anaphora reappears with the repetition of "and." In this case, the anaphora draws attention to the movement of progress.

The next lines address "Son" in an imperative tone:

So boy, don't you turn back.

Don't you set down on the steps

'Cause you finds its kinder hard.

Don't you fall now --

For I'se still goin', honey,

I'se still climbin', 

And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Again, she uses the metaphor of movement up a staircase to encourage her son's rightful direction in life. Setting down on the steps indicates giving up, while falling indicates making a move that misdirects one's progress, forcing one to start all over again.

Her use of the adverb "still" to modify "goin'" and "climbin'" indicates that age has not quelled her desire to have a better life. The second line of the poem is repeated at the end: "And life for me ain't been no crystal stair." Here, the line has a more positive meaning than it has on the first reading: it is less a description of hardship then of persistence and perseverance.

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