Poetry often has a way of reaching into the deepest elements of the human soul to expose the underlying natural desires and emotions that are frequently otherwise suppressed in ‘polite’ society. It does this by both appealing specifically to human emotion and by remaining sufficiently general to have broad common appeal. All this is accomplished through the art of creatively employing simile, metaphor, and imagery to suggest rather than tell the reader about a specific state of being. By focusing on emotions as they are expressed through images, the poet can capture a deep sense of connection between himself and his reader that transcends normal cultural or social bounds. This is the case with Langston Hughes’ poem, “Dream Deferred.” Throughout his poem, Hughes forces his reader to consider what happens to the human soul when they are unable to fulfill their dreams.
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He makes this clear through his intelligent use of simile to make connections between ideas and his use of imagery to illustrate the nature of these ideas to create a poem with broad applications.
In his poem, Hughes uses simile and metaphor to make his point as he continues to ask a series of questions to answer his original opening question of “what happens to a dream deferred?” This list of questions explores the various ways in which the first question might be answered by using a simile to suggest the possible results. A simile is a comparison that is made between two things using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’
The first possibility/simile Hughes suggests is that the dream might “dry up / like a raisin in the sun” (3-4), suggesting something so dried and hard that it no longer functions as it should.
Here, the dream is like a dried-up old raisin. The second possibility is that the dream might “fester like a sore – / and then run” (4-5), which is an equally unpleasant comparison. In this situation, the dream is like a wound that won’t heal and that oozes everywhere. The third possibility is that the dream deferred might “stink like rotten meat / or crust and sugar over” (6-7). In this possibility, the dream has become like something unpleasantly hard and containing an unpleasant odor. Another possibility Hughes brings forward through the use of simile is that the deferred dream might be like a heavy load (10). Through his heavy use of simile throughout the poem, Hughes continues to suggest that he is referring to something much larger than the simple raisin, the oozing sore, the unpleasant smell, or even the weight.
Throughout the poem, he continues to point to the metaphor, a comparison that doesn’t use the words ‘like’ or ‘as’, of the dream as the individual’s potential and goals in life.
This format also introduces a significant amount of imagery for the reader to imagine. This strong imagery makes it necessary for the reader to examine their answers to the questions asked, which prompts further exploration to discover how they would respond. Each of the answers Hughes suggests has different effects, suggesting that the individual might become any of these things. In the first case, a raisin is already a dried fruit. It, like the individual’s dreams and goals in life, is capable of providing the individual with a sweet and nutritious treat thus strengthening them and giving them fuel and encouragement for any difficulties ahead.
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Instead, Hughes suggests it is left drying in the sun, losing all of its nutritional qualities as these become too deeply embedded in the impossible-to-eat fruit to make it worth searching for. The second possibility introduces the imagery of a festering sore that eventually ‘runs.’
It is impossible to consider that Hughes selected this term accidentally, instead of using the more accurate word ‘ooze.’ In this possibility, Hughes suggests that the dream put on hold will continue to nag at the soul, always eating away at it until finally the soul gives in and runs, taking the physical form of the individual with it, in pursuit of the dream regardless of the final cost. In this situation, the individual becomes incapable of waiting any longer. The third possibility introduces imagery intended to incite the sense of smell rather than sight as the dream is subsumed under a hollow exterior that performs its functions as is expected but fails to completely mask the underlying resentment and anger. The fifth question immediately conjures up any images the reader might have of times in which they struggled with a load too heavy for them and realize how inevitable it was that they had to give up and seek assistance or concede the load would not be moved.
Hughes ends the poem, though, with no suggestion of a simile. The final line of the poem, “Or does it explode?” (11), suggests there is yet a sixth possibility of what happens when a dream is deferred. Because he doesn’t compare it with anything or confine it in any way, Hughes allows this line to be vaguely threatening, loose, and chaotic.
The suddenness of this statement shocks the reader into the full realization of the natural emotion that has been building in them through all of these connections. While they might have recognized a point within the poem that they identify with, this only serves to increase their inner feelings of anger and resentment toward whatever has caused them to defer their dreams to this point. This emotion, easily conjured and kept festering through the length of the poem is given its release and its expression in this final line, suggesting it is the ultimate end of the dream as the explosion carries all with it.
Because he keeps the imagery general and the connections clear, Hughes can deliver a poem that has broad appeal across all times and races. However, much of his poetry served to address the specific conditions under which black people had lived up to and during his period in American history. Realizing this, it is clear that Hughes is addressing the condition of the entire black population, attempting to make the white population who contributed most to black oppression understand what it was that they were doing to countless human souls and warning them of the potential results. This was not as any true desire or greater inclination toward violence, but rather as a natural result of a dream constantly deferred.
Hughes, Langston. “Dream Deferred.” Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. Robert DiYanni (Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003: 721.