It should be noted that the dramatic monologue “Mother to Son” written by Langston Hughes is quite short but meaningful. The writing reveals a situation in which a mother is giving advice to her son. In addition, the woman encourages her child to not give up in the face of difficulties even if the situation seems overwhelming. The purpose of this paper is to analyze this poem through a close reading of the text and discuss such aspects as its tone, setting, the use of literary devices, and other important facets.
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Overall, some of the major themes that penetrate the monologue are bravery, hope, and life difficulties. While reading the text, the reader may assume that the life of the mother is full of different hardships, but she is ready to face and overcome them. She remains hopeful and optimistic, and her faith is the power that guides her in life. The woman encourages her son to follow her example and be a strong person. When discussing her life, she notes that it has been “no crystal stair” for her, and in fact, it was full of “splinters” (Hughes 187). The focus of the entire monologue is on a person’s determination to face problems with patience and stay resilient when taking the tests that life has arranged for them.
It is curious that the writing may be regarded as a concrete poem. The image and symbol of a staircase are observed not only in the text of the poem but also at the physical level. If the reader takes a look at the way the poem is written, they may notice that the writing is pictorial in appearance and the lines form a staircase as well. The author uses the em dash in two places in the text not only to produce the desired literary effect but also to maintain the physical form of a ladder (Hughes 187). This way, the author has managed to link the structure of the text with the metaphor of a staircase.
The author creates the character of the mother through her speech. On the one hand, the speaker is grim because she had to struggle a lot. On the other hand, the woman is determined, and she continues to push forward in her life despite the obstacles she meets (Hughes 187).
One may notice the dialect the character uses, which is African-American vernacular English. The reader may assume that the woman is an African American, who has had limited access to education. The aging mother is warning her son that life may be full of challenges and limitations, but he should remain resilient while living in an unequal society. It may be suggested that the image of the main heroine serves as an illustration of the difference between the American Dream and the life of an average African-American person living at that time.
Symbolic and Figurative Language
The author makes effective use of different literary devices, figurative speech, and symbolism to reveal the courage of the woman. The mother says: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Hughes 187). This sentence illustrates that the woman has faced multiple hardships on her path and she has made efforts to improve the situation. Then she continues: “It’s had tacks in it/ And splinters” (Hughes 187). In these two lines, the “tacks” and “splinters” are symbols that reveal the moments in the woman’s life that brought her either physical or emotional pain. A bit further in the monologue, the reader may notice the line consisting of one isolated word, which is “Bare” (Hughes 187).
The author has intentionally used a separate line for this word to stress that there have been moments when the heroine felt lonely. She develops this idea further when saying: “And sometimes going in the dark/ Where there ain’t been no light” (Hughes 187). These two lines indicate the periods when there was no support, and it seemed like there was nothing positive in the woman’s life that could make her living a bit easier.
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The language used by the author adds meaning to the poem and affects its tone. The poet uses assonance to add rhythm to the mother’s instruction: “So boy, don’t you turn back” (Hughes 187). The created melody makes the reader feel as if the woman is pronouncing these words aloud. Also, the writer resorts to consonance to establish a gloomy and daunting atmosphere: “Where there ain’t been no light” (Hughes 187).
The shift between consonant and vowel sounds creates an emotional staircase, which the reader climbs together with the mother and her son. Although the text is not rich in sensory detail, the audience may still feel the physical pain of the main heroine when she comes across “tacks” (Hughes 187). Additionally, the reader may understand how lonely and scared the woman felt when she was “going in the dark” (Hughes 187). This line creates a feeling of hopelessness by affecting the sensory side.
The author uses imagery to create the desired dramatic emotion in the reader. Apart from the “crystal stair” discussed earlier, the mother also describes a floor “with no carpet” and encourages her son not to sit down “on the steps” because he needs to stay resilient (Hughes 187). The imagery makes the woman’s appeal to her son stronger and shows the courage of the mother.
It is crucial to mention that the poem is free verse since it does not have a specific rhyme. Nevertheless, the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables and the repetition of “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” create some kind of melody with a rhetorical note to it (Hughes 187).
It may be assumed that the extended metaphor observed throughout the poem, which is the comparison of a mother’s life with a staircase, may be regarded as an allusion. The author refers to Jacob’s ladder mentioned in the Bible but, in the woman’s case, this path is not beautiful and, just the reverse, it is full of splinters and difficulties. Nonetheless, the stair is a symbol of something that is more important than life hurdles since it leads to a better place.
Thus, it can be concluded that the poem “Mother to Son” is a meaningful composition since it promotes optimism and courage. Despite the hardships the woman has faced, she is grateful for the life she has been given and is ready to overcome the difficulties that life arranges. Through the use of figurative and symbolic language, the author has created a melodic and emotional monologue in which the mother encourages her son to stay resilient and continue climbing the ladder of life.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Classics, 1990.