“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes, is a short poem about a mother who is teaching her son about urgency and determination by using the image of a staircase to instill something in his brain. She explains that even though life has given her many adversities, she continues to keep on pushing and she urges her son to do the same. In the poem “Mother to Son,” Langston Hughes uses an extended metaphor, imagery, dialect, and structure to painting a picture of a weary mother who wants her son to succeed even though life has many hardships.
The poem is a monologue that conveys the idea of encouragement and hope. The theme of this poem “Mother to Son,” is about willpower and the value of life lessons. The mother is telling her son that no matter what happens, he should never give up or quit. Even though this poem’s tone is rather serious and sad, there is an indication of optimism because she never gave up on herself. The mother never let the “stairs” of life bring her down and that gives the readers a feeling of faith that everything will be ok.
In this poem, Langston Hughes uses an extended metaphor, which was the staircase, to portray the life of the mother. The mother compares her life to a “crystal stair” at the beginning of the poem by saying, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (2). The mother says to her son, that life is not as easy as it seems and you really cannot just stroll through. Instead, in this stanza of the poem, she tells her son that the reality is that life is hard, full of brick walls that are trying to stop you, but one must keep on going, one cannot turn their back or sit down, because one will catch a break eventually. This gives the readers a sense that she has not been as blessed as the people who climb the “crystal stair”, for this reason, she has had to work for it. When you think of a “crystal stair,” the first thing that comes to your mind is something prized, high-priced, and extravagant; therefore, someone who climbs a “crystal stair” would be someone who has a great fortune, and has lived a glamorous, perhaps easy, life. The mother in this poem has had no such life; in fact, the description of hers seems more tough and unpleasant.
To draw a bigger picture of the hardships that the mother has faced, the author uses imagery to express the staircase that she had to climb to get to where she is now. In lines 3-7 this is the example she uses how the hardships were, “It’s had tacks in it, and splinters and boards were torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor–Bare. The use of “tacks” and “splinters” demonstrate the agony and uneasiness that the mother has gone through and torn up boards could symbolize possibly a risky situation. If you step on a stair that is broken, there is a risk that you may fall through. Along with the uneasiness, the mother may have had to escape threatening situations. The image of the broken-down staircase also gives the readers a notion of the insufficiency of funds. Also, a staircase that is broken wouldn’t be in a rich persons’ home, so this also makes us see that she is poor or lacks the finer things. In the 1920s, which was when this poem was written, many African Americans were moving from the South into cities for a possibility of a better living situation. Most of them were penniless and lived in poverty-stricken ways, which is why the staircase is displayed as broken down, bare, and with no carpet.
The title, “Mother to Son,” tells us that this is a mother giving her son advice Langston Hughes opens the poem by saying, “Well, son, I’ll tell you:”(1), which could mean that her son had asked her about her life when she was young or that maybe he was nagging about his current problems. The mother then begins to go into detail to tell him that her life has not been easy, but she gave up on herself and she is instilling him to do the same. In lines 14-17 it shows what I am meaning “So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the step ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now-” instructs that she wants him to counter it onward and upward. The mother is telling her son that he should never put himself down or stop because it is becoming tough, and she uses herself as an example for it all. She is just encouraging him to climb those stairs that life throws at him by telling him that she herself went through the same struggles as he will because she never gave up in lines 18-19, “For I’ve still goin’, honey. I’se still climbin’.” Through these lines, she shows that’s no matter how tough it may have been for her that hasn’t destroyed her spirits because she keeps on climbing. She demonstrates life as rising up a staircase: it’s a tough climb, but one that must be attempted and reached.
You can see the willpower that this mother has. She keeps trying to continue through her disruptions that are pulling her back, even when it seems like there is no faith for her, “And sometimes goin’ in the dark/ Where there ain’t been no light.”(12-13).”And sometimes goin’ in the dark” (12) could mean that she felt worthless at certain times in her life or that is was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If a town is completely abandoned with no trace of human life, it is extremely difficult to find help. There may have been instances in a women’s life where she did not know the way out of a situation, but she never thought of quitting. We also see that she is climbing the stairs and it is a never-ending cycle, “For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se climbin’,”(18-19). This gives the readers an interpretation that no matter what age you are, you will eventually begin climbing your staircase of life. It leads me to think that this staircase only stops if you die.
Langston Hughes uses dialect to reveal to the readers that the mother may not have been well educated. In this line “But all the time I’se been a-climbing’ on, and reachin’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners, and sometimes goin’ in the dark, where there ain’t been no light” (8-13) it indicates why I have reason to believe so. By leaving out the “g” at the end of each word and using the words “ain’t,” we get the notion that this is an older, Southern woman who has not been educated incorrect English. She uses words like ain’t, I’se, and climbin’ which is a general language in the black culture. The language she uses gives the interpretation that though she may not be “well-educated” but is street smart and intelligent because of all the problematic experiences that she has overcome in her life. The rhythm of the poem has no rhyme but it has no beat that flows in a jaded but it does builds like a stairway, one step at a time.
Although there is not much structure to this poem, it does mimic a blues song. Blues was a very popular genre in the 1920s, especially down there many Southern African Americans popularized it as well. In most blues songs, they will sing about progressing on and never giving up on yourself, which is what this poem really tries to instill into the child. Additionally, a blues song will have the reappearance of words. For instance, this poem repeats the phrase “crystal stair.” It begins and ends the poem by saying that, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,”(2,20).
In conclusion, Langston Hughes uses extended metaphor, imagery, dialect, and structure to reveal a weary mother who gives her son guidance about the strength of character. We realize that although her life has given her many hardships, she never gave up her willpower to keep on and she pushes on. With the use of the extended metaphor of the staircase and the crystal-clear imagery, the readers take on a clear picture of struggle, perseverance, and hope that the mother had to go through.
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