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Use of Symbolism in Harlem (A Dream Deferred)


In our journey through life, we all have certain expectations of how we would like our lives to be. All of us strive to reach a certain level of self-actulization and acceptance. It could thus be said that all of us live a dream. Some of these individual dreams inevitably become the collective dream of many people. In "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)", Langston Hughes makes use of symbolism as well as powerful sensory imagery to show us the emotions that he and his people go through in their quest for freedom and equality. By using questions he builds the poem towards an exciting climax.


Hughes wants to know "What happens to a dream deferred?" He asks this question as an introduction to possible reactions of people whose dreams do not materialize. The image he uses in the first question is that of a raisin. He asks the question; "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" He draws a parallel between grapes losing its juices in the sun, to dreams losing some of its vitality when its realization is deferred for a long time.


The next symbol he uses is that of a wound that is not healing. "Or fester like a sore-and then run?" The image this symbol creates is more powerful than the raisin. It gives us an example of the resentment that is growing. People are getting more inflamed emotionally, just like the wound gets worse if not treated. It draws a clear parallel between people's emotions and the images of the sore. Just as an untreated sore will not heal, but get more infected, a deferred dream will not go away, but become more intense. A wound that gets worse will eventually start to smell bad. Hughes compares this to rotten meat. "Does it stink like rotten meat?" This image creates the idea that unrealized dreams will bring out the worst in men. It also means that for some the realization of their dreams will become less attractive.


Next he uses the symbol of sugar, or sweetness. This creates the false image that all is well, almost as if this is the way it is meant to be. However, our minds still stick to the festering sore that is under the "Sweet crust." Hughes uses this image as a transition to the only statement in the poem that is not in the form of a question.


The reason he does not use a question in the phrase; "Maybe it just sags like a heavy load," is to create an image of defeat. When people grow old and tired, their shoulders are bent as if they are carrying a heavy load. Old women's breasts sag as a result of the natural aging process. There is nothing we can do to stop aging. Eventually we all have to give up the struggle and die. Does "a dream deferred" also eventually sag, and die, because the people who live the dream grow tired and give up hope? Hughes gives us a powerfull image to counter the withering dream. "It explodes." He asks the question, "Or does it explode?" almost in a matter of fact way. This makes it clear that the explosion is eventually the only end result of dreams that go unrealized. He believes this from the bottom of his heart. If you compare the other images he uses to an explosion, they grow pale in comparison.


Hughes cleverly uses all these symbols to create a natural chain of events that shows us the stages of an unrealized dream. Each image gets stronger. Then there is the quiet before the storm. Finally the urge to realize the dream gets too strong, and erupts into chaos, just like an explosion.

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