Analysis of literary elements in Harlem


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What is a deferred dream that is not pursued? Published in 1951 by Langston Hughes, "Harlem" poses several questions using similes, imagery and culturally aimed words of the 1951 time period as to what happens to a deferred dream of equality. Most critics would agree that the "dream" Langston Hughes presented in the first line of the poem symbolizes African American longing for equality in most all aspects of American Society. Critic Mark Scott, for example, wrote that "Hughes devoted his poetic genius to the realization of that dream deferred, the dream of racial equality"(Scott 1). This longing that is "deferred" means that that most aspects of inequality such as racism and restrained opportunities still exist for African Americans in Society.

In particular the first four questions Hughes delineates in "Harlem" direct the reader through his use of images and similes, to accentuate the deprivation of African American equality and success in American Society. Using bold images the poet helps readers to imagine the ideas in the poem. Beginning with the first question Hughes chose the image of a dried raisin to portray the idea of withering and uselessness. Of course the fruit was once appealing at a certain time in its growth. Critic Harry Phillips asserts a valid point in the first question, "However, when the fruit, like the dream of equality, remains unharvested, it metamorphoses into something shrunken and less appealing"(Phillips 1). In other words Phillips is saying that just like the raisin being uncollected is the same as the "dream of equality" being deferred. In the same question Hughes uses a simile to compare "it," being the deferred dream of equality, with the dry raisin in the sun.

For instance in the second question, Hughes uses the image of a festering sore to convey that continuously enduring racism and inequality is painful to pursue the dream of equality. Similarly in the third question there is the smell of rotten meat which again is compared to a dream that is no longer viable. The fourth question brings in to view sweet candy which seemingly may have been good to eat, but like the previously mentioned rotten meat the candy has lost its significance. After reading the previous questions and understanding the concept of the comparisons, the idea of the "heavy load" in the next section of the poem is understandable. In Phillips view, for example, he signifies that, "Images are piled into “a heavy load,” and the weight of keeping one's eyes on the prize of genuine emancipation after repeated defeats causes the dream to sag and puts the prize seemingly out of reach"(Phillips 1). In acknowledgment to Phillips view he emphasizes on the "heavy load" as seemingly a obstruction of hard ships that make it difficult for the dream to be realized.

Finally the last line of the poem, is italicized for the poet to exemplify the importance that even though the dream for equality may be subdued and oppressed the persistent longing for the dream of African American equality will one day be reality. However the explosive nature of the dream signifies that it is not a gradual process but rather an forceful or extreme event that will take place to essentialy bring an end to racial inequality in American Society.

In conclusion the literary elements such as the repetitive similes and strong imagery that Hughes uses in "Harlem" help the reader to understand the significance in the ideas that are depicted in the text by putting images in the readers memory to present the underlying theme.

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