The Meaning and Imagery/Symbolism in “Mother to Son”
Mother to Son
By Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
“Mother to Son” written by Langston Hughes, is a moving soliloquy, spoken by a character who resembles an African American mother, to her son. Using the analogy of a crystal stairway, this mother explains to her son that the journey of her life, and life overall, is like a stair that is deceased, and broken, containing small cracks, splinters, and torn up boards, rather a smooth, good looking “crystal stair.” The crystal stair is used as a metaphor for the American’s dreams, and the dreams promise of liberty and fairness. The mother tells her son that the climb up the stairs won’t be easy, and that the reward won’t be authentic. The author’s choice of using the metaphor of climbing, nonetheless, conveys that her persistence is essential to the advancement regarding ethnic fairness and to maintain hope. In this poem, the author represents the personal, collective, and spiritual importance of struggle, endurance, and faith.
The two first lines of this poem set up what the title indicates: this poem is a touching speech spoken by a mother to her son. We see that the son never speaks, we never hear him; this means that the mother’s knowledge of life and advice might for that reason apply to all readers, but especially to younger African-American readers. The analogy of the crystal stair can symbolize a few different things. One of them could be the ambitions and desires that the mother had at one point grasped, but which she has learned to let go.
In each imaginable perception, the crystal stair implies smoothness and an easy way, elegance, wealth, and a well-lit path toward a rich haven. These perceptions contradict with images in the poem that show how tough and uninviting the mother’s actual life had been.
These few lines show us how the mother describes the certain ways that her life’s excursion deviates from the model of the crystal stair. The tacks and splinters may be thought of as figurative perils one could find on a real stairway in a broken, rundown building. These symbols, the tacks, the splinters, the bad carpet, and the ripped-up boards can all resemble erosion and desuetude. We can see that there have already been many people who have dragged themselves on this trip, and many more will still do it after the mother.
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All the messed up parts of the stairs could symbolize the failure of lone travelers to fix the edifices holding up their lives. Things such as reduced favorable circumstances and poverty. It could also symbolize the impaired state of African Americans in America. The torn boards could be meant to show a person’s effort to break apart the stairway completely. Some depict the tacks and splinters as danger to this mother’s body and soul. Palpably, these things serve as little, annoying pains that could perforate and infect the mother as she ascends these stairs. Allegorically though, these little threats symbolize possible harm to the “black American soul.” The way the mother understands and avoids these obstacles portrays her wise mediation of life’s obstacles.
After stating some of the obstacles and hazards the son might stumble into, the mother explains the prize of continuity and faith in one’s goal. In lines eight to thirteen, she describes that, in spite of the hardships she went through, she had persisted to advance. Her personal progress symbolizes the advancement for all African Americans as well. The turns and landings in the mother’s ascend might resemble short achievements and success from spiritual, or personal, and maybe racial struggles. The mother seems to tell of these times of relief to encourage her son that there are parts in life’s hard climb that display flashes of hope and triumph.
Like the tacks and splinters we read about from earlier lines, the figure of dark stairs that are broken, or maybe never put in, gives us an image of real stairs in a poorly taken care of building. The author puts in these realistic points to make the image real and symbolic at the same time. It is not as hard for us readers to understand and remember notions that we can imagine or sense, so in poetry, authors many times add these types of details. With this poem, Hughes adds details that allure to the reader’s touch, hearing, and eyes. The splinters and tacks from the first few lines of the poem arouse the reader’s feeling of contact and hazard; and the dim and unlit place from lines twelve and thirteen makes the reader participate and feel the mother’s flounder towards and invisible goal. The “goin’ in the dark” may symbolize the mother’s constant struggles in spite of her own abating faith. The author might have repeated the conception of darkness two times in lines twelve and thirteen to convey two kinds of darkness, spiritual and physical. The repeated words could have also been used to make the speech sound more realistic.
In these last lines, mom’s advice twists once more. In the first seven lines, we see the troubles the son can encounter. The next six lines tell about the mother’s endurance through bad times. The last seven lines push the son to persevere, in spite of delays and his longing to stop or go back. The son’s mother encourages him not to give up to the temptation to back down. Because she has felt desperation and withstood it, she understands that persevering is the better choice, and it pays off in the end. The mother warns him in the seventeenth line not toe ‘fall now’ because she has already gotten them to the point they’re at now, and is ‘sill climbin’. The “fall” in this case could resemble one, their fall spiritually, and two, the bureaucratic impediment for all African Americans. Mutually, if a bunch of sons back down, the whole contest for equality will most likely fail. The final and last line shows us the mother repeating her desist concerning the spiritual, moral, and political need to bear the hardship and keep ascending.
- Hughes, Langston. “Mother to Son by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47559/mother-to-son.
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