The Use of Symbols in Langston Hughes’ Harlem

Thesis: In the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the author analyzes the idea of dreams and how the feelings the level of successfulness they can acquire after being delayed. The language applied to this poem focuses on comparison, giving it a more philosophical tone rather than informative or persuasion. Langston Hughes invites the reader to reflect on the dreams one might delay when he states “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes 1). Using a rhetorical question as the starting point in a poem signals that the author has most likely come to their own conclusions on the topic but wishes for the reader to find their own ideas. The author also gives character to an idea as nothing can physically happen to a dream but, again approaching the philosophical tone, the idea of one can leave behind feelings rather wanted or unwanted. The title of the poem is something that may jump out to some readers as it is simply named “Harlem.” Through research it is found that Harlem is a local neighborhood located in New York City. Though this city is commonly well known it is not a bigger residence as one would expect. From this it may be said that this city in particular holds a place in the authors heart as he chose it for this poem in particular. It is found that Hughes was born in Missouri but spent a brief period of his adult life in New York City and therefore most likely in the Harlem area. In this work Langston Hughes does not connect Harlem to something of beauty, rather than a place where dreams are delayed. By doing this he gives the reader a look into his personal background as it was more than likely his experiences with his struggling career as an African American poet that drove him to write this piece.

The first comparison Langston Hughes makes between dreams and physical concepts is “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”(Hughes 1&2). When the author uses the phrase “Dry up” the connection is made between old and new. By asking if the dream dries up rather than become prosperous, the reader makes a connection of something that is no longer needed or wanted. In this case, because a dream is an abstract concept, the author is more than likely referring to something that is no longer thought about. Saying a dream is dried up states in a different way that it has become something less of what it once was. This is often seen with many people especially with adulthood because dreams are seen as far off fantasies and therefore becoming a lesser and perhaps duller version of once they once were. The author continues with a rather pessimistic point of view when he writes “Or fester like a sore.” Still continuing on with comparison he asks if the dream becomes seen as something that has a negative impact, more than likely on oneself. Taking this to a literal context, the writer might be suggesting that the dream itself could potentially become a burden. This is also seen when he states “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load”(Hughes 8&9). The poem itself is still referring to a dream that has yet to be accomplished, and in saying this statement is therefore referring to how it is often seen among people how aspirations can become seens as too big or far fetched to become reality. Though this is how they become, they are never truly forgotten and “fester” or “sag” rather flourish. Opening up to a more optimistic word choice, Langston states “Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?” (Hughes 6&7).

While the wording brings a more positive light to the poem, the words themselves symbolize something that is to never move forward. The author compares deferred dreams to something that crusts over and covered in something often seen as enticing. Breaking this down one sees that Hughes is saying that though accomplishments may be seen as exceptional, dreams themselves can often be disguised or Hoskins 3 crusted over to fit the current reality. The last line of the poem Langston Hughes writes “Or does it explode?” (Hughes 10). This concludes to the writer that a dream that does not become reality instantly, does not mean it has to become a burden or a fantasy. There is a chance that dreams that are “deferred” still have a chance of becoming something significant. In this poem Langston Hughes uses comparative methods to direct his audience to the attention of often forgotten dreams. Though they’re only abstract ideas he contrasts them to everyday unsatisfactory ideas to give the audience a clear direction to what his thought process may have been when pondering his own question. By using more questions than statements, he allows the reader to think of their own ideas and slightly influences them with a darker word choice but evens it out with a more optimistic tone towards the end. The way Langston Hughes wrote this piece truly shows his credibility as a poet as he managed to get across his ideas on a theoretical concept through everyday feelings the reader can most likely relate to. Reading this poem truly sheds light on this topic in a way that enables the reader to reflect on it both in the future and today.

Works Cited

“Harlem.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 May 2019, “Langston Hughes.” ?Wikipedia?, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 May 2019,

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