“A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes

Dream Deferred (Harlem) Intro

  • Hughes asks very important question about dreams.
  • Saw dreams of many Harlem residents crumble after WWII.
  • Compares dreams to concrete things in our life.
  • Speaker asks what happens if dreams are postponed/put on hold.
  • Offers some possible answers to question.

Analysis of A Dream Deferred

The question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” appears to be answered with nothing but more questions. But if we analyze each question we get an idea of what the speaker really believes about dreams being postponed.

The “dream” is a goal in life, not just dreams experienced during sleep. The dream is important to the dreamer’s life. But what dream is it exactly? The poem does not choose the dream but leaves it up to the reader. Nevertheless, the speaker’s position is clear that any important dream or goal that must be delayed can have serious negative effects.

As we look at each question we find out what those effects are. With each question, the speaker offers a possibility of each negative affect. The first one “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun”: a raisin is already dry, and as a raisin, it is a good thing, useful and nutritious, but if a raisin is left in the sun to dry up, it becomes hard and impossible to eat; its value sucked out, it no longer serves its useful, nutritional purpose.

The dream or life goal of a human being is central to what makes the human a valuable member of society, but suppose that person with the dream is told he cannot fulfil his goal just yet; he must wait until society changes until institutions and laws change to allow him to become the doctor, lawyer, professor, or poet that he finds his talent and desires direct him to be.

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What if he has to take some other job that he lacks interest in until his environment allows him to attain his goal? What if he has no idea how long it will take? And what if he feels that perhaps in his lifetime that time will never come? What happens then? Surely, his talent will dry up, if he is not allowed to develop it.

If the dream does not dry up, maybe it will “fester like a sore— / And then run.” If you have a sore, you want it to dry up so it will heal, but if it festers and runs, that means it is infected and will take longer to heal. The dream that festers becomes infected with the disease of restlessness and dissatisfaction that may lead to criminal activity, striking back at those who are deferring the dream.

Perhaps a dream put off too long is like meat that had rotted. Dead animal flesh that some people use for food will turn rancid and give off horrible odours if not used within a certain period of time. If the dream is not realized in a timely fashion, it may seem to decay because it dies.

The dream may “crust and sugar over— / Like a syrupy sweet?” If you leave pancake syrup or honey unused for several months, and you go back to fetch the bottle, you might find that there is crusty accumulation on the top of the bottle and the contents are no longer usable. Lack of use had formed that crust, that hard material that is no longer
useful because no longer pliable. The dream forced to sit idle hardens into an unusable substance of thoughts that have separated themselves from the goals and fonned idle destructive thoughts that are crusted over with despair, doubt, anger, and hatred.

The second stanza is not a question but merely a “maybe” suggestion: maybe the dream goal just sags like trying to carry something heavy. A heavy load makes one walk slowly, makes one clumsy as he tries to move under the load. The dream not realized may become heavy to bear, because it still weighs on one’s mind with musings like “what might have been,” “if only,” “I guess I’ll never know,” “the one that got away.” All these useless thoughts that dip back into the past weigh heavy on the mind that has had to defer a dream. This sagging under a heavy load might lead to depression and mental lethargy.

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The last stanza returns to the question again, but this time instead of simile, the speaker employs the metaphor of an explosion. What explodes? Bombs explode and cause great destruction. If all the other possibilities of a deferred dream are bad with some worse than others, then the last possibility is the worst. If the person whose dream is deferred loses all hope, he might “explode” with his despair. He might commit suicide, homicide—or both.

Important Questions

Q. Clarify What does the speaker mean by “a dream deferred”?

Possible answer: A dream deferred is one that remains unrealised. In this case, the speaker may mean the promise of social equality.

Q. What is the poem’s main message or theme?

Possible Answer: If dreams are denied, serious or even violent consequences can happen.

Q. Describe the rhythm and the feelings it evokes. If you marked the lines differently, explain your variation.
Possible answer: The rhythm is disjointed as well as fast and abrupt. This rhythm evokes feelings of tension, dissatisfaction, anger, or anxiety. Students with different line-markings should be able to explain what they hear.

Q. Make Inferences What social or political consequences are hinted at in the poem’s last line?
Possible answer: The poem’s last line hints at an outbreak of violence.

Q. Interpret Figurative Language. List the similes the speaker uses to describe the effect of a deferred dream. What do these comparisons reveal about the speaker’s attitude?
Possible answer: Similes: “like a raisin in the sun” (line 3), “like a sore” (line 4), “like rotten meat” (line 6), “like a syrupy sweet” (line 8), “like a heavy load” (line 10). The similes may reveal the speaker’s bitterness or disgust toward the current social situation and the endless delays in improving it.

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Literary devices

The questions are all rhetorical questions because they intend to answer themselves. Each question in the first stanza uses simile: “like a raisin in the sun,” “like a sore,” like rotten meat, like a syrupy sweet.” The second stanza which is not a question but a suggestion also uses simile “like a heavy load.” The last stanza uses metaphor, “does it explode?”

The poem employs rhyme: sun-run, meat-sweet, load-explode.

The poem also uses imagery: “raisin in the sun,” “fester like a sore / And then run,” “stink like rotten meat,” etc.

Meter

  • Six questions and one very meek declarative sentence
  • Poem built of questions.
  • Questions make us think of uncertainty and quest for knowledge.
  • Consists of eleven lines broken into four stanzas.
  • First and last stanzas contain one line, while the other two contain seven and two lines.
  • Each line, our speaker mixes it up.
  • Some lines are short, others longer.
  • Some lines contain only monosyllabic words, others are chock full of syllables.
  • There are three instances of rhyming, while the rest of the poem is rhymeless.

Themes

1. Transience

Dreams grow, transform, and change their shape, whether we want them to or not. The speaker in “Harlem” wonders how dreams might change if they are ignored.

2. Choice

  • The speaker presents us with several juicy philosophical questions about dreams. Examples:
  • Are dreams meant to be thought about or acted upon? Is it a bad thing never to pursue a dream?
  • What happens when someone else prevents you from pursuing your dreams?
  • Our speaker suggests that sometimes we don’t have any choice but to defer our dreams, which is quite a tragedy.

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