Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son"
Introduction and Text of "Mother to Son"
Langston Hughes' narrative poem, "Mother to Son," employs the literary device known as the dramatic monologue, a tool used so expertly by the English poet Robert Browning. In Hughes' narrative, a ghetto mother is speaking to her son. She speaks with a ghetto dialect, a device Hughes has often employed to dramatize his characters. This mother hopes to guide her son in the right direction and assist him in facing his own challenges by offering her own hard life as an example of a series of tasks to overcome.
Mother to Son
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.
Readings: Viola Davis and Langston Hughes
Comparing her life to a stairway in an extended metaphor, a mother encourages her son to face life, even though it can be full of difficulties with twists and turns.
First Movement: A Metaphoric Stairway
The mother begins by creating a metaphor of her life as a stairway. She reports that though it has not been an easy climb up this stairway of life, she has never allowed herself the luxury of not attempting to climb to the next higher step. The mother exclaims, "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. " The "crystal stair" represents an imaginary path of ease and beauty. The "crystal" supposedly should make the climb easy, with comfort and without the drudgery she has endured.
The stair this mother has climbed has had difficulties—"tacks and splinters." Often on certain steps, it did not even have carpet that would also make the walk easier on the feet. And as in life, there are twists and turns; the stairway the mother has climbed has had its share of turns. However, she makes the point that she has never given up, regardless of the difficulty: "I'se been a-climbin' on." And she has made progress thus being rewarded for her effort by "reachin' landin's / and turnin' corners." These places on the stairway, parts of the extended metaphor as they are parts of literal stairways, represent real achievements she has made in her vigilant struggles.
Second Movement: A Mother's Advice
The mother advises her son, "So boy, don't you turn back / Don't you set down on the steps." She has experienced a great deal of darkness on her journey up the steps, but she advises her boy that even though things may be difficult, he must not allow the challenges to dishearten him to the point of giving up on his own struggle. The mother wants to convince her son that he has to continue to climb that metaphoric stairway of his life. The act of metaphorically sitting down on a step represents giving up, thus failing to face the difficulties he is required to overcome.
The mother then thrice repeats that she has never allowed herself to give up on the struggle to address the challenges of her own life: "I'se been a-climbin' on," (line 9), "For I'se still goin', honey" (line 18), and "I'se still climbin' "(line 19). She also repeats the line that first brought alive the metaphor: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," in the second and final lines. The mother employs her own unique experience to instill in her son that despite the back breaking challenges that life might hand one, the constant gallant striving taken with boldness and tenacity remains the only choice that will surely lead one to success.
Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son" has become a classic poem for its simplicity yet poignancy. The poet's use of ghetto dialect increases the poems vitality and accuracy. The son never speaks so the reader never knows what he might have done to bring on the admonition from his mother. Whether the son agrees with the mother's advice or even understands it is never known. But such facts remain immaterial to the sage advice. Such advice would be on target despite the problems that the mother and son might have been facing. The possible issues of gang-life, poverty, or drug abuse take a back seat to the traditional value of striving to be all that one can be despite one's original station in life.
The narrative's only true function is to relay the very simple yet profound idea that no one should ever abandon the struggle to improve one's lot in life. In the battle of life, one must soldier on to overcome each difficulty. The ultimate winner will note that s/he has garnered small achievements as s/he has completed each soldiering. Continuing the climb is, at least, half the battle: if life has not provided you with "crystal stair," climb it anyway, despite the "splinters and tacks,"— the climb itself is far more important than the material nature of the staircase.
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes