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Life Is Fine' by Langston Hughes Meaning: Critical Essay

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Life is Fine is considered to be Langston Hughes's most famous work. Written in 1949, Hughes tells the story of a man who remains optimistic even in the face of despair. This man is clearly depressed and contemplates suicide but is still able to see the beauty in life and completely turns around his point of view on life. This is the reason for the name of this poem ‘Life is Fine’, with fine being the operative word. The man doesn’t believe that life is wondrous because he has seen the dark side of it but is clearly only partially sold on the beauty and splendor of life. The whole form and tone of this poem is optimistic with it being unexpectedly playful despite being a bit gloomy in total. This paper will analyze the meaning of the poem and Langston Hughes’ reason to write this poem. Langston Hughes represented themes of love, death, and hatred in his poems and it is important to analyze how he represented that in his works.

In the opening stanza, the narrator claims that he is going to a river because he has decided to commit suicide. He doesn’t give a reason as to why he wants to kill himself, but he does describe how he jumps but somehow survives. He explains how if the river of water hadn’t been so cold, he would’ve been more comfortable dying. “I tried to think but couldn't,

So I jumped in and sank “, the reference to trying to think and not being able to suggest the narrator might be depressed. “But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!” This line is repeated because Hughes wishes to convey the importance of the water being cold because something as insignificant as the water temperature could’ve made him more comfortable in dying. It’s as if the narrator is trying to justify a way to not attempt suicide as much as he wants to. This shows that he doesn’t really want to go ahead with it, he just thinks it’s the only possible outcome.

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The fourth stanza begins with the narrator, “[taking] the elevator up sixteen floors above the ground.” So, he can jump sixteen floors down, which is imagery because it really places you in the scene and makes you feel like you’re right there with him, making the decision. Hughes invites the reader to step in and feel like the audience is in the man’s shoes. A dangerous trip for the reader. It feels like the narrator is telling us this in order to get rid of his sufferings, and is passing them to us. But suddenly he thinks of something that stops him, “I thought about my baby”, is an ambiguous line with an unclear meaning. He could be talking about a romantic relationship or referencing a child, but ultimately, he doesn’t want to die because he doesn’t want to leave them. “I stood there and I hollered! I stood there and I cried!”, are two lines similar to the first two lines of the second stanza but are now different because the narrator has found another justification for why he shouldn’t kill himself. He is now standing atop a building rather than jumping in a river. The narrator refuses to jump, to end their own death. “But it was High up there! It was high!”, This is a line like the other repeating one in the first three stanzas. This line follows a repetition pattern and the narrator is yet again justifying the reason why he cannot kill himself. The poem then completely shifts to a less somber and more hopeful tone. The narrator realizes that there must’ve been a reason why his last two suicide attempts failed, and he decides he has had a second chance at life and then chooses to keep living his life even though he “could've died for love. But for livin' [he] was born” This phrase makes me question, why would he have died for love. What was the severity of their problem? Does he feel like he can’t continue living without this other person?

In this second to last stanza, the narrator seems to defy his previous way of thinking. He is sad but that doesn’t mean he is going to try to die. The narrator is effectively saying that they have not been broken or destroyed. In a sense, this is a message of hope and how It gets better. In 1949, a time when mental illness wasn’t really much of a topic for discussion, Hughes recognized that. People might feel a certain way, but they shouldn’t find death as their only outcome. The last line has the same type of repetition as the other lines, “Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!”, describes how in spite of these hardships of life, the message becomes overwhelming through the repetition of 'Life is fine!' which is said twice in the line. It is also assonance so we can engrave the phrase in our brains. The simile that conveys just how fine it is, is 'fine as wine.' This is a big shift from how the narrator felt at the beginning of the poem which ends with him recognizing that even though life is hard and he will suffer, “[He’s] still here livin', I guess I will live on”. Although adding the comment about life being “fine as wine” may just hint that the narrator is going to turn to the bottle. Which might’ve undone the hopeful vibe before. But I highly doubt it because that’s not what the poem seems to convey.

This poem is ultimately about strength. How someone can go from being a pessimist to an optimist? Life is Fine by Langston Hughes successfully conveys one of humanity's most fundamental understandings: Life is a blessing. We should be thankful for it no matter what. Life and death may seem extreme opposites, but the poem wishes to express that the distance between life and death is just a jump away. Hughes revisits a common theme in his work: perseverance. He was an empathetic man who understood the desperation of these people and creates a character who considers giving up on life but can never quite go through it. This man represents hope. He still has something to live for. By coming so close to death, the speaker in 'Life is Fine' finds a new desire to live and persevere in life. Hughes’ poem is considered to be autobiographical because Hughes had a life filled with emotions, so I believed he showed that in his poem.

I believe this poem is very important now more than ever. Since we now live in a society where speaking about mental illnesses isn’t as biased as it was back in 1949. I believe this poem would be helpful in ending the stigma of having shame for having a mental illness and seeing suicide as the only alternative. This poem shows the reader that life keeps going and that no matter how hard the past might be, you can always start again.

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Life Is Fine’ by Langston Hughes Meaning: Critical Essay. (2023, July 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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