Problems, Langston Hughes: Maths, Summary & Analysis

In "Problems," Langston Hughes uses simple mathematical equations to explore complex societal and personal issues. Through these playful equations, the poet addresses themes of identity, inequality, and the challenges of life's uncertainties.


2 and 2 are 4.
4 and 4 are 8.
But what would happen
If the last 4 was late?
And how would it be
If one 2 was me?
Or if the first 4 was you
Divided by 2?

Examining the Problem

In this poem by Langston Hughes, the speaker presents a playful mathematical puzzle. Let's break it down into simpler terms:

1. "2 and 2 are 4."
This line means that if you add two to two, you get four.

2. "4 and 4 are 8."
This line means that if you add four to four, you get eight.

3. "But what would happen
If the last 4 was late?"
This part asks what would occur if the second instance of four (in "4 and 4 are 8") was delayed or didn't happen at the expected time.

4. "And how would it be
If one 2 was me?"
This part wonders how things would change if one of the twos (from "2 and 2 are 4") represented the speaker ("me") instead.

5. "Or if the first 4 was you
Divided by 2?"
This section imagines a scenario where the first instance of four (in "2 and 2 are 4") represented someone else ("you") and asks what would happen if it was divided by two.

The poem is less about solving a mathematical problem and more about using mathematical concepts to explore playful and imaginative scenarios. It highlights the idea that changing numbers and relationships can lead to different outcomes and perspectives.

As for solving the poem in a mathematical sense, it's not about finding a numerical solution but rather about considering the creative possibilities and shifts in perspective that changing the numbers can bring. It's a whimsical exploration of how altering the basic arithmetic operations can lead to different interpretations and meanings.

Critical Analysis

"Problems" uses mathematical equations as a metaphor to explore complex and often abstract themes. The poem's playful approach serves to engage the reader while addressing profound questions about identity, inequality, and uncertainties in life.

The simple equations at the beginning ("2 and 2 are 4" and "4 and 4 are 8") establish a familiar pattern that the reader can easily follow.

The question "But what would happen / If the last 4 was late?" introduces an element of uncertainty, disrupting the expected outcome and inviting readers to consider the implications of a delayed response or action.

The following question, "And how would it be / If one 2 was me?" raises questions of personal identity and individual representation within equations, prompting readers to reflect on their own roles and positions.

The final equation, "Or if the first 4 was you / Divided by 2?" introduces the concept of inequality and division within relationships. This equation hints at potential conflicts or imbalances that can arise when individuals are not treated equally.

"Problems" encourages readers to think beyond the surface of mathematical equations and ponder the complexities of life, relationships, and societal dynamics.


"Problems" by Langston Hughes uses mathematical equations as a metaphor to explore complex themes of identity, inequality, and life's uncertainties. Through playful equations, the poem engages readers in contemplation about the deeper meanings behind seemingly simple concepts.

Themes of the Poem

  • Identity and Self: The poem prompts reflection on individual identity and the potential for personal involvement in equations.
  • Inequality and Imbalance: The poem raises questions about inequality and imbalance within relationships and societal structures.
  • Uncertainty and Change: The poem challenges the expected outcomes of equations, highlighting the uncertainties and changes that can impact life's scenarios.

Stylistic Analysis

  • Metaphor: The use of mathematical equations as a metaphor adds depth and complexity to the poem's exploration of various themes.
  • Rhetorical Questions: The poem's rhetorical questions engage the reader and encourage contemplation of the themes presented.


  • Curiosity: The poem's questions and uncertainties reflect a sense of curiosity about the complexities of life and relationships.
  • Reflection: The poem invites readers to reflect on their own identities, relationships, and the potential implications of inequalities.


  • Metaphorical Language: The poem employs metaphorical language to convey deeper meanings and complexities behind the mathematical equations.
  • Playfulness: The poem's playful approach to equations adds a sense of intrigue and engagement for the reader.

Sound Devices

  • Rhythm and Flow: The poem's rhythmic structure enhances the flow of the equations and their subsequent questions, maintaining a consistent pace.
  • Rhetorical Effect: The use of rhetorical questions creates a rhythm that prompts the reader to consider the underlying meanings of the equations.
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