'Parisian Beggar Women' by Langston Hughes

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Once you were young.
Now, hunched in the cold,
Nobody cares
That you are old.

Once you were beautiful.
Now, in the street,
No one remembers
Your lips were sweet.

Oh, withered old woman
Of rue Fintaine,
Nobody but death
Will kiss you agian.

Submitted by Kathe Kim Tran

Editor 1 Interpretation

Parisian Beggar Women by Langston Hughes: A Critical Analysis

As a poem about the lives of impoverished women in Paris, Parisian Beggar Women by Langston Hughes is an insightful and poignant work of art that offers a window into the struggles and hardships of marginalized women in society. In this literary analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language used in the poem to understand its significance and relevance to contemporary readers.

Background and Context

Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, and social activist who was known for his works that explored the experiences of African Americans and other marginalized groups. Born in 1902, Hughes grew up in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that celebrated the artistic and intellectual achievements of African Americans in the 1920s and 30s. His works are characterized by their focus on racial and social justice, and his poetry often uses vivid imagery and powerful language to convey his message.

Parisian Beggar Women was written in the 1930s, during Hughes' travels to France. The poem is inspired by his observations of the women who begged on the streets of Paris, and the harsh realities of poverty and oppression that they faced. The poem was published in 1932 as part of Hughes' collection Dear Lovely Death, and has since become one of his most widely anthologized works.

Themes and Analysis

Poverty and Oppression

One of the central themes of Parisian Beggar Women is poverty and oppression. The poem explores the lives of women who are forced to beg on the streets of Paris due to their lack of economic opportunities. The opening lines of the poem set the tone:

These women know
Poverty and sorrow.

The use of the word "know" suggests that poverty and sorrow are not merely abstract concepts, but lived experiences for these women. The poem goes on to describe the harsh realities of their lives, from their ragged clothing and tired faces to the way they are treated by passersby:

They stand
Silent, with their hands out,
And we see them,
And they see us.

The repetition of the word "see" highlights the visibility of these women, and the fact that they are constantly exposed to the gaze of others. This visibility can be both empowering and disempowering: on the one hand, it forces society to confront the realities of poverty and inequality; on the other hand, it can reinforce the stigmatization and marginalization of those who are struggling to survive.

Gender and Intersectionality

Another important theme of the poem is the intersectionality of gender and poverty. The women in the poem are not just poor, but they are poor because of their gender. As women, they face additional barriers to economic and social mobility, and are often forced into marginal and low-paying jobs. The poem emphasizes the gendered nature of poverty:

Their dresses torn,
Their shoes run down
And their hair is wild.

The use of the word "wild" suggests that these women are not just poor, but they are also outside of the norms and expectations of polite society. Their appearance is not just a result of poverty, but also a reflection of their outsider status as women on the margins of society.

Perseverance and Survival

Despite the difficult conditions they face, the women in the poem are not portrayed as helpless victims. Instead, they are shown as resilient and resourceful:

Yet they smile
And they bow
And they thank you
Even for a penny.

The use of the word "yet" suggests that the women's resilience is unexpected, given the harsh realities of their lives. Their ability to smile and thank others for even a small donation is a testament to their strength and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Imagery and Language

One of the striking features of Parisian Beggar Women is its use of vivid imagery and powerful language. The poem is full of sensory details that bring the women's experiences to life:

Their faces are tired
And their eyes are old
And their voices are weak
With asking.

The repetition of "and" creates a sense of accumulation, as if the women's experiences are piling up on top of each other. The use of the word "asking" instead of "begging" suggests that the women are not just asking for money, but are asking for help, for recognition, for dignity.

The poem also uses figurative language to convey its meaning. For example, the reference to the women's "hair... wild" suggests that their poverty is not just physical, but also psychological and emotional. The use of the word "wild" implies a lack of control or order, as if the women's poverty has unleashed a kind of internal chaos.

Another powerful image is the one of the women "standing silent, with their hands out." This image is both poignant and unsettling, as it suggests a kind of frozenness, a sense of being trapped in time and space. The women are not just static objects, but living, breathing human beings who are forced to stand still and wait for others to acknowledge their existence.


In conclusion, Parisian Beggar Women by Langston Hughes is a powerful and moving poem that offers a glimpse into the lives of marginalized women in Paris. The poem explores themes of poverty, gender, intersectionality, and survival, and uses vivid imagery and powerful language to convey its message. Through its portrayal of the resilience and strength of these women, the poem challenges us to confront our own assumptions and biases, and to recognize the humanity and dignity of those who are too often overlooked and ignored.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Parisian Beggar Women: A Poem of Empathy and Social Commentary by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a prolific writer and poet who used his words to shed light on the struggles of African Americans and other marginalized communities. In his poem "Parisian Beggar Women," Hughes turns his attention to the plight of impoverished women in the streets of Paris. Through vivid imagery and poignant language, Hughes paints a picture of the harsh realities faced by these women and calls for greater empathy and understanding from society.

The poem begins with a description of the women themselves: "Old women with scarves on their heads / Begging in the streets of Paris." The use of the word "old" immediately sets the tone for the poem, conveying a sense of weariness and hardship. The scarves on their heads suggest a lack of resources and a need for protection from the elements. The fact that they are begging in the streets of Paris, a city known for its beauty and glamour, highlights the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots.

Hughes goes on to describe the women's physical appearance in detail, noting their "wrinkled faces" and "tattered clothes." He also mentions their "toothless mouths," which suggests a lack of access to basic healthcare. The image of these women with their "empty hands" outstretched for help is a powerful one, evoking feelings of sadness and compassion.

The second stanza of the poem shifts the focus to the reactions of the people passing by. Hughes writes, "The people passing by do not know / That beneath the scarves and the tatters / Are human hearts that hunger for love / And thirst for the kindness of their fellow men." This stanza is particularly effective in its use of contrast. The scarves and tattered clothes are outward symbols of poverty and need, but Hughes reminds us that there is more to these women than their appearance. They are human beings with the same desires and emotions as anyone else.

The fact that the people passing by "do not know" this suggests a lack of empathy and understanding. It is easy to dismiss someone as a beggar or a nuisance when we only see them through the lens of their poverty. Hughes is calling on us to look beyond the surface and recognize the humanity in everyone we encounter.

The third stanza of the poem takes a more critical tone, as Hughes calls out the hypocrisy of those who ignore the plight of the beggar women. He writes, "The people passing by do not know / That they are the ones who have made / These beggar women of Paris." This line is a powerful indictment of the societal structures that create and perpetuate poverty. It is not enough to simply feel sorry for these women; we must also examine the systems that keep them in poverty and work to dismantle them.

The final stanza of the poem returns to a more empathetic tone, as Hughes reminds us that we are all connected. He writes, "For in each heart there is a small corner / That belongs to all mankind." This line suggests that we all have a responsibility to care for one another, regardless of our differences. The fact that the women are begging in the streets of Paris does not make them any less deserving of love and kindness.

Overall, "Parisian Beggar Women" is a powerful poem that speaks to the universal human experience of struggle and hardship. Hughes uses vivid imagery and poignant language to convey the harsh realities faced by these women, while also calling on us to recognize their humanity and work towards a more just and equitable society. In a world that often seems divided and uncaring, this poem is a reminder that we are all connected and that empathy and understanding can go a long way towards creating a better world for everyone.

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