In the short story “Salvation,” Langston Hughes talks about the concept of faith through a child’s lens who loses his belief in Jesus due to the compulsion of surrounding people. Young Hughes did not get up to be saved as others did, but he remained in his seat to see the real Jesus. The voices of adults that begged a child to stand up made him obey the existing procedures and follow the peers. Nevertheless, their pressure led to the deep feeling of guilt and frustration that Langston felt after lying. As a result, a boy starts to have enormous doubt inside the little head and refuses to believe in the existence of Jesus who he never saw. I closed this reading with grief as this story depicts the personal tragedy of the first big disappointment through tangible plot elements and details.
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The short stories are usually constructed to astonish the reader with an unexpected ending. Langston uses his narrative voice to confess at the end. Readers are introduced to be listeners of the intimate story where a child loses his faith through shame. My impression of Langston’s story was deep compassion mixed with sorrow. The author portrays himself referring to his own childhood memories. The power of personal example and narration is especially evident as the audience is presented with the thoughts young Hughes has: “I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened” (Schwartz 2). As for me, I can admit that growing up I always wanted to feel unique and different from others. This needs to be involved in something transcendent and above the understanding of ordinary humans, there was a driving power inside the protagonist. Narration reveals it to the reader, and one can recognize themselves in this naive and ambiguous child sitting on the church bench.
Another element that left a mark in my head is the settings of the “Salvation.” Hughes constructs an oxymoron of the church as a place where the protagonist loses his faith. The theme of religion is central in “Salvation” and develops throughout the whole story (Best 30). The exposition creates a devout setting and introduces a young Christian’s church experience being the opposite of what he could anticipate. “That night I was escorted to the front row and placed on the mourners’ bench with all the other young sinners, who had not yet been brought to Jesus” – through these lines reader is able to sense the atmosphere of the ceremonial setting (Schwartz 2). Being a “young sinner” is already a burden that the main character hopes to overcome. I personally felt the tension in the way the formal procedure was designed in the first place. The story’s mood is accompanied by the burden of the obstacles the protagonist is put into as a young boy.
As the climax of the story happens, the main moral of the story reveals: adults may impose a traumatizing experience on their children by giving them false hopes. Langston was waiting for Jesus to come thinking that it is “his turn” to see His mercy and be genuinely saved. A hero faces the hypocrisy of all participating in the revival. Langston was expected to stand up as a sign of social compassion, not to “be saved”. Readers may observe the antagonist thinking of Langston’s peer Westley: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved. So he got up and was saved.” (Schwartz 2). It was not that simple for Langston to get up without actually seeing Jesus. However, as he wanted to fit in with others, the young boy continued to ask for salvation. The voices of adults sound louder than Langston’s begs and prayers. After being asked to get up multiple times, the child obeys but starts to question everything around. Adults in this story plant a seed of doubt in Langston’s head by their actions.
Closer to the falling action and end, I started to question the meaning of salvation in this story. Salvation cannot be shortened to one step of standing up and admitting Jesus came. The word “salvation” has a central place in this story as it has a multifaceted meaning and leaves a mark on the reader’s mind. After pretending to be saved and seen by Jesus, the doubt, the shame, and deep concern occupied the head of a thirteen-year-old (Best 33). Constant pressure and prewritten standardized procedures only rooted the feeling of misery and disbelief. Langston failed to define salvation and chose to deny it. All he saw instead was the hypocrisy of Westley, other children, and even his Auntie. Readers observe how fragile and pure child thinking is and how easy it is to destroy it. Salvation through denial is another oxymoron Hughes uses to finalize his story using contrasts.
Finally, in “Salvation” the feeling of bitterness did not leave me, as the story of Langston’s disappointment and disbelief is shown through elements and strong images. The narrative constitutes an intimacy, the setting reveals the obstacles and oppression, and the manifestation of salvation is a central symbol in this story. As a reader, I felt connected to the protagonist and his disappointment and disbelief in Jesus that he did not get a chance to see.
Best, Wallace D. “Looking for Langston: Themes of Religion, Sexuality, and Evasion in the Life and Work of Langston Hughes.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 25. no.3, 2019, pp. 28-40.
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Schwartz, Bruce, director. Langston Hughes: Salvation. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2002.