How does the variation in length and structure of Langston Hughes's sentences throughout his autobiographical short story "Salvation" capture and reinforce the rhythms and drama of the evening's events?

Interspersed with these long sentences are short, staccato sentences that emphasize the strangeness of the speaker's claim. These short sentences prepare us for the long ones that follow, which give a detailed description of the event. The pattern of anticipation and disappointment is repeated in several places by sentences that build up to a dramatic climax and then fall back into bathos.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The short, staccato sentences at the beginning of Langston Hughes’s “Salvation” emphasize the strangeness of the claim he is making. Each sentence makes a single, simple point, leaving the detailed exposition for the long sentences that follow. The polysyndeton in the second paragraph stresses the number of extraordinary events that the speaker has been promised, increasing the sense of excitement. The long sentence at the beginning of the third paragraph has a similar effect, as well as echoing the cadences of the preacher’s eloquent address. We also hear the effect of his voice in the repeated rhetorical questions, exhorting the children to come to Jesus.

After all the eloquence and description, the fifth paragraph is a starkly simple sentence of seven words:

Still I kept waiting to see Jesus.

This contrast reflects the contrast between rhetoric and reality in the church. The speaker has been told in various ways the feelings of rapture he will experience when he sees Jesus, but he has not seen Jesus.

The same pattern of anticipation and bathos is repeated, with a series of long sesquipedalian sentences full of detail culminating in a short statement. Four monosyllables are sufficiently momentous to require a paragraph on their own.

So I got up.

The importance of this gesture is confirmed by the “sea of shouting” which follows it. After this, there are no more of the simple, staccato sentences as the action falls, just as the speaker falls from being an honest child to being a liar—a transformation that required a church, preacher, and congregation to put into effect.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hughes’s “Salvation” oscillates between the dramatic, rhythmic sentences that describe the revival and the lead up to it, and the short, simple sentences that illustrate the small moments within the cacophony of the Holy Spirit’s movement. It’s not necessarily the contrast between long and short sentence length, but the way the sentences are structured; many begin with conjunctions, as though they are the next line of a verse, or as if Hughes suddenly remembered another detail he wanted to add to the sentence he just finished. Consider this paragraph as an example:

My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on!

Or this one:

And the church sang a song about the lower lights are burning, some poor sinners to be saved. And the whole building rocked with prayer and song.

These sentences are embedded in paragraphs with greater details. The sentences that are isolated—a paragraph unto themselves—also begin with conjunctions as a continuation of the story, but they indicate a contrast by their isolation. We see it first in this sentence:

Still I kept waiting to see Jesus.

And again, in this one:

So I got up.

The effect is to create a pause in the music. While the paragraphs full of “ands” keep the reader going, line by line, these two brief sentences instruct the reader to wait, just as the audience is waiting and watching the twelve year old Hughes. Both of these isolated sentences indicate the drama of the evening, which is not only the struggle of good and evil, saved and unsaved, but the simple internal struggle of a young boy, pressured by so many adults to become initiated into the unknown.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his autobiographical short story titled "Salvation," Langston Hughes uses long sentences to vividly dramatize the music and rhythm found at an event like an African-American church revival. One example of a long sentence that dramatizes the event is the following:

The preacher preached a wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell, and he sang a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb was left out in the cold.

Through this one sentence, the reader can hear the lengthy, powerful sermon spoken by the preacher. More importantly, the reader can hear the spots where the preacher paused in his sermon for dramatic emphasis, spots that permitted the members of the congregation to let out "moans and shouts and lonely cries." In addition, the reader can hear the preacher as he sang his song about salvation. All of these images help dramatize for the reader the music and rhythms of what transpired at the revival.

Yet, Hughes also contrasts his long sentences with short sentences to characterize the thoughts and feelings of the children at the revival. For example, in the third paragraph in which he uses long sentences to dramatize the preacher's sermon, the final sentences are short such as, "But most of us just sat there." The stark contrast between long and short sentences show us how little the children understand and relate to what's going on around them by showing how different the children still are from the adults around them. In characterizing the children's differences, the short sentences help to characterize the bewilderment, frustration, and even fright felt by some of the children. Characterizing the children, especially himself, as bewildered, frustrated, frightened, and even sad helps underscore his point that adults must tread carefully when it comes to explaining matters of spirituality to children.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team