Why does Hughes use a paradox in the first two sentences of his narrative in "Salvation" by Langston Hughes?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hughes begins with a paradox in order to gain the reader’s attention and create suspense, to make the reader want to read the story and to prepare the reader for the complexity of the case.  In order for someone to have a religious awakening, he must believe.  But where does that belief come from?

A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself, or that is true and not true at the same time.  In this case, the paradox is the first two sentences of the short story.

I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved.

Sometimes things can be true and not true at the same time.  For instance, a person can be saved literally, or religiously, but not saved actually, or really.  Someone might think they were saving a person, or saving him in one sense, but not saving him in other sense and thus not really saving him.  The narrator describes the religious experience that he underwent, where he was “saved” in a religious sense, at the hands of his Aunt Reed.  She intended for him to be saved, at least.  This is the saving he spoke of in the first sentence.

My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! … She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. 

However, he does not have the same experience that she does.  The experience does not give him a religious awakening.  He is saddened by this.  This is why Hughes begins with the paradox.  Religious belief is an incredibly complex thing. Does it come from within, or without?  Do preachers and relatives inspire it in us by creating experiences that make us believe, when we are young?  The young narrator desperately wants to believe.  The belief does not well up in him though. He cannot manufacture belief where none is.  That is also the paradox.  He feels saddened and ashamed that his religious belief is not genuine.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The paradox, or apparent contradiction of Hughes's saying that "he was saved, but not really saved" points to the hypocrisy in many religious sects. Because of the emotional hype that is often created in religious revivals and such, the emotionalism that many are swept along in makes them believe that they have somehow "felt" Jesus come to them; consequently, they think they are "saved."

Further in his narrative Hughes does not feel that any real grace has entered his soul, or that he has been somehow redeemed spiritually. As he sits with his friend Wesley, Wesley finally says he will go up there and "be saved" just to end the evening. "I'm tired o' sitting here. Let's get up and be saved."

Hughes at last goes to the front because he is the only one left in the congregation who has not "been saved" and his aunt is distraught by his failure to make a spiritual declaration. So since "God had not struck Wesley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple," like Wesley, Hughes simply says that he is saved so that his aunt will be content and he just can go home. This is why he declares, 

I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved.

He went to the front of the church and aroused the congregation to sing and rejoice, but Hughes felt nothing but shame that he has lied to his aunt since he has not had a spiritual epiphany.