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In "Salvation" by Langston Hughes, what is the thesis, the narrator's conflict, and how is tension created? Why are hymn subjects and lyrics revealed? How does the ocean metaphor reflect the narrator's feelings?

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The thesis of Langston Hughes's essay entitled "Salvation" is found in the first and last lines of the piece. He begins by saying, "I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved." At the end of the essay, he explains further:

But I was really crying because I couldn't bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn't seen Jesus, and that now I didn't believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn't come to help me.

This quote from the last paragraph of the essay occurs when he has described giving in to the social pressure of saying he was saved, when he really didn't have any experience that would indicate to him that he'd been saved or changed.

The conflict that the narrator feels is that he expected to feel something and be changed because of going forward to receive salvation. He waited for a long time for something to happen and nothing did:

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! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me.

His friend decides he is hot and uncomfortable and is just going to go forward so that he can leave. The narrator watches this, and seeing that nothing bad happens to his friend, decides to deceive the congregants into believing that he has been saved. They believe the evidence of salvation is going forward.

There are several ways that Hughes creates tension in this essay. First, there is the tension created when there is a gap between what the narrator expects to feel/experience and what he actually experiences. Next, there is tension when the narrator decides to "fake" salvation, deceiving his aunt and other congregants. Consequently, he feels very guilty and alone. He feels guilty for his deception, and alone because Jesus did not come to him, so he feels he has lost his faith as well.

Hughes employs a literary technique in the last paragraph called polysyndeton, which adds to the tension. Polysyndeton occurs when several coordinating conjunctions are used to join multiple phrases together. This is a common speech pattern used by children, and it also gives a rapid rhythm to the culminating paragraph.

The author uses a metaphor when he compares the children who came forward for salvation to "new young lambs." Lambs have great significance in the Bible. They were used as a sacrificial atonement for sin in the Old Testament. A spotless lamb, without blemish nor spot, was needed to cover the sins of the people. Later, Jesus is called the Lamb of God, as he was made a sacrifice—without blemish nor spot—when he went to the cross. He was spotless because He lived a perfect life. In talking to Peter, Jesus referred to His people as sheep, saying to Peter if you love me, feed my sheep. In this essay, the metaphor is probably a dual meaning. The narrator feels like a sacrificial lamb because he is bound by social pressure to stay in the church until he is saved. Also, the entire congregation could be the sheep to which Jesus referred when talking to Peter. The relationship of a shepherd to his sheep would have been an easily understood parallel in Biblical times.

Another metaphor in the essay is the comparison of the congregation to an ocean:

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place.

The congregation is referred to as a sea, and the shouts that are made are compared to waves.

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The thesis of Langston Hughes's short essay "Salvation" is that people often pretend to believe something merely because of social pressures and, in this way, act hypocritically. The support for this claim comes from the plot of the story, in which the narrator pretends to believe in Jesus only to spare himself embarrassment and because he finds it tedious to wait in church until he professes his conversion. At the end of the essay, Hughes writes about the narrator's aunt, who is crying because she believes that the narrator has truly been saved by Jesus. Instead, the narrator thinks, "I was really crying because I couldn't bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church." Rather than truly having experienced salvation, the narrator feels even more abandoned by Jesus, who he feels did not help him in his hour of need in the church.

The conflict in this essay is that the narrator does not feel saved, but he feels pressured to feel saved by his aunt and those around him. If he truly did the honest thing and admitted that he did not experience salvation in church, the people around him would criticize him, but by lying, he wins their admiration and approval. Therefore, the conflict is that he is rewarded for being dishonest.  

Hughes creates tension in his essay by relating the sense of expectancy the narrator feels waiting in the church for salvation. The narrator relates, "So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me." Then, as the whole church sits praying and moaning for him, he feels a great sense of tension in the hot church. He writes, "Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened." Finally, feeling what he describes as "ashamed," he decides to feign being saved. The reader can feel the narrator's tension rising and then being released as the narrator lies about experiencing salvation.

The lyrics of the hymn that is sung in church tell the story of ninety-nine lambs who are saved while "one little lamb is left out in the cold." This is a metaphor for the narrator, who is the last of the waiting congregants to be saved. The narrator reveals these details to further highlight his dilemma.

In the thirteenth paragraph, after the narrator professes his salvation, the church breaks into a "sea of shouting," and "waves of rejoicing" sweep over the church. This metaphor, comparing the people in the church and their emotions to a sea, helps the reader understand the powerful, overwhelming forces in the church that convince the narrator to profess that he is saved and that wipe away his commitment to his true feelings of not experiencing any sense of salvation. 

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