"Salvation" Themes

The main themes of “Salvation” are coming of age, faith and religion, and social obligation.

  • Coming of age: Hughes’s story is not only about a loss of faith but also about the loss of childhood innocence.
  • Faith and religion: In an ironic twist, the revival meeting intended to “save” Hughes is what causes him to lose faith altogether.
  • Social Expectations: Having learned that honesty and authenticity is not always desirable, Hughes is left with an entirely different view of the adult world.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080

Coming of Age

The events of "Salvation" represent a "Road to Damascus" or epiphany moment for the young Langston, but not in the way either he or his aunt had been expecting. At the age of twelve, nearing thirteen, he is a boy on the very cusp of adolescence. Hughes's careful writing blends the naive, childlike understanding of the young Langston, who expects to see Jesus literally enter the church, with that of the adult Hughes who narrates the story and recognizes that he was not "really" saved on this day. The title of the piece is ironic: the young Hughes has indeed had an epiphany and seen the "light," but rather than seeing the vision of Jesus he expected, his realization is that he does not believe in Jesus at all. This revelation and the devastating disillusionment he experiences at the end of the story mark a turning point in Hughes’s life and signal the end of pure childhood. 

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As a child, Langston is able to believe literally in what he is told; if his aunt is filled with faith and experiences a close, personal relationship with Jesus, then he fully expects he will as well. However, his experience in the church challenges these expectations. When Hughes realizes that Jesus will not come to save him and that the adults present seem unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between genuine and faked expressions of faith, Hughes's own childlike faith—not only in Jesus but in the infallibility of adults—is destroyed. This represents a fundamental shift in worldview: from this point on, Hughes can no longer simply trust in everything he is told. His tears at the end of the story are then perhaps not only for his lost faith but also for the loss of his childhood innocence.

Faith and Religion

Like much of Langston Hughes's writing, “Salvation” explores a central aspect of African American culture: religion. The revival meeting described in this story features several distinctive elements of Black worship, including an emphasis on music, enthusiastic group participation, and powerful, energetic preaching. Though he does not connect to it spiritually, young Hughes admires the wonderful "rhythmic" quality of the preacher’s sermon. When it comes time for the children to be brought to God, the whole congregation takes part, with the older members of the congregation singing, praying, and crying until “the whole building rock[s] with prayer and song.” The enthusiasm and heightened emotion of the adults is sharply juxtaposed against the anticlimactic confusion Hughes experiences when Jesus fails to appear. 

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Latest answer posted January 27, 2020, 11:21 pm (UTC)

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Hughes's confusion and disappointment during the revival meeting can be attributed in part to his childlike misunderstanding of the nature of faith itself. His aunt Reed describes salvation as seeing a light and being able to “see and hear Jesus in your soul.” This description of faith creates a false impression in young Hughes’s mind. As is the tendency of most children, he takes his aunt’s words to be literal. Thus, during the revival meeting, he expects to have his belief in God borne out by firm proof: he believes he will see Jesus and go into His light at the moment of salvation. Unaware of what it truly means to have blind faith, young Hughes waits expectantly for evidence of Jesus’s presence until, embarrassed at “holding everything up so long,” he simply pretends to have been saved.

Hughes is shaken by this experience; and afterwards, he cannot bring himself to confess to his aunt that he is crying not because he has found faith, but because he has lost it. Though he hates lying to her, he is also saddened to think that her faith might be built, to an extent, on similar illusions. Aunt Reed and the other members of the congregation are satisfied by hollow gestures of faith—such as the children getting up from the mourners' bench and crossing to join the preacher at the altar. However, Hughes knows that what was in his own heart, and what was in Westley's heart, was not true belief at all. Realizing that neither God nor the adults seem to notice whether or not his belief is genuine, Hughes concludes that faith itself is also a lie. Ironically, the very ritual meant to bring Hughes and the other children into “the fold” is precisely what alienates him from belief. Thus, this story is often interpreted as a critique of organized religion,  intended to show how performative or forced expressions of religiosity can undermine genuine faith.

Social Expectations

One of the lessons young Hughes learns through this episode in the church is the extent to which adult society is sustained by ritual and mutual obligation. Though Hughes expected to experience a religious awakening at the revival meeting, he instead has a realization about adulthood—namely, that in real life, conformity and the ability to perform as expected is often valued more than authenticity. 

When Westley gets up from the bench, he tells Hughes that he is going up to the altar not because he is saved but because he is "tired" of sitting on the bench—something which seems blasphemous to Hughes. However, Hughes himself is beginning to feel "ashamed” that he has kept the congregation in the church for so long yet still cannot seem to feel or experience what they want him to. It is only after he sees the group’s enthusiastic reaction to Westley’s dishonest salvation that Hughes begins to understand that they aren’t actually waiting for him to experience a true connection with Jesus; they just want to see him go through the motions of being saved by walking over to the altar. Feeling embarrassed at holding everything up, Hughes finally gets up and crosses to the altar, even though he knows he hasn’t really been saved.

Later, Hughes continues this deception, deciding to keep the reason for his tears to himself and allow his aunt to believe what she wants to believe about her nephew’s newfound faith. Over the course of this episode, then, Hughes has come to understand that life is not as straightforward as children believe it to be and that there are times when conformity, and even deception, is preferred over honesty. However, for Hughes, who is still on the border between childhood and adulthood, this realization is a painful one, shaking his faith not only in God but in what he thought he knew about the adult world.

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