Thank You, Ma’am, by Langston Hughes, is a short story that deals with the themes of shame, trust, dignity, and second chances. The story revolves around an incident wherein a teenager named Roger attempts to steal a woman’s purse. In what follows, the manner in which the woman, a certain Mrs. Luella Jones, deals with the situation causes a shift in Roger’s perspective in this beautiful story that highlights the power of choice whilst engaging with emotions of empathy, guilt, fear, and kindness.
Thank You, Ma’am | Summary
Thank You, Ma’am is written in the third person, with an unnamed narrator. It focuses on two characters- a straightforward and compassionate woman named Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, and a fifteen-year-old boy named Roger who learns a lesson after attempting to steal her purse. The story begins with a description of a woman, whom we later come to know is Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. She has a huge bag strapped around her shoulders, and it contains almost everything she needs. She is walking down the street alone at eleven o’clock in the night when she feels someone tug the strap- but alas, the bag is too heavy for the boy who tried to snatch it. Instead of pulling it and running away, he falls to the floor from its weight, and Mrs. Jones gives him a kick and demands that he pick up her pocketbook. After he does so, she asks him whether he was ashamed of himself for his actions. The boy says yes, and pretends he didn’t mean to aim for the bag, though Mrs. Jones believes none of it.
The boy says if he is let go, he will leave immediately, so Mrs. Jones doesn’t let him go. He seems to be about fifteen years old, gaunt and frail and with an unkempt appearance, and she drags him down the corner to her house so that he can wash his face. He is not enthusiastic, but Mrs. Jones reminds him that he is the one who initiated contact by bumping into her, so he really doesn’t have an option. She learns, as she says she will not be taking him to hail, that his name is Roger and that there is nobody at his house and he doesn’t have a meal to eat.
Mrs. Jones decides to give him food, assuming that is the reason he tried to snatch pocketbook. But Roger adds that he wanted to buy a pair of blue suede shoes, and Mrs. Jones says he could have just asked. There is a pause after Roger dries his face where considers making a dash to the door and running away, but Mrs. Jones sits down and begins speaking. She tells him about how she, too, used to want things she couldn’t get, and she did things that she is not willing to tell him about- nor tell God about, less he already knows. With that confession, she fixes Roger a meal to eat.
She then gets up and moves behind the screen, leaving her purse on the table with Roger and not giving a glance back to check. He could take it and run, but at that moment, he feels the importance of trust. He does not want to be mistreated or distrusted by Mrs. Jones, and with that newfound sense of dignity, asks her whether she needs someone to buy her milk or run her errands, to which she says not unless he wants sweetened milk. They eat together, and Mrs. Jones tells him about her job and life. She does not ask him about his own, or anything else that may make him feel embarrassed. As she cuts him a piece of cake, she tells him to “Eat more, son.”
Finally, as they finish the meal and there is no more reason for Roger to stay, Mrs. Jones gives him ten dollars to buy the new pair of suede blue shoes he wanted. She makes him promise not to try and steal hers or anyone else’s pocketbooks now that he has the money, and tells him to behave himself as she opens the front door for him to leave. Roger wants to say “Thank you, Ma’am.” but he is hardly able to get the words out before she closes the door, and the two of them never meet again.
Thank You, Ma’am | Analysis
Thank You, Ma’am is a short story by Langston Hughes, an American author. It is written in the third person, with an unnamed narrator. It focuses on two characters- a straightforward and compassionate woman named Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, and a fifteen-year-old boy named Roger who learns a lesson after attempting to steal her purse. This story was published in 1958 and hence could reflect the socio-economic situation of America at the time. Hughes uses dialogue and situations to portray the key elements and emotional shifts of the story, and it is interaction with Mrs. Jones that causes Roger’s shift in perspective. The narration is kept overall neutral, shifting once in a while between Mrs. Jones and Roger once in a while to provide greater insight. This is done very briefly and evenly to maintain the balance. Hughes also employs slang, dialect and colloquialism to realistically depict the setting of the story, and to help readers better connect to the social context of the characters. This sense of community and home situation is subtly reiterated at various intervals. We see an overall lesson on the power of choice, and the consequences that come with it- whether it be good or bad. The main themes of this story are shame, trust, dignity and second chances. We also see the underlying theme of emotions, such as empathy, kindness, guilt, and fear.
The story begins by establishing Mrs. Jones’s character. Contrary to the worry one may have about a woman walking alone late at night, she asserts herself as a strong and capable person. We can also see that the boy is not only physically fragile, but also immediately terrified. Hence, the readers get a clear idea about the contrasting dynamic between them. This dynamic may be different from the readers’ natural expectations, and it is important to note that this is another overarching theme of this story- expectations and how they are formed and broken. Not just the expectations of the readers, but the expectations Mrs. Jones and Roger may have of each other at first sight. We will see more of this theme later in the analysis.
When Mrs. Jones begins dragging Roger to her house, he is visibly terrified. The theme of fear makes itself clear, as Roger has no idea what will happen to him. Hughes’s physical description of him, however- young, frail, with battered shoes, gives readers the impression that he is not well-off. Because of this, the initial hostility one may have felt towards him because of his attempted thievery dwindles into sympathy or curiosity. We can assume here that Roger’s act of stealing stemmed from his need for money. Of course, this does not fix the action- thievery is morally wrong- but readers understand that the intention was not out of malice but rather out of desire or desperation. Mrs. Jones probably notices the same thing on looking at him, which is why she decides to take him to her house to wash up instead of turning him in to the police. At the same time, she did “kick him in the seat of his jeans” and “hold him up by the collar” when he first tried to take her purse. She did this out of instinctive self-defense first and foremost, and also to assert the fact that she could not be easily duped, nor was it right to steal anyone’s items. This is what instilled the fear in Roger, which remained palpable through a greater part of the story.
The next important point to note is that Roger says he “does not have anyone at home”. From this, it can be assumed that he either lives alone, does not have parents who look after him or does not even have a stable shelter. In any case, he has probably never been scolded for something like not washing his face, or been reprimanded for the moral wrongness of thievery. Mrs. Jones’s tone, though stern, is also empathetic which creates an almost maternal effect. This is something Roger seems to lack in his life, which is one of the reasons it has a profound impact on him. He even asks whether she needs someone to run errands for her, showing his guilt at having tried to rob her and his wish to do something in return. The very reason he does not run away even when he has the chance and considers it is because of this.
Roger then says he did not want the money to buy food, but to buy a new pair of higher-priced shoes. This may come as a surprise to some readers- why would he spend the money on a want instead of a need? All this time, it may have been assumed that his attempt at thievery was due to his lack of food and shelter, but now we see that it was to buy fancy shoes. While shoes themselves are important, why do they need to be blue suede ones specifically? But Mrs. Jones immediately understands and empathizes, for she has been in a similar position when she was younger. These blue suede shoes are something that seem almost unattainable to Roger, unlike food which he may manage to find some of as the days go by. The idea of possessing such an item will elevate the feeling of belonging within Roger- it will make him feel like he is more than his homelessness or his supposedly inferior social status. These shoes symbolize luxury and a step forward in life. Though readers might argue that it is unnecessary, such purchases of indulgence are what seem to increase Roger’s sense of self-worth, and emotional satisfaction is of huge importance especially for a boy of that age. The only issue is that he resorted to stealing, which is quickly rectified by Mrs. Jones.
Further, we notice that his mention of not having anyone at home, his appearance, and his want of the pocketbook alludes to his poverty. His interactions suggest that he is ashamed of it- this is picked up by Mrs. Jones as well. When they are eating together, she talks about her own job and home but does not ask Roger about his. She does so because she does not want him to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed by speaking about it. Here, we see the theme of shame. It is also here that Roger’s mindset starts changing and he understands what he did was wrong. It is unlikely that anybody has had such a natural and light-hearted conversation while eating with him before, and this would have had an impact on his worldview in general- a reminder that kindness and compassion do exist in the least expected places.
When Mrs. Jones talks about her own past experiences, Roger waits for her to add that despite everything, she never went around stealing. To his surprise, there is no such dialogue- instead, she hints that she may have done the same as Roger in the past, if not worse, and has learnt from the situation. This is a twist for Roger, and a clear instance where Mrs. Jones has undermined his expectation of what he thought she would say. This establishes a closer connection between them. This is why, when Mrs. Jones leaves Roger with the wallet, Roger does not want to break her trust, and therefore does not steal the wallet. Further, it is not mentioned whether Mrs. Jones thinks he will take it or not, but we may assume she trusts him by the fact that she left him alone. This is yet another example of expectations- the expectation she has on his dignity, of which he feels the weight and chooses not to break.
Here, we see the themes of trust, dignity and second chances. Mrs. Jones gives Roger a second chance by leaving him with her pocketbook. This time, he makes the right decision, thereby redeeming himself. This choice was made by him because he did not want her to not trust him anymore. This meant he felt the weight of her trust and understood how important it is not to break such a fragile thing. It may have been the first time in his life someone has treated him so kindly, tried to help him understand right from wrong, and even offer him a chance to right his mistakes, and Roger does not want to undermine that level of goodness. He finally finds his sense of dignity. After spending so long stealing people’s money to buy things, he makes the morally right decision at a crucial time and this also teaches him a lesson. In the end, Mrs. Jones gives him a ten-dollar note- this can almost be seen as an unexpected reward: had he tried to run away with the pocketbook when it was left on the table, she might’ve caught him again. Then, the trust would be broken and he would be sent away in disgrace without food or money. Now, he has had a pleasant evening, eaten some food, and even received ten dollars to buy his shoes. The effect of upholding trust, making the right decision, and showing dignity are immediately showcased.
Mrs. Jones shows Roger out just as quickly and abruptly as she brought him in. He wants to thank her- and it is likely the first time he is genuinely grateful to someone, for not many people may have acted so kindly towards him before. He wants to say “Thank you, Ma’am”, but she closes the door before he can finish. This is in line with the title of the story, which encapsulates the feeling in Roger’s heart and the words he wanted to say. He and Mrs. Jones never met again, but it is safe to assume that their interaction impacted Roger heavily and remained in his mind for a long time. This represents how small acts of kindness can go a long way, and even if they never meet again, one empathetic interaction between two strangers can be life-changing and can give someone some much-needed hope.
About the Author
Langston Hughes was an American poet and writer born in 1901. He was one of the early leaders of jazz poetry. He often wrote about his experiences as an African-American and was the leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes passed away in 1967, at 66 years old