Themes & Summary of “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes: Short Story Analysis

This story, sometimes titled “Thank You, M’am”, by Langston Hughes is a popular selection for students. It’s about a boy who tries to steal money from a woman. He ends up getting it, as well as a potentially life-changing lesson.

Summary of “Thank You, Ma’am”

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, a large woman with a large purse, walks home late at night. A frail boy of about fourteen, Roger, runs up behind her and grabs her purse, breaking the strap and falling down from the momentum.

She kicks him and then lifts him to his feet, holding him by the shirt. She orders him to give the purse back. She continues to hold him so he won’t run off.

Roger’s face is dirty, and Mrs. Jones decides she will wash it. He wants to be released, but Mrs. Jones wants him to remember who she is. Roger struggles, but she puts him in a half nelson and drags him to her place. They go into her apartment and she leaves the door open.

Roger washes his face at Mrs. Jones’s order. There’s no one home at his place, so he hasn’t eaten. Roger wants ten dollars for a pair of blue suede shoes. Mrs. Jones says he didn’t have to steal her purse for the money; he could have asked.

Roger is free now and he could run, but he doesn’t. Mrs. Jones knows what it’s like to be young and want things she couldn’t get. She gets up from the daybed and goes to fix some food. She leaves her purse behind. Roger sits far from it where Mrs. Jones can see him.

She serves supper. While they eat, she talks about her job in a hotel beauty parlor. She doesn’t ask Roger any personal questions.

When they finish eating, Mrs. Jones hands Roger ten dollars. She tells him not to steal anymore. She leads him to the door, says good night, and tells him to behave himself. Roger wants to say something other than thank you. (see next heading)

Alternate Ending

There seem to be two published versions of the ending to “Thank You, Ma’am.” The variation seems to only be in the final paragraph:

  • In one version, Roger’s lips move but he’s unable to say anything before Mrs. Jones closes the door.
  • In the other version, Roger barely manages to say “Thank you,” before the door closes. We’re told he never sees her again.

I’m not sure which ending is more common, and they both work fine, but I prefer the first. The fact that Roger is unable to say anything is fitting, because there’s nothing he can say that sufficiently acknowledges Mrs. Jones’s actions.

It also omits the final statement that Roger never sees Mrs. Jones again. This statement works fine, as it stresses the uniqueness of this experience for Roger, and its likely life-changing effect on him. It isn’t necessary, though, for us to infer this effect on Roger. It’s very possible they would have seen each other in the neighborhood again, and I don’t see why that would diminish this interaction.

Theme: Kindness

Although Mrs. Jones handles Roger roughly at first, she shows him a great kindness.

First, she doesn’t call the police on him, which she’s perfectly entitled to do. She could have just roughed Roger up a bit as revenge, and then turned him over to the authorities.

Second, she tells Roger to wash his face. This gives him some of the parental direction he’s lacking, and makes him look more dignified.

Third, she gives him supper, sharing the food she had for herself.

Fourth, Mrs. Jones doesn’t ask Roger any personal questions that will embarrass him. She already knows enough about his life. The exact details don’t change anything. This point also applies to Empathy, looked at below.

Fifth, she gives Roger the ten dollars he wants for the shoes. This is the greatest and most unexpected gesture of kindness. This recalls her statement about wanting things when she was young that she couldn’t have. She understands how Roger feels and gives him the means to get what he wants honestly. (see Empathy)

As a side point, Mrs. Jones’s physical size (“she was a large woman”) seems to parallel the “size” of her effect on him. She starts out by subduing Roger physically and ends by subduing him with her kindness and understanding.

Theme: Empathy

Mrs. Jones wants to know about Roger and his motivation for the attempted theft. She sees and finds out several things:

  • His face is dirty
  • He’s frail
  • There’s no one home at his place (it’s after 11 P.M.)
  • He wants money for a pair of blue suede shoes.

Mrs. Jones knows that Roger has reasons for stealing. She bonds with him by establishing common ground, empathizing with him when she says, “I were young once and I wanted things I could not get.” Roger seems to expect her to lord it over him because she didn’t become a thief, like he did, but she doesn’t do this. She tells him she’s also done things she’s not proud of, things she’s too embarrassed to tell anyone about.

Empathizing with Roger effects him for the better, as he doesn’t want to take the purse now, which is unguarded. He even moves away from it and sits where Mrs. Jones can keep an eye on him.

Giving Roger the ten dollars can also be looked at as an act of empathy, not just kindness. Mrs. Jones remembers what it’s like to be young and want things you can’t have. She understands Roger, and she wants to turn him from a path that will do him harm. We don’t know what things Mrs. Jones has done that she regrets; it could include something worse than what Roger is guilty of. She tries to give him a lesson that will change the course of his life.

Theme: Parental Authority

Roger’s lack of parental influence is obvious. There’s no one home at his place, and he hasn’t been left under the supervision of anyone else. His dirty face suggests he hasn’t been taught to keep himself clean. Left to his own devices, Roger is out very late at night trying to rob someone.

The fact that Roger is missing parental authority is emphasized when Mrs. Jones says, “You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong.”

We see that Roger is craving some parental instruction when Mrs. Jones tells him to wash his face. He’s free to run away at this point, and seems like he’s considering it, but he does what she says.

The story might also be suggesting that others can fill the gap of absent parents, as Mrs. Jones teaches Roger a lesson as well as any parent could have.

What is indicated by how Roger addresses Mrs. Jones?

Roger starts out by answering her with “Yes’m” and “No’m” and referring to her as “Lady”. These are not outright terms of disrespect, by any means, but they’re not exactly polite either. “Yes’m” and “No’m” sound insincere, like an automatic response to a female authority figure. “Lady” implies distance, like she’s any random woman, which she is at this point.

A change occurs when Mrs. Jones says he could have asked for the money. This is not what Roger was expecting her to say. That’s when he calls her “M’am”, which sounds more respectful.

As he leaves her home, he wants to say something even more meaningful than “Thank you, M’am.” Rather than viewing her as a vague authority figure or some woman from the street, Roger now feels closer to her and indebted to her for her kindness. There’s no form of address he can use that will properly express his gratitude.