How does Mrs. Jones's response to Roger's actions contribute to the development of the theme in "Thank You, M'am"?

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Mrs. Jones's response to Roger's actions contributes to the themes in "Thank You, M'am" surrounding compassion, dignity, and trust. By showing Roger kindness, Mrs. Jones reinforces the idea that victimhood is subjective. Although Roger tried to rob her, he is not a bad person; instead, he is a victim of circumstance. Mrs. Jones's response can also be read as a commentary on contemporary issues facing Black youths, as she encourages Roger to understand and embrace his inherent worth.

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In spite of Roger’s attempt to rob her, Mrs. Jones shows the boy nothing but kindness, advancing the story’s themes surrounding empathy, compassion, dignity, and trust.

One of the first questions Roger asks Mrs. Jones after they arrive at her home is whether she is planning to take him to jail. Indeed, conventional wisdom would mark that as the correct course of action. From an outside perspective, Roger is the assailant, and Mrs. Jones is his would-be victim. However, “Thank You, M’am” recognizes that there are different types of victimhood. Mrs. Jones does not dismiss Roger merely as a would-be assailant, instead recognizing him for what he is: a victim of circumstance. Roger comes from a difficult background, and he admits to Mrs. Jones that he doesn’t have anyone at home to take care of him. His face is dirty, he has not eaten, and he is described as “frail.” Mrs. Jones remarks:

You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?

This encapsulates Mrs. Jones’s attitude towards Roger throughout the story: although he is not truly her son, she takes it upon herself to behave as a mother would, knowing that Roger probably does not have any other positive role models in his life. She sternly lectures him about his appearance, the importance of eating, the need to get proper rest, and the dangers of ill-gotten gains. All of her words indicate that Mrs. Jones understands Roger on some level, and she remarks that she, too, did things she isn’t proud of when she was young. Her ability to empathize with Roger helps their encounter go more smoothly, and her apparent knowledge of how to handle such a situation puts the otherwise guilty and skittish boy at ease.

In addition to extending empathy and compassion to Roger, Mrs. Jones also makes an effort to impart upon him some important lessons about dignity and trust. Rather than allowing Roger to remain hungry and unkempt—which would likely only have cemented his feelings of shame—she feeds him and encourages him to wash himself. Though her words are stern and scolding, her actions actually encourage dignity and self-respect through the maintenance of a presentable appearance. Furthermore, by leaving the path to the doorway open and by not watching Roger as she cooks, Mrs. Jones is showcasing both her trust in Roger and her respect of his autonomy. Although she forced him to return to her home, she does not force him to stay, and Roger responds to her trust by thinking that he in turn “[does] not want to be mistrusted now.”

Additionally, Hughes, as a famed Harlem Renaissance writer, is known for writing about the experiences of Black folks, especially those living in poverty. Though race is never explicitly mentioned in “Thank You, M’am,” the story is often read as a commentary on the importance of community mentorship, self-worth, and establishing positive conceptions of Black identity. Roger begins the story as a would-be petty criminal because his life circumstances and the contemporary social messages around him indicated that such was the fate of streetwise, impoverished Black youths. However, Mrs. Jones refuses to perpetuate that narrative, instead encouraging him to take a greater degree of pride in himself and willingly giving him the financial support he initially sought through criminal means. Mrs. Jones essentially breaks the negative feedback loop surrounding Roger, and instead helps him conceptualize a world in which kindness, respect, and love are freely given.

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How does what Mrs. Jones reveals to Roger about her past help her understand his life in "Thank You, M'am"?

After Roger tries to steal her purse, Mrs. Jones tells Roger that she was young once and wanted things she could not get.  This surprises Roger.  He realizes that she understands his longing better than he thought.

When Roger tries to rob Mrs. Jones, he has no idea what he is in for.  He seems completely baffled by getting caught, answering her questions in short, sullen bursts that are borderline respectful.  He does answer her questions though, and he does decide to stay instead of running.

 You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that." Pause. Silence. "I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. (p. 3)

She does not reveal to him what she had done, but she makes it clear that it was comparable or worse to stealing an old lady’s purse.

Roger realizes that what he did was wrong, but it does not make him a bad person.  His desperation got the better of him.  He makes an effort to be good from then on, and stay where she can see him.  He wants to be trusted by her.

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Why might Mrs. Jones feel compelled to help Roger in "Thank You, M'am"?

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones feels sorry for Roger because she sees him out alone late at night with his face dirty.  She understands that he is not a hardened criminal.  He is just a kid who made a bad choice and has no role models.

Mrs. Jones decides to be a role model for Roger.  When he asks her if she is going to turn him in, she says she won’t and tells him to wash his face.  She seems to feel sorry for him and want to offer him guidance.

He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.

The woman said, “You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?”

Mrs. Jones confides in Roger that she has made some choices she is not proud of.   She tells him she was young once too.  Her reflection helps bring Roger out of his shell.

“… You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that.” Pause. Silence. “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. …”

Roger asks Mrs. Jones if she needs anything from the store, but she declines.  They never get very close, even though it is clear that she has made an impression on him.  When he leaves, it seems that they are never going to see each other again.  Mrs. Jones said any contact with her would "last awhile," and she was right.  The impression she makes on Roger will be a long-standing one.

Mrs. Jones’s past is somewhat of a mystery to us, but it is clear that she has had some hardships.  Now she works for a beauty shop and seems to work late, since she was out so late at night.  She also appears to live alone in a boarding house, so we do not know where her husband is or if she ever had a son of her own.

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In "Thank You, M'am," what does Mrs. Jones' speech and behavior tell you about her reasons for helping Roger?

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones from Thank you M'am by Langston Hughes does not believe that there is any excuse for bad behavior. Her speech when she tells Roger that "I were young once and I wanted things I could not get" reveals a wistfulness in its tone and a recollection of a time in her life when she could not have the things she wanted most. It is apparent that she was young at the time and also did some things of which she is not proud. She has no intention of giving Roger the details but she wants him to know that it is not unusual to want something so badly as to do something you may regret later. However, there is a limit and Roger needs to know that but Mrs. Jones will not judge him. She will only try to make a difference in his life, no matter how small her contribution, whether morally, socially or of monetary value.

In fact, the $10 she gives him is a significant donation especially considering her own circumstances which are apparently modest. She is willing to share whatever she has with him, even if it is not a lot. The reader is aware that she can relate to Roger and probably recognizes similarities with her own childhood and upbringing; things she would change if Roger were her own son and thus revealing her reasons for giving Roger a second chance.  

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