How does Langston Hughes support his main idea in the short story "Thank You, M'am"?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central theme in Langston Hughes's short story "Thank You, M'am" is that there is a need to show compassion because compassion can generate change. Hughes supports his theme through the actions of Mrs. Jones and through Roger's reactions towards her treatment of him.

In the short story, Mrs. Jones shows compassion when, after Roger tries to steal her purse, rather than calling the cops, she drags him home to her one-room apartment, makes him wash his face, and shares her dinner with him. All of these actions show that she perfectly empathizes with Roger's situation of growing up poor and practically abandoned. One of her most empathetic and compassionate moments is when she makes the following confession to Roger after he says he tried to steal her purse so he could buy blue suede shoes he wanted:

I were young once and I wanted things I could not get.

She further confesses that she too did things she was ashamed of, too ashamed to tell him about, too ashamed to tell even God. Her greatest, most compassionate moment is when she hands him the ten dollar bill from her purse so he can buy his shoes and tells him to behave himself. She does all of these things even though she is evidently very poor, showing us how much she is willing to sacrifice just to show compassion to one equally in need.

Though we are not told much about Roger's reaction, we are told he was rendered near speechless, so speechless "he barely managed to say 'Thank you' before she shut the door." His near speechlessness and ability to say "Thank you" show us he has been deeply moved by her compassion and generosity. For the first time in his life, he has seen that there are some people in the world who truly do care. This revelation will help him feel that his life is less of an uphill battle, which will help him behave himself, ensuring that he, too, will develop into the sort of person who can show compassion and generosity to those in need, just as Mrs. Jones did.