In the short story "Thank You, M'am," why did Mrs. Jones make Roger wash his face?

In the short story "Thank You, Ma'am" by Langston Hughes, Mrs. Jones makes Roger wash his face because she wants to offer him the unselfish love that he does not receive from his family. After she has him wash his face, she feeds him a meal and gives him money to buy shoes, despite the fact that he tried to snatch her purse earlier.

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In the short story "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes, a boy named Roger tries to snatch the purse from the arm of a large woman named Luella Bates Washington Jones. She is too strong for him, though, and instead, he falls flat on his back on the sidewalk. She grabs him and points out that his face is dirty. Upon hearing from Roger that there is no one at his home that tells him to wash his face, Luella tells him that she will see to it that his face gets washed.

Although Mrs. Jones continues to act gruffly with the boy and holds him in a powerful grip, it is obvious that at the point she hears about his deprived background, her attitude changes towards him. She takes him home ostensibly to wash his face, but in fact, she is determined to show him some loving kindness. She not only gives him soap and a towel to wash his face, but she feeds him a meal and gives him ten dollars to buy a pair of shoes. Once he understands her intentions, he no longer attempts to run away. He behaves respectfully. Mrs. Jones confides to him that in her youth, she too did things she is ashamed of. When he leaves Mrs. Jones, Roger is deeply grateful but doesn't know how to express it. Readers get the impression that this chance encounter with Mrs. Jones will change Roger's life.

We see, then, that Luella makes Roger wash his face because she wants to restore self-respect and dignity to him as she gives him a glimpse of the unselfish love that he should have been receiving from his family.

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Although Langston Hughes does not explicitly tell us why Mrs. Jones makes Roger wash his face in “Thank you, Ma’m,” we can certainly infer the reason from the story.  We can infer that Mrs. Jones makes Roger wash his face in order to help instill in him a sense of pride and self-worth.

In this story, Mrs. Jones is clearly trying to reform Roger by making him respect himself.  After she initially kicks and shakes him, she stops trying to punish him much and instead tries to rehabilitate him.  When she takes him home, she repeatedly leaves him alone in such a way that he could both take her money and escape.  She is clearly trying to make him feel better about himself so that he will stop trying to commit crimes.

Once we understand this, we can see why Mrs. Jones has Roger wash his face.  His dirty face is a symbol of his life in general.  It shows that he does not respect himself enough to keep clean and it shows that his upbringing has been poor because he has no one at home to teach him to keep clean.  Mrs. Jones wants to reverse this situation.  She wants him to clean his face (and comb his hair) so that he will be presentable and look like someone who can be respected.  If he does this, perhaps he can learn to respect himself as well.

In this story, Roger’s face symbolizes the state of his life and his self-respect.  Mrs. Jones wants him to wash it as a first step to regaining his sense of self-worth so that he can stay out of trouble.

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