What is the setting in "Thank You, M'am?"

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes reveals the effects of kindness and compassion and how they have the potential to change someone's life. When Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones has an unexpected encounter with Roger, she immediately recognizes a need in him for something more than punitive punishment for attempting to steal her "pocketbook" or purse.  

The setting in any story literally "sets" the scene. It includes the physical nature and location of the story (where), and the environment and time period (when). It also helps to create a mood and reveals a lot that the actual story does not tell. Especially in a short story, it is crucial that the reader immediately gets a sense of the author's purpose and the setting helps to do that. In "Thank You, M'am" the setting is established right from the beginning when Hughes creates an atmosphere and a tone ensuring that the reader is also able to learn from the text. He says that Mrs. Jones is "a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails" so that the reader gets a sense of this practical, no-nonsense woman and which serves as a warning to anyone who would consider confronting her.

Having set the tone and created an expectation of something significant which will follow, Hughes continues to reveal the setting. Mrs. Jones is walking alone at 11:00PM on her return from work when Roger tries to steal her purse. The reader learns that she lives a humble existence but a satisfying one, and as she is unfazed by Roger's attempts and easily able to stop him, it seems that she is used to living in a tough neighborhood where a shared residence and "ten-cent cake" are the norm. Along with the street where the introduction takes place, Mrs. Jones's room serves as a part of the setting.

Sometimes setting includes a cultural aspect and in this short story, the reader welcomes Mrs. Jones's efforts to help Roger and not judge him. It seems that she is used to a close-knit community and Roger is about to benefit from that, whether he likes it or not.