“Thank You M’am” is a well-executed story. It is very brief, but focused. In just a few pages, Hughes establishes setting, develops well-drawn characters and evokes a touching theme.
The story opens by establishing the setting. It is “eleven o’clock at night,” and a woman is walking alone. The street is fairly deserted, because only “two or three people” pass by. This setting is one of anticipation. You expect something to happen.
The initial description of Mrs. Jones is very telling.
She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails.
Already, the reader can picture the woman. Since the purse is mentioned specifically, we can predict that something is going to happen to it. Sure enough, a boy runs up to her and tries to take it—and falls flat on his back.
Mrs. Jones reacts in a completely unexpected way, telling us much about her. First of all, she does not give up the purse. She makes the boy pick it up, and she holds on to him. This move shows her as something unexpected, and a woman strong in both physical and mental strength. When Roger struggles, she puts a “half-nelson about his neck” and drags him to her house.
In many ways, Roger is just as surprising as Mrs. Jones. He is “frail and willow-wild.” When she asks him if he is ashamed of himself, he says he is. He tries to tell her he didn’t mean to steal the purse. When she asks him if he is going to run if she lets him go, he says yes. All of these things tell us about Roger—he is not a bad kid, but he is lonely and isolated and has no one to respect. He latches on to Mrs. Jones almost instantly, as if thirsting for her wisdom.
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?"
Roger continues to surprise us. When she lets go of him, he does not try to run away. He stays with her and they talk about dreams and the making bad choices. The brief conversation highlights several themes.
First of all, people are not always what they seem. Second, a little respect can make a big difference in dealing with people. Even though Mrs. Jones kidnaps Roger, she feeds him and talks to him and talks to him like her own son. Finally, choices make us who we are. Mrs. Jones and Roger open up to each other, about choices they have made. Mrs. Jones tells Roger she has done things she regretted, and he learns many valuable life lessons from her.