The primary conflict in Langston Hughes's short story "Thank You, M'am" is considered a man versus man conflict between Roger and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. This conflict takes place at the beginning of the story, when Roger impulsively tries to steal Mrs. Jones's purse while she is walking home by herself. When Roger attempts to snatch Mrs. Jones's purse, he stumbles to the ground, which gives Mrs. Jones the chance to grab him by the collar and drag him to her home. Instead of calling the police, Mrs. Jones uses this conflict as an opportunity to guide Roger and exercise hospitality.
The second external conflict in the story is considered a man versus society conflict. The man versus society conflict is depicted through Roger's struggles to overcome his difficult environment. Roger suffers from poverty, grows up in a dangerous inner-city environment, and has a dysfunctional home life. When Roger comes in contact with Mrs. Jones, he is dirty, hungry, and desperate. As a member of the lower class living in a depressed, dangerous community, Roger is at a severe disadvantage, which influences him to resort to crime in order to attain the things he needs.
The internal man versus self conflict in the story concerns Roger's decision to accept Mrs. Jones's hospitality or flee her house. Initially, Roger worries that Mr. Jones will call the police and entertains the idea of running out of her home. After carefully assessing the situation, Roger recognizes that Mrs. Jones is a trustworthy, compassionate woman, and he decides to stay. Roger makes the right decision and is rewarded with ten dollars to purchase a pair of blue suede shoes at the end of the story.
The central conflict in Langston Hughes's short story "Thank You, M'am" is character vs. society. Like many of his other works, Hughes uses his short story to capture the demeaning effects of oppression due to racism. Due to racism, people like Roger and Mrs. Jones live in poverty, which influences them to act out of desperation to meet their needs and wants.
We can tell Roger is in a state of poverty because his face is so dirty that Mrs. Jones feels compelled to ask, "Ain't you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face," to which Roger replies, "No'm." This tells us that Roger is neglected and abandoned, possibly because he is raised only by one parent who must work endlessly to make ends meet or because both parents must work endlessly, leaving Roger to grow up on the streets, fending for himself, just like many of his race.
Roger's poverty and neglect drive him to do things he is ashamed of doing such as to try stealing from innocent people because he dearly wants things he can't afford to buy like a "pair of blue suede shoes." Sometimes the desire to fulfill a want aches even more than the desire to fulfill a need, which is something Mrs. Roger understands from her own personal experiences, as she explains when she very compassionately confesses to having also done things she was ashamed of to get things she wanted but couldn't have.
While the character vs. society conflict that both Roger and Mrs. Jones face creates a minor character vs. character conflict between them, portrayed in Roger trying to steal Mrs. Jones's purse at the beginning of the story, the character vs. character conflict is actually resolved early on in the story. The conflict is resolved the moment Mrs. Jones decides to forgive Roger and take him under her care for the evening. We can tell Mrs. Jones has forgiven him and has seen that what he really needs is care and attention the moment she says, "Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain't you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?" These are not the words someone bent on vengeance or legal retribution would say. These are the words someone would say who has already recognized the condition of Roger's life and is ready to respond with forgiveness and compassion.
The main conflict in “Thank You M’am” is character vs. character, but another important conflict is character vs. society, and there are internal conflicts.
The obvious character vs. character conflict is between Roger and Mrs. Jones. He tries to steal her purse, and she makes him come home with her.
She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, "Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?" (p. 1)
The conflict is resolved because the two characters come to an understanding and appreciation for each other.
The second conflict is character vs. society, because both characters have had a rough go of it. Mrs. Jones and Roger both wanted things they could not have, because society creates a materialistic need.
"I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know."
Mrs. Jones realizes the draw of the shoes—and she gives Roger her hard-earned money so that he can have what he wants.
Finally, there are internal conflicts. Mrs. Jones has to decide what to do about Roger after he attempts robbery, and she takes the unusual step of bringing him home with her. Roger also has to decide whether to run away or not, and he decides not to.