What does the dialogue between Roger and Mrs. Jones in Langston Hughes's “Thank You, Ma’am" reveal about their characterizations?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The dialogue shared between Mrs. Jones and Roger in Langston Hughes's "Thank You, Ma'am" develops characterization by revealing the hardships both characters have suffered.

One of the most revealing pieces of dialogue occurs when Mrs. Jones asks Roger, "Ain't you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?" to which Roger gives the equally revelatory reply, "No'm." This exchange tells the reader that, like many of Hughes's race, Roger is growing up on the streets, abandoned. If Roger has any parents, they are not a dominant part of his life, most likely because they must work endlessly at low-paying jobs to make ends meet. The absence of parents leaves Roger to fend for himself out on the streets. It is because Mrs. Jones sees Roger is fending for himself that she takes compassion on him and takes him home for some care and dinner.

In her tiny one-room rented flat, a sign that Mrs. Jones too is also struggling with poverty, Roger explains he tried to steal her purse to buy some blue suede shoes. Mrs. Jones says something in reply that tells us exactly why she is able to feel compassion for Roger:

I were young once and I wanted things I could not get.
I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son--neither tell God, if he didn't already know.

This dialogue exchange tells us that Mrs. Jones has been in the exact same situation as Roger, abandoned, alone, and struggling with poverty, the poverty that is an inevitable part of the racism and segregation Hughes spoke out against in his writings. Because she has been in the exact same boat Roger has been in and overcome her situation, at least to the point she is no longer driven to steal, she knows that showing empathy and compassion will help guide Roger on the correct path. The empathy and compassion she extends to Roger lets him know, for the first time in his life, that he's not really alone, that help does exist, which will guide him in making correct choices when he feels he needs help in the future.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To a large extent, once both are inside Mrs. Jones' apartment, the dialogue is one sided.  For his part, Roger sits and listens, not really saying much of anything in terms of adding to the dialogue.  In this, Hughes brings out that even the most criminal of youth can respond to some level of mentoring or nurturing.  Roger is disarmed by the generosity and kindness that is shown to him.  He recognizes the moment and does not repudiate it.  At the same time, Mrs. Jones has a past.  This is brought out in the discussion. She has "done things."  Hughes is brilliant in leaving it at that.  Yet, from her dialogue with Roger, Hughes creates the impression that she understands that in making changes to her present and offering an opportunity for Roger to make changes in his, the mistakes of the past and the cycle they create can be broken.  A new reality can emerge, so that when Roger is outside her apartment, this new conception of reality can become something on which action is taken.  The dialogue between both brings out the past and present in both characters, and how both Roger and Mrs. Jones are left to face the future after their interaction with one another.