What does the story "Thank You Ma'am" have to do with compassion, by Langston Hughes?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The title of Langston Hughes's story, "Thank You, Ma'am" suggests immediately that a kindness has been performed. Indeed, the narrative relates the heartfelt compassion of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington, who takes the would-be robber home and feeds him rather than turning him over to the police.

When the boy named Roger tries to grab Mrs. Washington's large purse that contains everything "but a hammer and a nail," the strap breaks and he falls over, losing his balance  because of the heavy bag. While he is down, Mrs. Washington kicks him in the seat of his pants and lifts him by his shirt front, demanding why he has tried to steal her bag. Giving his excuse no credence, she notices that Roger's face is unwashed.

"Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”
"No'm," the boy replies.
“Then it will get washed this evening,” said the large woman, starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.

When they reach Mrs. Washington's rooms, this compassionate woman explains that she, too, has committed bad acts, and if Roger were her son, she would teach him right from wrong. As she gives him supper, she asks the boy why he wanted her purse. "I wanted a pair of blue suede shoes," he tells her. To his surprise, Mrs. Washington tells Roger all he had to do was just ask her. Further, she confides in Roger, telling him that she has committed actions which were very wrong.

After supper, Mrs. Washington rises and pulls ten dollars from her purse which she gives to Roger, telling him to purchase the blue suede shoes,

And next time, do not make the mistake of latching onto my pocketbook nor nobody else’s—because shoes come by devilish like that will burn your feet. I got to get my rest now. But I wish you would behave yourself, son, from here on in.”

Moved to the point of choking on his words, Roger tries to say more than "Thank you, ma'am," for her generosity and compassion, but he cannot. This story has to do with compassion because Mrs. Washington embodies compassion and her actions bespeak compassion.