What is the irony in Langston Hughes's short story "Thank You, M'am"?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes particularly weaves situational irony throughout his short story "Thank You, M'am." Situational irony is created when an author leads the reader to expect a different outcome based on the action within a situation than what actually happens in the next situation (Kansas State University, Critical Concepts, "Situational Irony").

Hughes begins to create situational irony in his description of Mrs. Jones's reaction to the attempted theft of her purse. Mrs. Jones reacts somewhat violently, kicking the boy named Roger, then picking up by the front of his shirt and shaking him "until his teeth rattled." Hence, by the time she starts dragging him home with her, saying, "When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones," the reader predicts she is about to dole out more punishment. Prior to what sounds like a threat, the reader is not even sure how to interpret her comment, "I got a great mind to wash your face for you." However, contrary to expectations, once Mrs. Jones brings Roger home, she makes every effort to show the boy he can trust her and showers him with kindness, care, and compassion. She shows him compassion by relating to his urge to steal to get something he felt was important to him, blue suede shoes, telling him that she too had to struggle with being young and wanting things she couldn't get, even resorting to doing things she wouldn't confess to in order to get them. She shows kindness and care by making him wash his face, comb his hair, giving him dinner, and even giving him 10 dollars to buy his blue suede shoes.

Gianna Dixon | Student

First we must define irony to understand what to look for within the text. Irony by definition is when the opposite of what is thought or expected to happen, happens. Hughes places situational irony throughout the text. For instance when the young boy runs into Miss Washington and decides to steal her purse, ironically Miss Washington didn't call the police or any other authority figure to deal with the boy instead she took him in her home and fed him supper. 

Even while in the house the boy is placed in ironic situations. Miss Washington leaves her purse opened and unattended as she leaves the room. The boy is instructed to wash up and he notices her open purse. Readers would think he is going to steal the money from the purse because that was his initial intention but the boy simply passes by the purse and goes to clean himself off. 

Even at the end of the text, Miss Washington asks the boy why did he try to take her bag in the first place and he replied he wanted aome blue suede shoes. Miss Washington not only took him in, fed him and bathed him, but she also provided him with the funds for his blue suede shoes. True irony within itself, a young man tries to steal your purse and you take him in feed him bathe him and still provide him with the funds he needs to make his purchase.