What is the theme expressed in "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes?

One theme expressed in "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes is the importance of extending grace to others, even if those people don't particularly deserve it. By doing so, Mrs. Jones demonstrates the power of one person to transform another person's life.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the themes of “Thank You, Ma'am” is the importance of giving someone a second chance.

Mrs. Jones knows from personal experience what it's like to go without and to want to have nice things. So she's able to develop empathy for Roger, to step into his shoes and treat him with kindness and consideration. Instead of marching him off to the nearest police station, as many people in her position would do, she resolves to give the young tearaway a second chance.

Mrs. Jones evidently sees something in the young lad that convinces her that he'll respond positively to her giving him a second chance. And the initial signs, at least, are very good. For although Roger has an additional opportunity of stealing Mrs. Jones's purse when her back is turned, he doesn't take it. It would be all too easy for Roger to snatch the purse and run out of Mrs. Jones's door. And this time she wouldn't be able to catch him.

That he doesn't do this is due in no small part to Mrs. Jones giving him a second chance, an opportunity to show what kind of a person he really is beneath this less than impressive exterior.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One theme that becomes apparent in "Thank You, Ma'am" is the importance of extending grace—even to those who don't deserve it.

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones would have certainly been justified to seek punishment for Roger. Roger's choice to prey on an elderly woman so that he could purchase new shoes for himself is fairly despicable. Yet Mrs. Jones seeks to understand why Roger had attempted to victimize her, and then she makes great efforts to help him.

Mrs. Jones quickly realizes that Roger doesn't have the support of family at home. As a result, his face is dirty and he looks as though he hasn't been fed well. Mrs. Jones takes the boy who attempted to mug her to her own house, cleaning him up and feeding him a decent meal.

She also takes the time to explain to Roger that he could make better choices in life, but she doesn't do so from a place of moral superiority. Instead, she is forthright with him:

"You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that.” Pause. Silence. “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know."

Leaving her purse out in the open, Mrs. Jones demonstrates trust in Roger to make better decisions. And before he leaves, she makes sure that he has the money to purchase the new shoes—the same money he had tried to steal from her.

Mrs. Jones displays incredible grace in her treatment of a boy who didn't deserve it. Through her actions, Roger has hopefully recognized the importance of living by a higher moral code.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A theme is the primary point or perhaps the moral of a story, and there is always room for multiple themes; however, the primary theme of "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes concerns the power of trust. 

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is not about to let a teenage boy steal her purse, but she is also unwilling to let him go home hungry. She can see that he is suffering from neglect, as he appears to be rather dirty and unkempt, as if no one were really taking care of him. She determines to do something to help, and once they get to her house we learn why.

She assumes that Roger was trying to steal her purse because he was hungry, but Roger tells her he wanted money to buy a pair of blue suede shoes. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones understands, saying after a few moments of reflection, “I were young once and I wanted things I could not get.” After an even longer pause and more silence, she says this:

“I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. So you set down while I fix us something to eat. You might run that comb through your hair so you will look presentable.”

As the woman starts to prepare a meal, she does something unthinkable. She leaves her pocketbook on the bed and the door open, providing the perfect opportunity for a young man who really does have a criminal heart to take advantage of her. As she must have expected (or at least hoped), Roger is moved by her trust in him and does not take advantage of her.

But the boy took care to sit on the far side of the room where he thought she could easily see him out of the corner of her eye, if she wanted to. He did not trust the woman not to trust him. And he did not want to be mistrusted now.

This is the greatest gift she could have given this boy, something much more significant than the ten dollars she gives him to buy the shoes for which he is willing to steal. For a young boy suffering from neglect, who is not important enough for anyone to take good care of, the trust that a perfect stranger offers him is a gift beyond measure. Her trust tells Roger that he has value and worth, and we know by his response that Mrs. Luella Bates Washington was right. Roger is not a bad boy, and he will be a better boy for having met this formidable and insightful woman. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A literary “theme” can take different forms. It can be the dominating idea or ideas of a text, but it can also be what the writer wishes to say about that idea—his message or moral, if you will.

In Langston Hughes’s “Thank You, Ma’am,” I’ll focus on the theme of respect. When Roger attempts to take Mrs. Jones’ purse, he’s only thinking of himself and what he wants. He has no respect for her or her belongings and it may be argued that he shows no respect for himself, either. She reacts by choosing to not treat him like a common thief, but with kindness and concern—with respect. She goes so far as to offer him dinner, but to not ask why he is on the streets alone and why he hasn’t eaten, in so doing respecting his individuality and his boundaries. In the course of the evening, when she goes behind a screen to cook, leaving her purse near the boy, he “took care to sit on the far side of the room where he thought she could easily see him out of the corner of her eye,” having discovered that “he did not want to be mistrusted now.” She showed him respect and he found himself wishing to be deserving of it.

He asks if she needs him to run to the store for anything, and she says not unless he wants some sweet milk to drink, but she was just going to make cocoa. He agrees that cocoa is fine. This simple exchange marks a change in the trust they have in one another. Before, his thoughts were bent on escape and she knew it. Now, he offers to run an errand—and opportunity for him to escape, possibly with her money—and she gives him the opportunity, but he turns her down. This trust established, the respect between them and in particular, his self-respect deepens.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on