Thank You Ma'am Theme

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

Major themes in "Thank You, M'am" are trust, forgiveness, and self-respect. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones tries to exemplify these qualities and teach them to Roger during their short interaction. She extends care, structure, and compassion to him by feeding him dinner after he almost robs her. We don't know what happens to Roger after their meeting, but we hope that Mrs. Jones has been a positive influence for him.

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One of the themes that develops in this story is the power of trust. Roger certainly doesn't deserve trust. The unlikely pair of Roger and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones only meet because Roger fails in his attempts to rob her.

In grace, Mrs. Jones reaches out to young...

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One of the themes that develops in this story is the power of trust. Roger certainly doesn't deserve trust. The unlikely pair of Roger and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones only meet because Roger fails in his attempts to rob her.

In grace, Mrs. Jones reaches out to young Roger when she learns that he doesn't have anyone at home and is hungry. She first commands him to clean himself up; then she tells him that he will stay and eat with her.

Next, Mrs. Jones trusts Roger by making herself vulnerable, telling him that she's made her own share of mistakes—mistakes that are so grievous that she wouldn't even share them with God if He didn't know the truth anyways.

With this being said, she leaves her purse out in plain sight and goes around the corner. In this action she extends trust to Roger that he will neither steal from her nor run away. Because of this, he offers to go to the store for her if she needs anything else to prepare dinner. The two share a cordial meal. Roger has transformed into her guest instead of her victim of punishment because Mrs. Jones's actions that convey her trust in him.

Ultimately, she gifts Roger the money he previously tried to steal from her. Her altruism shows that she holds no resentment toward him and that she trusts that he will create a better path for himself from this point forward. Although the story ends by noting that the pair never crossed paths again, the tone is hopeful that Mrs. Jones's trust changed Roger's life in a positive way.

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In Thank You, M'am by Langston Hughes, the reader becomes aware of the self-respect to which Mrs Luella Bates Washington Jones holds herself and everyone she comes into contact with. She sets her expectations high and can think of no reason to behave in an unseemly manner, even in desperate circumstances, making trust an important theme of this short story. Luella is both shocked by and sympathetic to Roger's plight, and she does not let anyone or anything get the better of her: "Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?" she asks Roger after stopping him from stealing her purse. 

Instead of judging Roger, she immediately accepts some form of responsibility for him and suggests he should do the same:

"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?"

The theme of self-respect continues throughout and is apparent from Luella's words and treatment of Roger and her understanding that, at first, he will run away at the first opportunity: "When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones." Luella is determined that Roger should learn from her, if from nobody else. 

Compassion and a realization that a person's future lies in their own hands is another important lesson that Roger must learn. Forgiveness is a theme and Luella can relate to Roger's circumstances: "I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know."

Roger's future lies in his own hands and Luella's real intentions become clear at the end. Luella knows that Roger represents so many young people who have no role models and she just hopes that she has had a sufficient impression on him: 

"Here, take this ten dollars and buy yourself some 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."

Luella hopes that she has given Roger some of his self-respect back to enable him to become a better person. 

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Langston Hughes' "Thank You, M'am" contains three main themes: love and trust, forgiveness, and dignity. After Roger tries to steal the purse of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, the weight of the purse causes Roger to fall down. Jones kicks Roger, picks him up, and drags him to her home. After leaving him alone in her home, Roger decides not to take the money from Jones' purse (which has been left open and unattended). After eating dinner, Jones gives Roger ten dollars to buy the shoes he wanted (the shoes being the reason he tried to steal her purse). 

The themes, therefore, are illustrated through Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones' ability to both love and forgive Roger, her desire to treat him with dignity (after taking him to her house), and her desire to prove him trustworthy. Roger realizes, as he leaves Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones' home, that she has loved him, trusted him, forgiven him, and treated him with dignity. 

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Langston Hughes' “Thank You, M'am” is a powerful little short story about a small kid, a large woman, and an important lesson.

In determining a theme to a work we need to consider more than just the plot. One mistake that students often make in stating a theme is to summarize the story or give an important event from the story. But a theme is something deeper than that--it is a statement about human life or about human nature that is exemplified in the work.

Think of it this way: if you could take the essence of a work, the central message that an artist wants to convey, you would have its theme.

With that in mind, think about what happens in “Thank You, M'am.” I'll summarize first, and then we will come up with an appropriate theme: A kid tries to steal a woman's pocketbook to get money to buy some blue suede shoes but gets caught. The woman drags the kid back to her apartment, but instead of being furious and vengeful, she shows the boy kindness. Then, as he leaves, she says,

“Now, here, take this ten dollars and buy yourself some 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.”

The last thing anyone expects is to see a thief rewarded. But it's the boy's reaction in the final lines that reveals the theme to us:

The boy wanted to say something else other than “Thank you, m’am” to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but he couldn’t do so as he turned at the barren stoop and looked back at the large woman in the door. He barely managed to say “Thank you” before she shut the door. And he never saw her again.

The boy, Roger, has been significantly affected by Mrs. Jones' surprising generosity. The fact that the wants to thank her tells us that in an understated way.

The theme is going to be something along the lines of, “Showing kindness instead of anger can change a person's outlook in a positive way.”

Of course, there is always more than one way to state a theme. Ten people might come up with ten different answers, but as long as they reflected the central message of the story, they could each be correct.  

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Author Langston Hughes explores several themes in his poignant short story, "Thank You, M'am." The ideas of trust, dignity and respect are foremost in the interactions between the protagonist, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones and her would-be purse snatcher, Roger. The conflict arises when Roger tries to steal Mrs. Jones' purse; the large woman cuffs him, however, and leads him to her apartment. Once inside, she treats him with the respect he has probably rarely encountered, offering him a place to clean himself and then a portion of her meager meal. She leaves her purse unprotected, showing that she trusts the boy despite his earlier transgression. In the end, the poor woman--who obviously can barely make ends meet--gives Roger $10 in order to buy the blue suede shoes he so desperately desires. She then shows him the door; the boy, obviously humbled and gratified by her kindness, manages to thank her as the door closes behind him. Mrs. Jones' actions are meant to instill trust and confidence in the boy who, like her, is in need of both material and spiritual guidance.

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