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