Langston Hughs’s short story “Thank You Ma’m” has strong literary elements of setting, plot and theme, but what drives the story’s meaning is character.
The literary element of character involves how the people in a story are developed. In this short story, the theme is mostly strongly conveyed through the interaction between two strong characters: Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones and Roger. Through their interaction we develop the theme that we are defined not by our challenges, but how we react to them.
Mrs. Bates is a very strong woman. When Roger tries to rob her, she reacts by capturing him and taking him back to her apartment to feed him.
"But you put yourself in contact with me," said the woman. "If you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another thought coming.”
Mrs. Bates is a remarkable character. She reacts in completely the opposite manner than we would expect. She might be expected to have Roger arrested, or scream and let him have the purse. She does neither. She invites him into her home, has him wash his face, and shares her story.
She tells Roger she was “young once” and wanted things she “could not get." He is so surprised he does not know how to react.
There was another long pause. The boy’s mouth opened. Then he frowned, but not knowing he frowned.
She surprises him by not telling him she never stole. She implies that she might have done worse things. In sharing this, she develops from just a fascinating woman to a character of remarkable depth.
Roger too is a developed character. He reacts just as unexpectedly to her as she does to him. He wants her to let him go, but he actually struggles very little. He goes into her apartment and washes his face. He treats her respectfully. He makes sure to sit where she can see him.
He did not trust the woman not to trust him. And he did not want to be mistrusted now.
Roger amazingly responds well to Mrs. Bates’s motherly care. He is not a bad kid, he just made a mistake. When she gives him the money for the shoes he robbed her to buy, he is stunned. But he takes the money, because to not do so would be ungrateful.