"Thank You M'am" by Langston Hughes is a heart-warming story, sending a message that it is wrong to judge people purely on their actions. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is revealed to be a proud woman but one with no illusions about her circumstances or her responsibilities.
The setting in any literary work creates an atmosphere and a tone and therefore, to be sure that readers understand the subtleties of the text, the setting creates the context within which to understand and interpret it. In this short story, the reader begins to get an idea of the setting right from the beginning.
It is a tough neighborhood as evident from the manner in which Ms. Jones is able to respond immediately to the boy's attempts to steal her purse and the fact that she is not at all surprised. She "simply turned around and kicked him right square..." It is 11 o'clock at night, also important to note when discussing the setting. Upon reaching Ms. Jones's home, the physical setting in which she lives indicates her living conditions. She lives in a house shared by several people, "roomers," revealing her modest accommodations and Hughes ensures that the reader appreciates the sacrifice she is making by sharing her space, her food, her "ten-cent cake" and ultimately her money with Roger.
There is a cultural element to the setting of this story as Ms. Jones understands Roger's predicament, admitting that "I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son..." She is aware that his appearance suggests that he probably hasn't eaten or received the attention a young boy needs to avoid delinquency and responds to that. Despite the circumstances of their meeting, she makes sure not to ask too many questions, not wanting to "embarrass him." She is humble and aware that she may or may not make a difference to Roger. She can only hope that he behaves himself.
This excellent short story occurs in a poor urban neighbourhood in the centre of a city that remains nameless. Note the way in which Roger falls on the sidewalk when he tries to steal the bag of Mrs. Jones, and then his dragged to her apartment. The poverty in which Mrs. Jones herself lives in is made clear through the physical description of her apartment:
When she got to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall, and into a large kitchenette-furnished room at the rear of the house. She switched on the light and left the door open. The boy could hear other roomers laughing and talking in the large house. Some of their doors were open, too, so he knew he and the woman were not alone.
The fact that Mrs. Jones lives in one room alone, where she has her kitchen and bed, and probably shares a bathroom with other residents, indicates the poor urban setting of the story, and also helps us to understand the connection that Mrs. Jones forges with Roger and her empathy of his situation.