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

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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. 

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