Thank You Ma'am Theme

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

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.