Why do you think Roger can’t say “thank you” to Mrs. Jones as he is leaving

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mnietfeld eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Thank You, M'am," by Langston Hughes, follows the story of a young boy named Roger who attempts to steal a purse from a woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.  The first paragraph explains their encounter:

"She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance so, instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. the large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled."

Here readers are introduced to Mrs. Jones's great strength. She was not about to let a young boy take her purse without a fight. Instead, she invites him into her home and talks to him about life. She instructs him to wash his face, with warm water and a clean towel, and offers him food. She assumes he must be hungry if he is trying to steal from people. Instead, he tells her his real purpose: he wanted to buy blue suede shoes, a mark of fashion in his time period. Rather than reprimanding him or threatening him, she tells him he could have asked:

"'Well, you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some suede shoes,' said Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. 'You could of asked me.'"

Roger is surprised by her calm and gracious response. How often does someone try to steal from someone and then get treated kindly? He wasn't expecting her hospitality or kindness. In fact, he asks her if she is going to take him to jail, which is probably what he believes he deserves for his crime. 

At the end of the story, we see that Roger struggles to say thank you to Mrs. Jones for her kindness:

"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."

It's likely that he didn't feel that the words thank you were enough; it was too simple a response to such extraordinary kindness. Or, perhaps he was still in shock. Maybe he truly could not understand her behavior and was trying to make sense of what had happened. Whatever the case, he isn't able to find the right words as he says goodbye to this mysterious woman who showed him such unbelievable grace and kindness after he tried to steal from her.