At a Glance
- Hughes wrote "Thank You, M'am" in dialect, using colloquialisms and idioms common at that time. This use of dialect makes the dialogue between the characters more natural, which in turn draws the reader deeper into the story.
- In the course of the story, the blue suede shoes Roger wants to buy become a symbol of his desire for a better life. He lives in what appears to be a lower-middle class neighborhood, and the fact that he tries to steal from Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones suggests that he would not be able to afford the shoes otherwise. For him, the shoes aren't just a symbol: they're something that would otherwise be out of reach.
- Two important themes in the story are shame and forgiveness. Roger first feels shame when he's reprimanded for trying to steal, but he's later shown forgiveness by Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, who teaches him an important lesson about dignity and respect.
Hughes set "Thank You, M'am" in what seems to be a rough, lower-middle class neighborhood in an unnamed city. It's unclear what month or day of the week it is, but the narrator does mention that it's eleven o'clock at night and that Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is walking home alone, turning the corner when Roger tries to snatch her pocketbook. She then drags Roger to her house, which is a large house broken into many small apartments, like a tenement house. Her apartment is very small, and she's forced to cook on a hot plate because she doesn't have a full kitchen. This clearly indicates to the reader that she and Roger live in a poor (most likely African American) neighborhood.
Dialogue and Dialect
"Thank You, M'am" was written in dialect. Hughes used idioms, colloquialisms, and natural dialogue to draw the reader into the story and depict life in a poor black neighborhood. His narrator opens the story with a play on the idiom "everything but the kitchen sink," describing Mrs. Jones's large bag as having "everything in it but hammer and nails." Hughes's main characters also speak in dialect. They use contractions like "yes'm" and "ain't" and speak in rhythms common to black urban communities. Mrs. Jones does, however, put great stock in manners. Being "presentable" is very important to her, and Hughes makes that clear through her choice of words.
Most of the conflict in this story is interpersonal, meaning that it takes place between characters. At the beginning of the story, the central conflict is the one between the would-be thief (Roger) and his surprisingly formidable victim (Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones), who quickly gets the better of him. This conflict plays out physically, with Roger attempting to grab her purse and getting a kick in the pants for it. There are also underlying generational and economic conflicts at play here, as Roger (the teenage miscreant) attempts to prey on the older Mrs. Jones (a woman who, though not wealthy, has a steady job and therefore has readier access to money).
As the story progresses, however, the conflict becomes less about theft or money than about the two main characters' vastly different worldviews. When Mrs. Jones first drags Roger into her apartment, he's confused because he doesn't understand her intentions. It takes the rest of the story for Roger to realize that she's teaching him manners and dignity. She tells him to wash his face and to behave himself. These are important lessons to Roger, who has previously stated that there's no one at his house to either feed or care for him. Thanks to Mrs. Jones's kindness, the conflict between them dissipates, and Roger is left to ruminate on what she has taught him.
Roger's pair of blue suede shoes is the most potent symbol in "Thank You, M'am." In the context of the story, they symbolize money, desire, and the dream of a better life. For Roger, they symbolize a kind of luxury that he wouldn't be able to afford otherwise, and thus the shoes come to represent the unattainable. It's important to note, however,...
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