What is the setting of "Thank You, M'am"?

Quick answer:

"Thank You, M'am" is set in the 1950s in an unnamed town or city, in the street and then in Mrs. Jones's apartment.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nowhere in this short story does Langston Hughes provide us with specific information about the time in which these events play out, or where they play out.

If you read between the lines, however, we are given a few clues. The fact that the woman was walking alone, late at night, with her handbag, tells us that she was in an urban area. Adding to this is the fact that the boy fell onto a sidewalk—this was no country lane.

Later, the woman tells Roger that she works in a hotel beauty shop, which also implies that she lives in a big city.

In terms of the timing of this story, the fact that Roger wanted a pair of blue suede shoes indicates that the story is set soon after Elvis Presley released the smash-hit song by the same name in 1956.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Although no definite time or place is stated in the story “Thank you, M’am” by Langston Hughes, there are a few context clues in the story for us to make an educated guess. First of all, Mrs. Jones lives in a boarding house or apartment building with other people. Her apartment is small and suggests that it is a one room flat because the bedroom and kitchen are in the same room. The description of her apartment indicates that the story takes place in a city or urban area. In addition, we can conclude that the story takes place sometime in the 1950’s because of Roger’s desire for a pair of blue suede shoes. The song “Blue Suede Shoes," popularized by Elvis Presley, but written by Carl Perkins in 1955, shows that Roger wants to be stylish and fashionable. 

Because we know that Langston Hughes lived and wrote the majority of his works in Harlem in New York City, we can also probably make the assumption that Harlem, a predominately black community, is the physical setting of the story.

Further Reading

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Thank You, M'am" was first published in 1958 and appears to be set in the present or recent past. Roger wants a pair of blue suede shoes, which were fashionable in the 1950s and were even the subject of a well-known rock song that was released in 1955 and covered by such artists as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in subsequent years.

The story takes place first in the street, and then inside the home of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. Mrs. Jones lives in "a large kitchenette-furnished room" at the back of a shared house. This strongly suggests that the story is set in a town or a big city. Although Mrs. Jones is far from wealthy, her apartment within the house is respectable and decently furnished. There is no separate kitchen, but she takes care to screen the kitchen area off from the rest of the room.

There is a sense in which the relative precision in chronological terms fulfills a similar function to the vagueness with regard to location. The story is intended to be universal, with readers able to imagine themselves in the position of one of the characters. This effect is heightened when the reader sees the story as contemporary but would be diminished by the author giving too precise an idea of location, such as a faraway city the reader has never visited.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

While Langston Hughes does not give a specific location or date of where and when the story is set, there are several significant context clues that allow the audience to make an educated guess at the setting. The fact that Mrs. Jones is walking home at eleven o'clock at night and that Roger falls on the sidewalk suggests that the story is set in an urban neighborhood. Given the sidewalk and pedestrian presence, the reader can determine that the story is taking place in a highly occupied urban area.

After Mrs. Jones drags Roger home, she proceeds to feed him a home-cooked meal and tells him about her job at a hotel beauty shop. Mrs. Jones also elaborates on her customers, which range from blonde white women to Spanish clients. These two context clues support the theory that the story takes place in a city. Since Langston Hughes lived and wrote the majority of his works in Harlem, one can assume that "Thank You, Ma'am" is set in New York City.

In regard to the time period, there are several clues that indicate the story is set in the mid- to late 1950s. Mrs. Jones owns an "icebox," which is a non-mechanical refrigerator, and Roger mentions that he wants to buy a pair of blue suede shoes. Carl Perkins recorded and released the popular song "Blue Suede Shoes" in 1956, which was popularized by Elvis Presley and became an instant hit. Roger’s desire to own a pair of blue suede shoes more than likely stems from the popularity of the song. It is also significant that Langston Hughes wrote the story in 1958 and intended it for a contemporary audience. Overall, one could surmise that Langston Hughes's short story "Thank You, Ma'am" is set in New York City during the mid- to late 1950s.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Thank you M'am" is set in a city late at night, around eleven o'clock. It begins on a city street (sidewalk) where a young man tries to snatch a woman's purse. The street is largely deserted, although a few passersby stop to watch. It isn't the sort of neighborhood where they might get involved or call the cops, so we may assume it's a poorer neighborhood. Also, Mrs. Jones's home is an apartment in building she shares with several other "roomers," many of whom keep their doors open even this late, laughing and talking. The environment is not well-to-do, but it is friendly and neighborly. The time is probably present day for Langston Hughes--around 1958, when the story was published. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"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.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the setting important in "Thank You, M’am"?

We learn that the story takes place at "eleven o'clock at night" in only the third sentence of the story: a good indicator of its importance. The narrator tells us that Roger "looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen" years of age. Eleven at night is pretty late for such a young person to be out on the street, and this, perhaps, is one factor that prompts Mrs. Jones to ask Roger if he has anybody at "home to tell [him] to wash [his] face?" If there were someone at home taking care of Roger, it seems likely that this person would also have prevented him from roaming the streets so late and engaging in criminal activities like stealing ladies' purses. It is likely, at least in part, for this reason that Mrs. Jones not only takes Roger to her home, but also feeds him and gives him the money he wanted in the first place in order to buy his desired blue suede shoes. The setting is important because it actually helps to influence and even drive the action. Roger may have expected a single woman walking through the city alone at night to be an easy target, and he certainly learns his lesson from Mrs. Jones.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the setting important in "Thank You, M’am"?

The setting of the story adds to the characterization of both Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones and her would-be purse-snatcher, Roger.

Mrs. Jones and Roger meet on an urban street at eleven o'clock at night when he attempts to take her purse. Other people stand around and watch but do not intervene when she knocks him down and then drags him down the sidewalk to her room in a boarding house.

The time of night that both are out is important. Mrs. Jones has been working late and is on her way home to eat dinner and rest. Roger's parents are not at home to look after him. It seems that neither Roger nor Mrs. Jones has much money or anyone looking after them. The simplicity of the meal that they share in her modest room—lima beans, ham, cocoa made with canned milk, and a shared ten-cent cake—suggests that though Mrs. Jones has little, she is a caring and compassionate person who has the courage to reach out to someone in whom she sees shared need.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on