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, that Roger doesn't actually buy the shoes in this story. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones gives him the ten dollars he needs to buy the shoes, but at the end of the story, she lets him make his own decision as to what to do with the money.
Hughes frequently uses alliteration to emphasize the story's natural rhythm and dialect. Most often, this alliteration is centered on Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones's pocketbook, as in the lines, "Pick up my pocketbook, boy" and "...but I didn't snatch people's pocketbooks." This refocuses the reader's attention on the pocketbook itself, reminding them of Roger's crime.
Perhaps the most important example of repetition in this story is the sentence, "He could run, run, run, run, run!" Certainly, this is the most dramatic example, with its swift pace urging Roger to flee as fast as he can. However, there are several other examples of repetition, including that of the word "trust" in the sentence, "He did not trust the woman not to trust him." In this example, the repetition adds a layer of meaning rather than emphasis, indicating that young Roger wants Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones to distrust him, because that would make more sense to him given the attempted robbery.
Use the classic short story, “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes to teach your students the elements of literary analysis. This one-day lesson plan includes detailed instructions, a 6-question deep-thinking exercise (with detailed answer key, of course), and an optional writing activity that shows students step-by-step how to build a powerful introductory paragraph to any literary analysis essay.
This lesson is best for advanced middle school or high school students.
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Please note: This lesson is included in my budget-friendly four-week short story unit. Please don't purchase this item individually if you've already purchased the short story bundle.
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