By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Thank You, Ma’am’ is a 1958 short story by the African-American poet, novelist, and short-story writer Langston Hughes (1901-67). In the story, a teenage boy attempts to steal a woman’s purse, but she catches him and takes him back to her home, showing him some kindness and attempting to teach him right from wrong.
You can read ‘Thank You, Ma’am’ in full here (the story takes around five minutes to read). Below, we offer a summary of the story’s plot, and a few words of criticism and analysis.
‘Thank You, Ma’am’: plot summary
The story begins by introducing a ‘large woman’ who carries a ‘large purse’ slung over her shoulder. Late one night, she is walking alone when a boy tries to steal her purse, but because it is so heavy, he ends up falling backwards. She kicks him in the backside before shaking him vigorously and ordering him to retrieve her purse from the ground. She then asks him if he is ashamed of himself for trying to rob her.
The boy, who is dressed in tennis shoes and blue jeans, is around fourteen or fifteen years old and clearly intimidated by the large, imposing older woman. She comments on how dirty his face is and it emerges that the boy is not taken care of at home, so the woman takes him back to her home to wash his face.
The boy just wants her to let him go, but she reminds him that he was the one who imposed himself upon her when she was minding her business. She reveals that her name is Mrs Luella Bates Washington Jones. She comments that if the boy were her son, she would teach him right from wrong.
Once she has the boy inside the house she shares with other people, she asks his name, which he reveals to be Roger. She takes him into the kitchenette and finally lets go of him, ordering him to go to the sink and wash his face. Although Roger initially considers making a run for it, he does as he is bid and goes to the sink.
As the two of them talk, Mrs Jones learns that Roger attempted to steal her pocketbook because he wants money to buy some blue suede shoes. She tells him he could’ve just asked her for the money: a response which confuses Roger. Again, he thinks of running for it, afraid that she will take him to jail, but instead, when she offers to cook him something to eat, he sits down and behaves himself.
Indeed, he even resists the temptation to steal her purse, which she leaves on the table close to him while she goes behind the screen to prepare the food. He offers to go to the shop to get food for her if she needs it, and when she asks if he wants to get some sweet milk for the cocoa she’s preparing, he says that canned milk will be fine.
As they eat, she tells him about her job in a hotel beauty-shop, and offers him some cake. Then she gives Roger ten dollars and tells him to buy himself the blue suede shoes he wants, but not to try to steal from her or anybody else again, because shoes bought from ill-gotten gains would ‘burn your feet’.
As Roger leaves, he wants to thank her more fulsomely than simply saying ‘Thank you, ma’am’, but finds he is unable to. The third-person narrator of the story tells us that he never saw her again.
‘Thank You, Ma’am’: analysis
In this very short story, Langston Hughes suggests that all teenagers who have fallen into a life of petty crime need is someone to put them back on the straight and narrow, and Mrs Luella Jones is the person who does this for Roger in ‘Thank You, Ma’am’. The story presents the details of the narrative in generally direct terms, with Langston Hughes’ third-person narrator rarely passing comment or providing extra detail which can help to fill in the gaps to the two central characters’ lives.
This means that the story contains some tantalising lacunae, or missing details. Although ‘Mrs’ Luella Bates Washington Jones must have got married at some point, there is no sign of her husband in the story, and she appears to live in a rented room in a larger house which she shares with other people. Is she divorced? Did her husband die? Or is he in jail, and this explains why she takes such an interest in helping Roger set his life back on the right track: she doesn’t want him to go the same way?
Similarly, she appears not to have any children of her own, although at one point, she tells Roger that he ‘ought to be’ her son because she could give him the moral compass he so badly needs. Is this the yearning of a childless woman who tried to have a son or daughter of her own but never managed to conceive?
Meanwhile, other women are able to have children but are either unable or unwilling to be proper mothers to them (she clearly isn’t impressed with the indifference, or absence, of Roger’s parents: he tells her that nobody is at home even though it is late at night by this stage).
The end of ‘Thank You, Ma’am’ also leaves things open to our interpretation and analysis. Roger is seemingly overwhelmed by the woman’s kindness and clemency: he feared she was going to turn him over to the police, but instead she gave him the money to buy the shoes he wants (curiously, Elvis Presley’s hit song ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ had been released just two years before Langston Hughes published his story). This is presumably why he is unable to say more than ‘thank you, ma’am’ to his benefactress as he leaves her home.
At the same time, the narrator tells us that he never saw her again after this chance encounter one night. This leads us to speculate: would Roger listen to her advice and learn from what had happened? Would he, from now on, decide against stealing things because she had been kind to him and he had had a narrow brush with justice?
Of course, we can only speculate on this issue. On the one hand, Mrs Jones provides Roger with both understanding and guidance: she tells him that she had done some things which she is so ashamed of she would never tell him about them, implying that she has been in a similar position in her own life before, but now leads a moral, honest life. Although Hughes never specifies the ethnicities of the two characters, given Hughes’ depictions of African-American life in Harlem, many readers will probably picture them both as black, so this arguably brings the two of them together.
But on the other hand, Mrs Jones will disappear from Roger’s life after this night. His chaotic home life will not. Whilst ‘Thank You, Ma’am’ shows how kindness and understanding may help a youth who has fallen into bad ways recover his moral honesty and integrity, the ending of the story remains ambiguous concerning the long-term fate of its adolescent protagonist.