A Theme of Compassion in "Thank You, Ma'am" by Langston Hughes

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A Theme of Compassion in “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
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Langston Hughes's short story 'Thank you, Ma'am' masterfully conveys the theme that compassion holds the power to catalyze change. This theme finds poignant support in the actions of Ms. Jones and Roger's reactions to her kindness.

Throughout the narrative, Ms. Jones exemplifies compassion by choosing understanding over judgment when confronted by Roger's attempt to steal her purse. Instead of summoning the authorities, she takes him to her home, where she offers him the simple comforts of washing his face and sharing a meal. However, her most profound moment of compassion occurs when Roger confesses his motive for theft: "I was young and I wanted things I couldn't get." Despite her own evident financial struggles, she selflessly hands him a ten-dollar bill from her purse, allowing him to fulfill his desire for suede shoes, all while delivering a heartfelt admonition to behave.

Ms. Jones's acts of compassion underscore the story's central message that even in the face of adversity, extending empathy and understanding can spark transformative change. Roger's future remains uncertain, but this encounter with unwavering compassion has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on his path forward.

Did an elder ever call you because of your behavior when you were younger? Or did you make a mistake and someone gave you a second chance?

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‘Thank you, ma’am’ by Langston Hughes illustrates an encounter between Roger, a teenage boy, and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, an older woman walking home from work late one night. He attempts to steal her purse, but because it is so heavy, and Mrs. Jones is quite stout, he merely ends up breaking the strap instead. She kicks him and grabs him by the shirt, asking if he feels ashamed of himself. Roger admits yes. Mrs. Jones realizes that his face is dirty and his hair disheveled. She asks if anyone cares for him. If he answers ‘no’, she will bring him home with him and tell him that when he is done with him, he will never forget that he has met her. Afterwards, when Roger and Mrs. Jones arrive home, she asks him if he ate. She assumes that he must be hungry because he tried to steal his purse, but instead, he wanted his money to buy a pair of blue suede shoes. When Mrs. Jones tells Roger that he could have asked for the money, he does not believe it.

Mrs. Jones told Roger that he was young and could not afford what he wanted. She admits that she, like the teenager, does very embarrassing things. While eating, she refrains from embarrassing Roger by asking him nothing else about his life; Instead, he talks about her work in the beauty salon of a hotel where she meets women of all colors.

Living comfortably was something that neither Mrs. Jones or Roger were terribly familiar with. Since Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is significantly older than Roger, she has more life experience dealing with this unfortunate reality of living with what you have rather than what you need. She is full of compassion and has an idea of Roger’s circumstances when she meets him with his face is covered in dirt. She gets him to her house tells him to wash his face and then proceeds to feed him after he made her aware that there was nobody home at his house. Mrs. Jones herself was not one of money either, she was living in a boarding house with a bunch of other women. She was serving Roger canned milk, dollar cakes and food out of cans. What the meal was didn’t matter to Roger, he was just happy to be getting something to eat. Mrs. Jones saw the look on his face while he was eating and chose not to pressure him to explain his life story to her. This choice showed how she could respect each individual which helped develop the trust between the characters. As time passes, Roger learns to respect Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones just as she does for him, and is grateful for what she has done for him.

At the end of the story, Mrs. Jones gives ten dollars to Roger to buy blue suede shoes and tells him not to steal her purse or any other, because the shoes bought with stolen money pose more problems that aren’t worth it. When she takes him to the door and wishes him a good night, Roger wants to say more than ‘thank you ma’am’, but he does not think of anything that suits him. When he turns to Mrs. Jones at the door, he can barely get the words ‘thank you’ from his mouth before closing the door. Roger will never see her again.

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The central theme of Langston Hughes’s short story ‘Thank you, Ma’am’ is that you have to be compassionate because compassion can bring change. Hughes supports his theme through Ms. Jones’ actions and Roger’s reactions to her treatment. In the story, Ms. Jones shows compassion when Roger tries to steal her purse instead of calling the police then she drags him to her house and, lets him wash his face and eat dinner with her. One of her most insightful and compassionate moments is when he makes the following confession to Roger after stating that he tried to steal his bag so he could buy the suede shoes he wanted: ‘I was young and I wanted things I couldn’t get “. Her greatest and most merciful moment is when she gives him the ten-dollar bill from her purse so that he can buy his shoes and ask him to behave. She does all of these things even though she is evidently very poor, showing us how much she is willing to sacrifice just to show compassion to one equally in need. We will never know how Roger’s life will unfold after this incident.

Works Cited

  1. Hughes, L. (1964). Thank You, Ma'am. In Langston Hughes: The Short Stories. Hill and Wang.
  2. Smith, C. J. (1997). The Short Stories of Langston Hughes: A Study Guide. Hall.
  3. Hornback, R. (1995). A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group.
  4. Rampersad, A. (1986). The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. Oxford University Press.
  5. Rampersad, A. (2002). The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage.
  6. Baraka, A. (2009). The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Basic Books.
  7. O'Meally, R. G. (2001). Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. Da Capo Press.
  8. Williams, R. (1991). Black Women in the Fiction of Langston Hughes. University Press of Mississippi.
  9. Bontemps, A., & Hughes, L. (2016). Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters: 1925-1967. University of Missouri Press.
  10. Berry, F. (2017). The Short Fiction of Langston Hughes. Hill and Wang.
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A Theme of Compassion in “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes. (2021, Jun 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2023, from
“A Theme of Compassion in “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes.” GradesFixer, 29 Jun. 2021,
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