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Thank You Mam By Langston Hughes Essay

Deconstruction of Thank You, Ma’am

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Deconstruction of Thank You, Ma’am


There are a million acts of kindness each day.  Some young man gives a stranger a compliment, or a teacher brightens a students morning.  But, in the world we live in today, these acts are rare to come by.  In this short story Thank You, Ma’am, the boy, out of mysterious luck, gets taken in by the woman whom he was trying to steal a purse from.  Her actions, following the incident towards the boy, may have seemed very kind and understanding, but the boy needs a more solid way of punishment.  He requires discipline that will show him that as complicated as life is, there will not always be someone for you to lean and depend on.
    The first and most foremost thing that would come to mind when reading this story is how caring Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones was, that she took in the boy and nurtured him; she tried to teach him between right and wrong.  She gave him food, a nice conversation, and even a chance of escape, which he chose not to take, but these methods are still an immoral way of handling the situation.  If a boy were to come up to an everyday woman on the streets, that victim would not be as sensitive as Mrs. Jones was to the boy she caught.  To teach a young man that if you steal and you are going to get special treatment is not an effective method of punishment.
    First of all, the boy told Mrs. Jones that he tried to steal her purse for one reason, to buy blue suede shoes for himself.  She then replies, “Well you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some blue suede shoes... You could have just asked me.”  There are many faulty choices of judgments made in this comment, mainly because the outcome of the situation would almost never happen in the real world.  The boy will now, after being told he should just ask for the shoes, believe that anything he ever wants will come to his possession if would just ask.  To “trick” a child into being convinced that if you just ask a woman for money or anything that she will give it to you is morally wrong, and it is not fair for the boy to go through life having and accepting this state of mind.

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    Secondly, Mrs. Jones allows the boy into her house and from there a train of events happened that augmented the boys judgment more.  She told him that, “...I were young once and I wanted things I could not get... You thought I was going to say, ‘but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks.’ Well I wasn’t going to say that.” In stating this Mrs. Jones herself has shown weakness in her lifestyle.  The boy may now believe that since she had been not as perfect as a child, he might turn out fine just as Mrs. Jones had.  She has now opened a door for the boy, in showing him through another statement that intended that it was still wrong to make an attempt to steal someone’s pocketbook, but you could still get away with the crime.

    From the events in the story, the most obvious and penetrating theme would be that Mrs. Jones taught the boy a valuable lesson by taking him in and pampering him.  But, by using the methods of deconstruction and digging deeply into the true theme of the short story, you will find a recessive theme, secondary to the obvious.  In “Thank You, Ma’am,” the apparent theme is not as it seems, and the true meaning is shown, that as complicated as life is, there is not always someone for one to depend on.  Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones may have seemed like a strong role model for the boy, but truly set a poor example for the boy by convincing him, not knowingly, but in her sub-conscious, that it is admirable to steal and beg for things that you do not have and want.  A very important lesson could be taught within either theme, and in the end it is a fight between two old enemies, good and evil.



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.

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