Posted by: jockmackenzie | December 6, 2009

Short Story – Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes

Blue suede shoes

 AN AUDIO VERSION IS AVAILABLE AT THIS SITE: THINKING THROUGH LITERATURE AND CULTURE – http://tlc.cet.ac.il/ShowItem.aspx?ItemID=bda23ae0-3d15-40c3-a2aa-8f6b99c7a9b5&lang=EN 

Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes

She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance so, instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. The large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.

After that the woman said, “Pick up my pocketbook, boy, and give it here.” She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, “Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, “Yes’m.”

The woman said, “What did you want to do it for?”

The boy said, “I didn’t aim to.”

She said, “You a lie!”

By that time two or three people passed, stopped, turned to look, and some stood watching.

“If I turn you loose, will you run?” asked the woman.

“Yes’m,” said the boy.

“Then I won’t turn you loose,” said the woman. She did not release him.

“I’m very sorry, lady, I’m sorry,” whispered the boy.

“Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”

“No’m,” said the boy.

“Then it will get washed this evening,” said the large woman starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.

He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.

The woman said, “You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?”

“No’m,” said the being dragged boy. “I just want you to turn me loose.”

“Was I bothering you when I turned that corner?” asked the woman.

“No’m.”

“But you put yourself in contact with me,” said the woman. “If you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another though coming. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.”

Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle. Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half-nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street. 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 woman still had him by the neck in the middle of her room.

She said, “What is your name?”

“Roger,” answered the boy.

“Then, Roger, you go to that sink and wash your face,” said the woman, whereupon she turned him loose–at last. Roger looked at the door—looked at the woman—looked at the door—and went to the sink.

Let the water run until it gets warm,” she said. “Here’s a clean towel.”

“You gonna take me to jail?” asked the boy, bending over the sink.

“Not with that face, I would not take you nowhere,” said the woman. “Here I am trying to get home to cook me a bite to eat and you snatch my pocketbook! Maybe you ain’t been to your supper either, late as it be. Have you?”

“There’s nobody home at my house,” said the boy.

“Then we’ll eat,” said the woman, “I believe you’re hungry—or been hungry—to try to snatch my pocketbook.”

“I wanted a pair of blue suede shoes,” said the boy.

“Well, you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some suede shoes,” said Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. “You could of asked me.”

“M’am?”

The water dripping from his face, the boy looked at her. There was a long pause. A very long pause. After he had dried his face and not knowing what else to do dried it again, the boy turned around, wondering what next. The door was open. He could make a dash for it down the hall. He could run, run, run, run, run!

The woman was sitting on the day bed. After a while she said, “I were young once and I wanted things I could not get.”

There was another long pause. The boy’s mouth opened. Then he frowned, but not knowing he frowned.

The woman said, “Um-hum! You thought I was going to say but, didn’t you? You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that.” Pause. Silence. “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. So you set down while I fix us something to eat. You might run that comb through your hair so you will look presentable.”

icebox

In another corner of the room behind a screen was a gas plate and an icebox. Mrs. Jones got up and went behind the screen. The woman did not watch the boy to see if he was going to run now, nor did she watch her purse which she left behind her on the day bed. But the boy took care to sit on the far side of the room where he thought she could easily see him out of the corner other eye, if she wanted to. He did not trust the woman not to trust him. And he did not want to be mistrusted now.

“Do you need somebody to go to the store,” asked the boy, “maybe to get some milk or something?”

“Don’t believe I do,” said the woman, “unless you just want sweet milk yourself. I was going to make cocoa out of this canned milk I got here.”

“That will be fine,” said the boy.

She heated some lima beans and ham she had in the icebox, made the cocoa, and set the table. The woman did not ask the boy anything about where he lived, or his folks, or anything else that would embarrass him. Instead, as they ate, she told him about her job in a hotel beauty shop that stayed open late, what the work was like, and how all kinds of women came in and out, blondes, red-heads, and Spanish. Then she cut him a half of her ten-cent cake.

“Eat some more, son,” she said.

When they were finished eating she got up and said, “Now, here, take this ten dollars and buy yourself some blue suede shoes. And next time, do not make the mistake of latching onto my pocketbook nor nobody else’s—because shoes got by devilish ways will burn your feet. I got to get my rest now. But I wish you would behave yourself, son, from here on in.”

She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it. “Goodnight! Behave yourself, boy!” she said, looking out into the street.

The boy wanted to say something else other than, “Thank you, ma’am” to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but although his lips moved, he couldn’t even say that as he turned at the foot of the barren stoop and looked back at the large woman in the door. Then she shut the door.

(Thanks to americanliterature.com for the large part of this text. This blogger corrected a number of errors and made minor changes to maintain consistency with the version with which I am familiar – the story found in “Sightlines 8,” Prentice Hall. Thanks for the blue suede shoes picture to emlibrary.com (The Embroidery Library) and for the icebox picture to the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History.

The plot of “Thank You, Ma’am” doesn’t lend itself to the typical 3I – RACER plot structure, but I have tried to make this square peg fit a round hole. It may be a good lesson for students to see that it’s difficult to pigeonhole every story into a convenient structure, to see that there are different kinds of stories capable of creating interest and suspense in different ways.

My normal emphasis with this story is to discuss the adult-youth relationship and compare/contrast it to the relationships common to that familiar to my students. I also enjoy a quick consideration of the things that show this story took place in the “past.”


I. Introduction:

A. Setting:
1. Time:
Past  X
Present Future
2. Specific time: evening –  “about eleven o’clock at night”
3. Place: on a street and then in a rooming house
4. Mood (Atmosphere): tense, suspenseful
B. Characters:

Name Physical Description Character Traits

Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones large woman with a large purse
tough, kind

Roger dirty face, “fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.”
daring, meek (daring to try to snatch the purse but quite meek afterward), lied at the beginning, appreciative at the end
C. Antecedent Action: - none given

II. Initial Incident:

A. Type(s) of conflict: Man versus Man
B. Problem (in question form): What will Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones do to the boy who tried to snatch her purse?
C. 1st event that shows the problem: “a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse.”

III. Rising Action:

- the first event which began after the Initial Incident and that makes us wonder about the answer to the problem.G = Good B = Bad
G – purse strap breaks and the boy falls down G – the large woman picks the boy up and gives him a shake

G – the woman takes the boy home

G – the woman lets the boy wash up

B – the boy wonders if he will be sent to jail

G – the woman says she won’t take him to jail but fixes him supper instead

B – the boy thinks about making a run for it

G – the boy stays and listens to Mrs. Jones confess to doing things wrong herself

G – Mrs. Jones shows trust in Roger

G – Mrs. Jones doesn’t ask any embarrassing questions

G – Mrs. Jones tells Roger about her job, then cuts him some cake

G – Mrs. Jones gives him ten dollars to buy blue suede shoes

IV. Climax

Mrs. Jones lets him go and tells him to behave himself OR see the comments below for another opinion

V. Epilogue/Resolution

Roger wants to say something more than “Thank you, ma’am” but can’t even do that. He looks up at Mrs. Jones who shuts the door.
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Responses

  1. I think this is the BEST information to help somebody with a project like it helped me!

    • Glad my blog was of help. Comments are rare (over 25,000 visits and less than 2 dozen comments) so thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • At school i have to do questions and support the answer but the only questions i got were why didn’t the boy run away when he had a chance and that why didnt he say thank you to the lady does anyone have any other questions on this because
        Im out of ideas and the questions need an answer on it too

  2. Thanks for posting this blog. It was extrememly helpful to me as a new teacher.

  3. I disagree with your climax: the turning point of the story is when Roger looks at the sink, the door, the sink and stays (he has changed) and at that moment the story has turned, the falling action is Jones sharing her life accounts with Roger, leaving him with $20 for shoes and advice; the resolution is him turning to say but never stating Thank you.

  4. Thanks for posting this story. It’s one of my favorites. But I have to agree with Lesa. The turning point occurs when Roger looks at the sink and decides to stay.

    I love the line from Mrs. Jones:
    “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if he didn’t already know. ”

    It tells us so much about her, and what she saw in Roger.

  5. I have a question Im in china how could u make a conclousion of this story?

    • Hi Josh,

      I am not sure I understand what you mean. Please explain with a bit more detail. Thank you.

  6. i think that this was a terific story what kind of things did Mrs.Jones do.

  7. What is the theme of the story? It’s what I was looking for and you didn’t mention it.

    • A theme for me is usually one word. Others have commented on “Thank You, Ma’am” and suggested my climax is incorrect. I tend to agree with them. I would hate to start suggesting I know all the answers so haven’t given a theme. BUT, since you ask, there are several possibilities: Justice, Appearances, Wisdom, and Growth to name a few. If someone has asked you to find the theme of this story, I imagine they want you to offer an underlying idea for the story and probably to support it with some examples or proof. We often assume there is a difference between “the law” and “justice.” Do you see that as the main thought of the story? Or do you think “appearances” is a more obvious theme? Is Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones what she appears to be? Is Roger? Do we learn that appearances can be deceiving? Or is the theme wisdom? Could you make a case to support that idea? Or growth? Does Roger grow as a person because he is treated with respect and kindness (two more possible themes). For theme there are many possibilities. Some will be clearly wrong, but several could be seen as correct.

      • I have to disagree on your definition of “theme.” The single-word concepts you suggest as themes are more accurately described as topics or issues. A theme is a generalization or universal statement that provides insight into life or human nature.

      • Hmmmm. Interesting comment. I am intrigued and always looking for a way to make a concept clear for students. When I was teaching, I found it difficult to get a solid grasp of “theme” so settled for my one-word (or two or three e.g. circle of life, change vs order) description. So what would you say are some themes in well-known stories: Call of the Wild, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sniper?

    • thank you ma’am

    • I, too, teach theme as “an insight about life or being human”. I approach the one-word idea as the topic, and then ask the students what the author is trying to share with us about that topic. For example, to take your idea about one main idea dealt with in Thank You Ma’am as being ‘justice’, I would look to evidence from the story (as you already suggested) to decide what I think the author’s insight on the topic is.

      Best places to look? The title, how the main character changes, the main character’s choice in his/her dilemma, the outcome of the story, and perhaps symbols.

      For this story, I think you you could argue that we come to understand that Roger has not been given a just/fair chance at life and that Mrs. L.B., in her wisdom, understands that kindness will provide a better outcome in this situation that punishment. I guess I would actually then shift my focus from ‘justice’ as a key world to ‘punishment’ and then say the theme is something like “Sometimes kindness is a wiser response to a crime than punishment”.

      Theme is a hard thing to teach, I think, even though every reader actually usually knows what the story means to them.. I usually have the students generated topic words and them come up with generalizations on the topic that reflect the story but go beyond it, using evidence (look in places I suggested” from story.
      Hope this is useful.

      • Great response – and specific suggestions. THANK YOU! I am encouraged (even though I’m retired) to check with teachers in town and ask them about ‘theme.” More to come . . .

  8. very helpful

    • Thanks! Even a two-word comment is far more than this blog usually receives. Good on ya!

    • helpfull

  9. wow
    needs vocab

  10. This is very helpful. But I still don’t get why he didn’t say thank you?

    • I’m glad you found it helpful. The last paragraph states, “The boy wanted to say something other than, “Thank you, ma’am,” to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but although his lips moved, he couldn’t even say that as he turned at the foot of the barren stoop and looked up at the large woman in the door. Then she shut the door.” He may not have said thank you because Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones closed the door too quickly and he didn’t have time. The author may have chosen not to allow him to say anything because the point had been made. The boy had been treated in a most unexpected way and words are sometimes difficult to express one’s feelings. On the other hand, words are sometimes too easy – but the proof would be in the change of the boy’s ways that would say thank you in a more definitive way. Perhaps even a third reason is Langston Hughes wants his readers to create their own ending, and, if he had made the boy say thank you, it would make too tidy a package and not leave with something to think about.

  11. What is the conflict in this story?

    • If you were given the choices of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs Nature, Man vs. Supernatural or Man vs. Machine, which would you pick?

  12. I read this back in the 9th grade. Good story. I chose it in my report about Langston Hughes.

  13. Yes, this was very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Could you just let me know what G and B stand for ? (worksheet, section under rising action)

    • Hi Anne,

      I’m glad you found this helpful. G = good, B = Bad. As the Rising Action builds, the reader should be wondering about the question asked in the Initial Incident e.g. Will the boy escape? Will the good guys win? Will the family make it to their destination? It’s simplified, but the events can be described as Positive or Good, Negative or Bad. I used to employ the terms “Fortunately” and “Unfortunately” but the abbreviations created too much snickering.

      Jock

  14. hello , how is mrs. Jones a tough person? What is the emphasis to that trait?

    • Thanks for your comment. The word “tough” could be replaced with: firm, resilient, rugged, tenacious, unyielding. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is “a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but a hammer and nails.” She’s no weakling. Also, she walks home alone late at night in the dark. When Roger attempts to steal her purse, she “simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by the shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.” I could go on with further examples noting how she didn’t take any back talk or soften in her approach, but I think you should get the idea. Best wishes.

  15. thank you so much!!! this helped me alot with homework, and i completely agree with it!!!!

    • I am always glad when the blog helps someone and especially thankful to get a “thank you.” Best wishes.

  16. a very beautiful story…

  17. your plot is nice and it helped me in my ass. but i cannot understand your rising action can you expound it? then for you what tittle can you give ’bout the story?

    • I am not quite sure what you mean – please explain.

  18. This was very helpful to me, but I have on question: What is the mood?

  19. How does Langston Hughes use narrative techniques to develop the characters of the old woman and the young boy in different perspectives?

  20. what is the plot of the story please ..

    • The plot of a story is the sequence of events and these are explained in the chart at the bottom of the story.

  21. thank you i got a 98 on my test …..thank you so much

    • Congratulations and best wishes for more of the same!

  22. What are the conflicts?
    Like person vs person?

    • Sorry to be so long in getting back to you. If this question was for a school assignment, my answer will be far too late. Nevertheless, I would agree that “person vs. person” is definitely one of the conflicts. It could also be argued that “man vs himself” and “man vs society” are other conflicts in this story. For me, I try to think of what struggles are going on within a character and with those around him. That’s the short (late) answer. If you need more, I promise to reply promptly.

  23. Thank you so much for this post. My son has not discovered reading for pleasure yet (I’m always on the lookout for the book that will “turn” him), but came home from school yesterday raving about this story. His enthusiasm made me look it up. I enjoyed it, and your notes. Thanks again!

  24. very helpful. but what are some good quotes that show plot and setting? if possible please reply today or tomorrow

    • Hi Brendan,

      Sounds like you have a homework assignment. All I can say is that you need to look for some lines in the story (for plot) that explain the problem or the events that lead to the climax. Look more closely at the chart. And for setting, remember that the setting of the story involves the time, the place and the mood. Best wishes!

  25. thank you for replyng so quickly. i am about to go over the story again and try to find some quotes. thanks again for your help

  26. It’s funny how a simple “thank you” goes a long way. I read your comments on this great Langston Hughes piece and also others’ questions and comments. I teach 7th graders and want them to read/listen to the short story before group discussions. Is there and audi version of the short story? I

    • Hi – I “Googled” Thank You Ma’am audio and got several hits. One even highlights the text as it is being read. Good luck!

      • Thank you so much.

  27. “Thank you, Sir!”

    I’m a WriterCoach at a middle school, and although I have an M.A. in English, it’s been a while since I was in grad school, and I’ve needed to revisit my “toolkit.” Your analysis is quite helpful (although I do agree with Lesa and Afi about the turning point in the story).

    One little suggestion: why don’t you identify what you mean by “B” and “G” above the chart (like a “key”)?

    Have you analyzed any other stories? Two that our eighth graders are reading for the district literary analysis test are “The White Umbrella” by Gish Jen and “The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Both are great stories easily found in the public domain.

    • Thank you back! I will identify the “B” and “G” so it’s clear. I look forward to reading both “The White Umbrella” and “The Medicine Bag.” I will also re-consider the turning point. It is only too clear that I am not too old to keep learning.

  28. Thank you for the story and ideas.

  29. This chart is a great way to quickly capture the essence of a story. Thanks for sharing!

  30. Thank you, Sir! Great information. I just started back to teaching and English for the first time, so this was very helpful.


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