Thank You Ma’am Literary Devices

The short story “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes is a very powerful narrative that vividly portrays the human condition in the interaction of two very distinct characters. In this exposition, we will analyze the literary techniques of Hughes, concentrating on the themes and the literary devices that make this small but effective piece resonate and have a deeper meaning.

Introduction to “Thank You, Ma’am”


It is a short story that deals with a short conversation between Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, a big woman with a big purse and Roger, a teenage boy who attempts to steal her purse.

The story begins on a late night in Harlem, where the boy’s theft turns into a lesson in empathy, trust, and generosity that he learns for the rest of his life.

The story is famous for its legendary dialogue, the vivid characterization, and the poignant thematic expressions.

Theme in “Thank You, Ma’am”

The main theme of the short story is based on the idea of kindness and redemption.

The interactions between Mrs. Jones and Roger show that how a person can be affected and changed when a person understands and cares for him through the help of others.

The tale hints that everybody is capable of change and that sometimes kindness and strict guidance can steer someone onto the right track.

Mrs. Jones, apart from not punishing Roger, also takes him home, cleans him up, feeds him, and shares important life lessons with him.

The strange response to a crime is a proof of the fact that people can be really connected and the transformation of a person is possible.

Literary Devices In “Thank You, Ma’am”

1- Dialogue

“Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, “Yes’m.”

The first conversation between Mrs. Jones and Roger is the beginning of the story and it serves as the foundation for their relationship.

Her question, firm but compassionate, is the reason for Roger to confess his guilt.

The simple answer of “Yes’m” indicates his submission and the surprise of his general state, rather than the attempted theft or his reaction to the thing which is the reason for his submission.

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

Mrs. Jones’s order to Roger to wash his face, personally, indicates her caring approach to him. It will not be just an order; it will be an act of trust and caring which are the main themes of the narrative.

The chat shows her power and the change in their relationship from a captor and captive to a more maternal and child-like one.

2- Imagery

“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.”

The description of Mrs. Jones and her purse intimates that the writer is about to tell a story.

The phrase of “a large woman with a large purse” creates an image of her powerful and in charge although at the same time it is the image that is comforting.

The fact that the purse had everything in it but hammer and nails reveals her readiness and resourcefulness, which are the most important traits of her character.

The purse itself, which is described in a vivid way, almost becomes a character in its own, thus symbolizing the burden of her life experiences and her self-sufficiency.

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

Here, the imagery is used to describe Roger stresses his young and vulnerable age.

The words “frail” and “willow-wild” make us the feel that he is delicate and nearly fallen. Like the young tree that is easily swayed.

This image not only makes the reader able to see Roger but also makes him feel sorry for him thus getting the reader to contrast between Roger’s weak body and Mrs. Jones’ healthy one.

See also: Literary Devices in Water for Elephants

3- Symbolism

“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.”

The purse signifies trust and temptation. Through the act of not checking her purse, Mrs. Jones symbolically demonstrates her faith in Roger, who was a stranger that wanted to steal from her.

This act of trust is a crucial symbol that illustrates the Mrs. Jones faith in Roger’s ability to be changed.

“Then she said, ‘Now, here, take this ten cents 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.”

The blue suede shoes that Mrs. Jones talks about stand for something like desire and aspiration.

At first, Roger attempts to steal the shoes to have them, which means that he has the desire to be a better person or to be a member of society.

Mrs. Jones’ saying that ill-gotten shoes would “burn your feet” is the moral lesson that one can achieve their desires through dishonest ways and it would be very uncomfortable and hard.

4- Irony

“The 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.”

It is ironic that though Mrs. Jones is the victim of the attempt of robbery, she does not call the police or react with anger, rather she takes the boy home, cleans him up, and feeds him.

The usual anticipation of the victim’s action is changed, as she decides to show empathy and care, instead of seeking revenge.

This reaction indicates the main theme of the story, which is, redemption and the possibility of kindness to be unexpected.

5- Characterization

“She still held him tightly by the collar, but she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she led him down the hall to the front door.”

The author first introduces Mrs. Jones through her actions and the choices she made.

The way she handles the situation exhibits her strength, wisdom and kindness, and she also influences Roger greatly.

“He did not want to be mistrusted now.”

This is the moment when Mrs. Jones leaves her purse beside Roger, thus, indicating her faith in him.

The fact that Roger is apprehensive about being mistrusted now that he has been handed a second chance is a crucial moment of characterization of his internal conflict.

It indicates his wish for acceptance and his knowledge of the importance of trust, which, thus, shows his moral and emotional development as the story progresses.

6- Allusion

“She said, ‘I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?’”


Mrs. Jones is suggesting that she is a motherly or a caretaker figure that is usually linked to the caring and the looking after the cleanliness and the well-being of a child.

By saying Roger that he does not have anyone at home to tell him to wash his face, she is indirectly implying that he has no parental care in his life.

This allusion is a way to portray Roger’s physical features but also, it is a hidden clue of his difficult childhood.

It means that there is a greater social problem of children who are left without the correct guidance and care, therefore, they are lost and end up doing the wrong things.

7- Dramatic Irony

“Roger looked at the door—looked at the woman—looked at the door—and went to the sink.”

This scene in the story demonstrates the dramatic irony. The readers, knowing Mrs. Jones’s past actions and her apparently trusting attitude, can feel that she is probing Roger by doing nothing after he has tried to steal her purse.

The door’s reflection of Roger’s inner turmoil and decision between fleeing or staying to confront the results of his deeds is an indication of his inner conflict.

The readers are aware of Mrs. Jones’s real intentions of helping him, while Roger is only at the beginning of realizing this.

His choice to go to the sink instead of running away when he has the opportunity is a sign of his change of heart, which he is just starting to realize, brought about by Mrs. Jones’s kindness and trust, which are the reasons he has started to understand.

8- Personification

“The night was coming on, and it was a large, looming figure in the boy’s way home.”


In this line, the author depicts the night as a “big, scary picture,” which is a very skillful use of personification.

Through the night is given human characteristics by Hughes, thus, the mood is enhanced and the tension is also increased in the scene.

Here the description is used to make the night almost look like an enemy or an obstacle in Roger’s way, thus showing his inner battle and the difficulties.

The night being the ‘looming figure’ gently emphasizes the threat or fear that might be with Roger after he ran into Mrs. Jones, and might also be the fear of the future after his action of trying to steal her purse.

Thank You Ma'am Literary Devices

To conclude, the writer successfully employs various literary devices into the structure of the story, thus, adding to its texture and making the themes more prominent.

By using the literary techniques, the writer not only narrates a gripping story but also prompts readers to ponder on the deeper themes of human behavior and social justice.

The tale is an illustration of how literature can pocket people’s hearts and shift their perspectives through small but significant deeds of kindness, understanding, and respect.

This story is still a vivid testimony to the ability of empathy to connect and the possibility of redemption that is present in every person.

See also: The Negro Speaks of River Literary Devices

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