Human interest stories like ‘Thank you Ma’am by Langston Hughes have caught readers unawares as they unfolded their plot gradually. The author catches the reader unawares when he places the simplicity of the situation before the audience leaving them to judge for them. The gravity of the boy’s gesture and what could be the fate of an act like his is criminal to say the least.
The marked conflict is apparent between the behavior of the boy and the reciprocal behavior of the lady. The boy is a destitute fending for himself through sporadic thefts and petty crime. However, the lady has been depicted as a simple worker in a beauty parlor where she works late hours.
The Conflict of Emotions
One hand is Roger, the boy who has been thorough a rough childhood which was probably full of struggles, strife and deprivation. He had to eke out an existence from day to day on the basis of his own wits. He is perpetually afraid of being caught and being roughed up by the police.
On the other hand is Mrs. Luella Washington Jones who lives a life on her own terms. She is a hardworking woman who has seen strife but chose to work her way up in life. She comes across as an honest, god fearing women, set in her ways. She has lived life with dedication and lived up to her own goals.
The encounter in which Roger tries to grab her purse and run away is one of conflicting emotions. This is because no one can guess how she will react. The boy thinks she will beat him up and hand him over to the police. The spectators around also feel that she will give the boy, a tough time. Her reaction could not be judged by any of the spectators.
Then there is the total contrast in the manner in which she treats the boy. She takes him home and persuades Roger to clean up and become presentable. The boy too is mesmerized by her personality as she makes all efforts to ensure the boy is at his ease. Her contrasting and totally different behavior impresses Roger.
She talks to him in a soothing manner as she takes him back to her childhood. As she talks about herself the boys nerves are also soothed. She tries calming talks that can bring smile and comfort to one’s heart. He stops thinking about escaping and running away to save his skin. He seems to have understood that the lady means him no harm and he will be well looked after. At one point he feels so placated and comforted in her company that he is willing to run any errands for Mrs. Jones. He asks if she required him to bring anything from the shops. He showed his generosity towards her comforting and pleasant behavior.
When he has cleaned himself up the boy seems to forget about his immediate surroundings and is totally focused on the wisdom he can pick up front his helpful woman.
The conflict of emotions in the boy is in total contrast to what he goes through in ordinary everyday life.
He is used to being abused and hounded and given a raw deal always and every time. Being homeless and having no family he has no idea of how loving people exist together and care for each other. His experience with the lady opens up a whole new visa of emotional bonding experiences. He never knew of anyone who would care enough for him to have him clean himself, become good looking enough before having a rich and in his case, a rare, hot and sumptuous meal comprising beans, bacon, bread and cocoa made out of condensed milk (Langston, 2001).
So full is he of the goodness of the lady’s kind gesture that he is virtually choked when it is time to take leave from the lady. He has conflicting emotions emanating from his mind and heart the lady. She is strict and kind. He has conflicting emotions of gratitude fighting to the surface. He wants to say many words of thanksgiving but is most distressed because all he can manage is a barely whispered ‘Thank You’ (Langston-2001)
The contrast of behaviors is starkly brought out by the vagrancy of the boy and the stoic tolerance of the lady. The goodness of the woman has a tremendous impact upon the boy who is given a vital choice just at the right time in his life. He is faced with the option of going on living the life he has been or make an effort to change his circumstances. He has been impressed by the dignity of the lady which attracts him to her. He has the option of making a life for himself rather than being battered around by the life of crime he was living earlier. He realizes that it is within him to make the choice and stay put or keep running all the time.
Hughes, Langston. “Fight for Freedom and other Writings on Civil Rights” (Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol 10). In Christopher C. DeSantis (ed.). Introduction, p.9. University of Missouri Press (2001).
Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne. (1993).
Ostrom, Hans . A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia, Westport: Greenwood Press, (2002).