Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones
Hughes begins ‘‘Thank You, Ma’m’’ with an evocative description of Jones: ‘‘She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but a hammer and nails.’’ This sets the tone for the development of her character. She is powerful and capable. She is overwhelmingly physically superior to the other character, Roger. But at the same time she is maternal, lavishing the attention on Roger that he obviously misses at home: cleaning him, feeding him, giving him money.
The story is set in 1950s Harlem. In that framework, it is possible to deduce a great deal about Mrs. Jones, as Hughes no doubt intended his audience to do. She is substantial in more ways than the physical. She is able to support herself by her own labor. Only limited opportunities were available to women in the 1950s (and still fewer to black women). Mrs. Jones works in a beauty parlor—one of the few jobs open to black women at the time. This also explains why she has to walk home so late: the shop is in a hotel and stays open late. There is not any Mr. Jones in the story so she is probably a widow, or her husband may have abandoned her (a fact that may relate to Hughes’s own broken family)—divorce would have been unlikely in the time and culture described in the story.
The fact that Mrs. Jones so readily takes pity on Roger and treats him as she might a son, doing everything she can to give him effective help during their brief acquaintance and overlooking his transgression against her—indeed focusing on that transgression as the point of connection (‘‘But you put yourself in contact with me . . . . If you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another thought coming.’’) demands an explanation. Mrs. Jones tells Roger, ‘‘You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong.’’ This leaves no doubt that she is, as it were, transferring maternal feelings onto him. It is possible to go much further is speculating about Mrs. Jones’s character, and part of the attractiveness of the story is that Hughes seems to invite the reader to do so. There might be some reason that Mrs. Jones rushes to treat a stranger as if he were her son. It would not be difficult to imagine that she has her own son, perhaps the same age as Roger, and that her contact with him has been forcibly denied by some circumstance. This could have been the death of the child, given the high infant mortality rate before widespread childhood immunization, or she might have been forced to give up a child for adoption at birth, an event more common in the 1940s than today. Mrs. Jones hints that there is some dark secret in her past when she tells Roger, ‘‘I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son— neither tell God, if He didn’t already know.’’ This speaks of being driven to commit crimes by the poverty of her own youth. If she blamed herself for whatever misfortune befell any possible child of hers—a perfectly human tendency— she might well speak of it that way in later life.
A curious fact about Mrs. Jones is her name, and the high value she places upon it. When she tells Roger her name she does not say that she is Mrs. Jones, or Luella Jones, and certainly not Luella, but she tells him her full name: ‘‘Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.’’ To take such obvious pride in giving this full style and title, as it were, the totality of the name must have some very great personal significance to its bearer that can never be fully known without her explanation, and which, indeed, she might not have been able to put in words as eloquent as merely reciting the full name itself. The title Mrs. speaks of her marriage. Luella is obviously her given name and Bates her middle name—at an informed guess her mother’s maiden name. Washington would be her father’s family name. Washington speaks of the history of slavery; after the Civil War, many freed slaves, lacking surnames, took prominent patriotic names such as Washington. And that would only be going back to Mrs. Jones’s grandfather’s time, so well within her living memory. Jones would be her husband’s name. In reciting that name, then, she is reciting a family history. That is partly the source of the pride she takes in the name. The last element, Jones, is her married name. If her husband nevertheless died or abandoned her, then whatever position she has now (and it does not seem comparatively to be a bad one) she worked for and achieved by herself, in spite of the loss of her husband, and in spite of all the obstacles to achieving success that stood in the way of women, especially black women, in her lifetime. She might take special pride in using the Mrs. as if to demonstrate to her husband that she could make something of herself even without his help. So the recitation of her full name is a testament to the triumph over adversity of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones and of her family. Raising themselves up from slavery and raising herself up from what past misfortunes we cannot know for certain creates her sense of pride in the name. It is this pride and the determination that underlies it, as well as the wisdom she has acquired through her life, that make her a success in whatever life she has undertaken and give her the confidence and ability to help Roger. Her pride in her identity is the key to understanding Mrs. Jones’s character, as well as to unlocking the larger meaning of the story.
Roger, in contrast to Mrs. Jones, is in many ways a very slight character. To begin with, he is physically small and thin: ‘‘He looked as if were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild.’’ Mrs. Jones is able to drag him around like a doll. Roger is also slight in his fortune. His poverty is obvious from his clothing. If one examines photographs or film footage that were actually taken of everyday scenes in the 1950s, it becomes obvious that only three classes of people wore denim pants and tennis-shoes: those engaged in camping and other strenuous outdoor pursuits, workmen performing manual labor, and poor children. This was as true in Harlem as it was in white communities. Add to this the fact that Roger is ungroomed and unsupervised at home—‘‘There’s nobody home at my house,’’ he tells Mrs. Jones—and it is clear that Roger is neglected. But though he has turned to theft, he is not beyond redemption. Roger’s age is significant. He is certainly no longer a child, but he is not yet an adult; there is still time for him to become a man in the sense of someone who is an honorable, mature, self-respecting member of the community. Once he sees that Mrs. Jones is going to take care of him, he gives up any idea of running away to save himself. Roger wants her to be able to trust him. He feels real gratitude toward her but is too overwhelmed even to say the title of the story, ‘‘Thank you, ma’m.’’
Roger is again slight in his identity, but it is there that he is built up in the course of the story. He is most likely not entirely lying when he tells Mrs. Jones that he did not ‘‘aim to’’ steal her purse. Rather he seems to have instead strongly desired to buy a pair of blue suede shoes and most likely hit on the idea of purse-snatching quite spontaneously when the opportunity of fulfilling the desire presented itself. This is a kind of adolescent desire that does not have very good or practical reasons behind it but is vaguely connected with status. Although Mrs. Jones does make it possible for him to get the shoes, it is far from certain that he actually does so. He seems instead to have been made happier by having her help build up his self-esteem and becomes more interested in her approval and the help she offers.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.