Merriam Webster defines a “thank-you-ma’am” as a bump in the road. Every short story and novel plot contains a bump in the road for the main character. This “bump” often prevents the character from getting some desired thing. The bump in the road is the conflict, an essential element in fiction. More than one conflict can also be found in novels and stories with well-developed, round characters such as Roger and Mrs. Jones. Round, dynamic, and multidimensional characters deal with complex problems and respond with multiple emotions.

Conflict is the obstacle, barricade, or impediment that thwarts a character. Four types of conflict are man vs. man, man vs. himself, man vs. society, and man vs. nature. Classic stories that capture the complexity of the human condition often focus on more than one conflict. Let’s take a closer look at each type of conflict.

A photograph of people dressed in costumes representing Batman and several villains including the Joker

Source: Gothamites (3261641613), istoletthetv, Wikimedia

Man vs. Man

Fiction has plenty of examples of these adversarial relationships: Batman vs. the Joker, Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Roger vs. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones in “Thank You, Ma’am.”

A copy of the Illustrated Classic comic book version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

Source: CC No 13 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,
Chordboard, Wikimedia

Man vs. Himself

One classic example of this conflict is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Hughes’s short story, Roger reveals his internal conflict when he’s in the apartment of Mrs. Jones. He sees that “the door was open. He could make a dash for it down the hall. He could run, run, run, run, run!” Yet, this magnetic woman has some hold on him.

photo of a serious man in a suit looking at the picture of a tall building

Source: the fountainhead,, Flickr

Man vs. Society

Roger tries to steal a purse, committing a crime against Mrs. Jones. Roger has broken society’s rules, and so the conflict of “Thank You, Ma’am” involves man vs. society. While Roger expects to go to jail, Mrs. Jones never reports the crime.

A photograph of the book “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

Source: Oldmansea, Sumanch, Wikipedia

Man vs. Nature

A number of formidable forces of nature can be in conflict with a character: It might be a mountain to scale, a fish to catch, or arctic cold to survive. However, this conflict is not apparent in “Thank You, Ma’am.” Can you think of a story you’ve read in which a character encounters a force of nature?

The plot of Langston Hughes's story follows a linear plot pattern found in a great deal of fiction. It is best visualized by Freytag’s Pyramid. Among the literary terms you’ll need to know are the parts of Freytag’s Pyramid.

image of Freytag's Pyramid

Source: Freytag's Pyramid, IPSI

  1. Exposition: This writing sets the scene. The writer introduces the characters and setting, providing description and background. Hughes provides minimal background in “Thank You, Ma’am.”

  2. “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. . . .”

  3. Rising Action: A single event called the inciting incident usually signals the beginning of the main conflict. During the rising action, the story builds and gets more exciting.

  4. “. . . a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse.”

  5. Climax: The climax is the moment of greatest tension in a story. It is the event that the rising action builds up to and that the falling action follows.

  6. The major conflict between Roger and himself occurs when he realizes that he could make a dash for it, but does not. Mrs. Jones’s kindness is beginning to transform him.

  7. Falling Action: Events happen as a result of the climax during the falling action, and we know that the story will soon end.

  8. Mrs. Jones confesses to doing things wrong herself, tells Roger about her job, cuts him some cake, and gives him the money for the blue suede shoes.

  9. Resolution/Dénouement: (a French term, pronounced: day-noo-moh) The character solves the main problem/conflict, or someone solves it for him or her. Sometimes the author leaves us to think about the theme or future possibilities for the characters.

  10. Hughes closes this story with irony. While Roger puts little effort in his mumbled responses in the beginning of the story, now he wants to express gratitude with improved diction by saying, “Thank you, Ma’am.” Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones doesn’t take time to listen. The boy turns and says “thank you” as she closes the door. They never see each other again.

A logo that has the word “theme’ in the center of it

Source: theme, Leo Reynolds, Flickr

Theme is perhaps the most important literary term to understand. Themes are underlying messages about life and human nature; they are big ideas an author wants to pass on to you. What is tricky about themes is that sometimes they don’t stand out but only emerge after careful analysis. Understanding the theme of a literary work is an “aha” moment that gives you deeper insight into what an author is trying to say.

Themes are the abstract concepts or universal truths found in all good literature, including the works you read in this lesson. The theme of “A Noiseless Patient Spider” is that lonely souls want desperately to make spiritual connections. Although you only had a glimpse into the production of Our Town, the Stage Manager’s revelation that the paperboy will die in World War I indicates that Wilder’s play deals with the brevity of life.

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Now, consider what Langston Hughes observes about the human condition and wants you to take away from his story “Thank You, Ma’am.” What do you think is the theme of “Thank You, Ma’am”? Use your notes to record your response. When you are finished, check your understanding to see a sample response.

Check Your Understanding

Sample Responses:

Attention and kindness can alter the course of a life. Compassion, empathy, and generosity can be transforming.

Now that you have completed the section that discusses terms of fiction, look at the list of terms found in this PDF. Use your software’s highlighter or other tool to mark the ones you need to review further.