Response: Literature as Conversation
“Thank You, M’am” by Langston Hughes
Weak response, example #1:
This story is about a kid who tries to steal an old lady’s purse. Her name is Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. When he tries to steal her purse, she grabs him and then yells at him. She takes him home and gives him something to eat. Then she gives him the money for the blue suede shoes he wanted, and lets him go.
This is considered a weak response because it is only a PLOT SUMMARY. Again, that may be useful to refresh your memory, but that is NOT a response. You will never be asked to simply summarize the plot on a literary or academic essay, on the Regents exam, and especially in college. This is simply not enough; basic comprehension is no longer our goal.
Weak response, example #2:
I don’t like this story. It’s stupid and boring. I don’t understand any of it. I don’t like to read. I don’t understand some of the words and the story doesn’t make any sense to me. I have no idea what’s going on….
This response is weak because it is an OPINION, an evaluative judgment, and while we do tend to do that, it is not useful for the purpose of literary response. None of us is qualified to judge literature this way, and again, you will never be asked for this sort of opinion on an essay, or on the Regents exam. You must not let your opinion, especially a negative one, get in the way of your response. The key is to write what you are getting from the reading; you must be getting something. You can only be wrong if you get nothing.
Fair response, example #1:
This story is interesting. I like the way the old lady takes the kid home. It’s interesting how the writer describes her clothes and stuff. It was weird when she took him home instead of to the cops. Mrs. Jones seems like a nice lady, but she’s a little crazy. The kid is pretty stupid. I don’t know why she did that.…..
This is better; it does show evidence of reading and understanding, and some evidence of meaningful thought and insight, but it touches on many different ideas without exploring any of them. This is a start, as it shows the reader beginning to think beyond the text, but it’s really more of a reaction than a response; the writer would have to explore these ideas in order for this to be effective.
Fair response, example #2:
That kid in the story reminds me of my cousin Steve. He tried to steal some sodas from a deli one time. He was so ready to do it; he scouted out the store, waited until the guy wasn’t looking. I was waiting outside; my friend Jose went in with him. But he got caught trying to stuff the bottles in his bookbag. The lady who works there called the guy out of the back and started yelling at them…
This one also is better than the weak responses, and it’s wonderful that the text reminded the student of his own life, but the writing here drifts too far away from the text. He would need to come back and make the connection between the boy in the story and his cousin, explaining why they’re so similar. As interesting as it is, the writing doesn’t really show evidence of reading without making those specific and explicit connections.
Strong response, example #1:
Luella Bates Washington Jones is one of the most remarkable characters I’ve encountered in short fiction. She’s a formidable woman, both physically and mentally, who knows exactly what she thinks and feels and believes, especially when it comes to right and wrong. She knew instinctively that the best thing to do for the boy was to give him what she knew he probably lacked – parental attention and a nurturing home environment. I don’t know if I would have reacted the same way; do I have that kind of patience? Maybe it’s because.………
This is an effective response which shows a clear understanding of the text and significant thought, consideration and insight by the student into the character of Mrs. Jones. Note that the writer poses questions for himself, wondering how he would react in the context of the story, and begins to explore the answers.
Strong response, example #2:
Hughes’ characterization of Mrs. Jones is fully realized and evocative; he provides just enough detail (the “purse with everything in it but…,” etc.) to make her an individual yet at the same time expects us to call upon our own knowledge and experience of women like her. Yet in a sly ironic twist, he turns her from a frightfully aggressive, physically imposing woman to a gentle, saintly, motherly type, through words and actions that are entirely unexpected, in fact in what seems to be direct opposition to what we might expect. Instead of…..
This is more of a literary analysis, as the student here notices the literary techniques and elements that are at work in the text, specifically characterization and irony. This is especially useful on Task III of the Regents exam. Again, the response shows evidence of reading and thorough understanding of the text, as well as significant thought, sophisticated insight, and the beginnings of critical analysis.