Symbolism can be an effective technique in writing, and various examples of symbolism can be found in Maya Angelou’s novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Among the examples of symbolism in the first five chapters of the novel are the following:
- The very first words of the book symbolize a number of important themes of the rest of the novel, including travel, instability, family tensions, and family relations, especially Marguerite’s close relationship with her brother Bailey:
When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed – “To Whom It May Concern” – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr. . . .
Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father had shipped us home to his mother.
These sentences also immediately symbolize that this will be a book rooted in the narrator’s memory, and they imply that the book will tell the story of the narrator’s life and development.
- The opening sentence of Chapter 2 symbolizes the important theme of education in the novel:
When Bailey was six and I a year younger, we used to rattle off the times tables . . .
- In the middle of Chapter 3, a white lawman warns that one of Marguerite’s male relatives had better “lay low” since a black man is suspected of being sexually involved with a white woman, and the local Ku Klux Klan are out for revenge. This incident symbolizes the importance of race and racial tensions in the novel as well as the importance of sexuality as a major theme in the book.
- Chapter 4 opens with the following sentence:
What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise?
This sentence symbolizes the importance of geography and social conditions as important themes in the novel. During the course of the book, Marguerite and her brother live in various kinds of places in various parts of the country, and their experiences are inevitably affected by the differences between these various sorts of geographical locations.
- Early in Chapter 5, Marguerite explains that one of her relatives believed that
The impudent child was detested by God and a shame to its parents and could bring destruction to its house and line.
This sentence symbolizes such important themes of the novel as the relations between children and adults; the pressures to conform to social standards; the importance of religious belief to some of the characters; and the way the adult Marguerite looks back with wry amusement on some of the incidents and people of her childhood.