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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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What are some examples of figurative language in the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

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Angelou uses examples of figurative language in her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to emphasize and make a point. She writes metaphorically, through the use of colors, simile and metaphor, and repetition.

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Whitefolks couldn't be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white and see-throughy, and they didn't walk on the balls of their feet the way people did—they walked on their heels like horses.

In this quotation from Chapter 4, Angelou describes how, growing up in an African-American community, she perceived white people as strange and other, which is ironic given that those white people would have it that the black people were the ones that were strange and other. In the quotation, Angelou uses a simile to describe how the white people walked: "on their heels like horses." Also in this same quotation, to emphasize the point of how different these white people seemed to her, Angelou repeats the word "too" in the phrases "too small" and "too white."

A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white "things"—white folks' cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women.

In this second quotation, from Chapter 8, Angelou compounds the idea already introduced in the previous quotation: that white people seemed to her, when she was a child, strange and foreign. In this quotation, Angelou uses the metaphor of the "light shade" to represent the divide, which must have seemed material and literal, between the white and black communities. Also in this quotation, Angelou uses the repetition of color imagery, namely the color white, to connote the seeming uniformity of the "white folks." The point is emphasized by the listing, indicated by the repetition of the connective "and." The impression is of a blinding, uniform whiteness, that, through the metaphorical lampshade, seemed very strange and almost otherworldly.

To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.

In this quotation from Chapter 34, Angelou uses metaphor to make the point that one's adolescence is the crucial period during which one must decide whether to pursue one's own course or conform and follow the course taken by the majority. Angelou describes the adolescent period metaphorically as "the tightrope of youthful unknowing," implying that it is difficult to stay on one's own course or path. Angelou also writes that "Few, if any survive their teens." Here again, Angelou is being metaphorical. She does not mean that so many teenagers literally die, but that so many teenagers abandon their own path, conform, and in so doing, something of their identity and individuality dies. The third metaphor in this quotation can be found in the final sentence, in which Angelou describes the pressures of adulthood, and specifically the pressures to conform, as a battle.

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There are many examples of figurative language in Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, from the powerful symbolism imbedded in the title to the haunting beautiful chiasmus in the line "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking" (Ch. 36). In Angelou's book, many of these devices are used to perpetuate specific themes, and the following examples all point to the most prominent topic of race.

Angelou frequently uses figurative language in character descriptions. Consider these uses of metaphor early in the novel:

"...he was lauded for his velvet-black skin. His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with black steel wool." (Ch. 4)

And this simile later on:

"Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged." (Ch. 2)

Beyond character descriptions, Angelou furthers her discussion of race by using figurative language (here, a simile and hyperbole) to express the separation Maya and others feel between races:

"I scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scenes as the actors outside were confined to their roles" (Ch. 5).

"This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings." (Ch. 19)

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There are many. Look at the first line of Chapter 34, the last line of Chapter 33, the last line of Chapter 30, the last line of Chapter 25, and many others where Angelou speaks of things of great importance to her.

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What are some metaphors in the book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"?

A metaphor is a direct comparison of two things by saying that object 1 is or was object 2. For instance, "my love is a rose." I'll identify a few metaphors in the novel to help you get started on finding others for yourself.

Although it is not written exactly like the metaphor I gave you as an example, the very first one you'll encounter is the title: Marguerite knows how the caged bird sings because she feels caged in herself.

Another metaphor appears in the Preface: "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat."

In chap. 29: "Instead they used their intelligence to pry open the door of rejection and not only became wealthy but got revenge in the bargain."

Now, there are three metaphors for you. You try to find some more.

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