Caged Bird Characters

The main characters in “Caged Bird” are the free bird, the caged bird, and the speaker.

  • The free bird lives a life of joy and ease, flying wherever he wishes and claiming ownership of the sky.
  • The caged bird lives in captivity, with clipped wings and bound feet. Despite his anguish, he sings songs of freedom that reach far beyond his cage.
  • The speaker is the poem’s third-person omniscient narrator. They place the greatest emphasis on the caged bird, conveying a sense of empathy for his plight.

Characters

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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

The Free Bird

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The free bird is the first bird the speaker mentions in the poem, and it appears in the first and fourth stanzas. The first stanza describes the idyllic, carefree life he leads, doing all the things a bird might enjoy—he “leaps / on the back of the wind,” “floats downstream / till the current ends,” “dips his wing” in the rays of the sun, and, most significantly, “dares to claim the sky” as his own. With this final phrase, Angelou may imply that this bird’s freedom is thoughtless and therefore potentially dangerous. To boldly claim the entire sky as one’s own is to deny that others have an equal right to move freely through a stretch of open air. In his ignorant claim of ownership, the free bird calls to mind the legacies of colonialism and enslavement that keep others “caged.”

In the fourth stanza, the free bird dreams of “another breeze” and “trade winds,” phrases that emphasize the free bird’s freedom of choice, travel, and opportunity and that suggest the expansiveness of his life. He imagines the “fat worms waiting” for him and considers this abundance of sustenance and pleasure to be freely available, his for the taking. The use of the words “soft,” “sighing trees,” and “dawn bright lawn” further underscore the ease and happiness of the free bird’s existence. And just as he “claimed the sky” in the first stanza, the free bird now “names the sky his own”—a phrase which, even more so than “claims the sky,” seems to allude to the imperialist practices of nations such as the United States and Great Britain, which literally renamed the lands they took for their own as states and colonies—and the peoples they subdued as subjects or slaves.

Having no masters or captors, the free bird is able to do whatever he desires—but the nature of his freedom is called into question by the descriptions of the caged bird with which it is juxtaposed. Moreover, the contrast between the free bird’s stanzas and the four stanzas devoted to the caged bird heightens the sense of painful injustice attached to the caged bird’s confinement. The plight of the caged bird is all the more distressing when examined alongside the peace and freedom of the bird that isn’t caged. Ultimately, the relationship between the two birds is left ambiguous. Is the free bird aware of the suffering of his caged brother, who sings his pain to “the distant hill”?

The Caged Bird

The caged bird first appears in the poem’s second stanza; stanzas two, three, five, and six are devoted to description of his plight. The caged bird’s experience couldn’t be more different from that of the free bird described in the first stanza: he is imprisoned in a cage, enraged by his captivity but unable to change his circumstances. Even if the door to the cage were opened, the bird’s wings are “clipped”—meaning that his primary feathers have been trimmed in order to render him incapable of flight—and his feet are “tied,” so he would be unable to fly away. The caged bird has never known freedom, and song is the only avenue available to the bird to help him express the anguish of his captivity and his yearning for freedom. He sings of the freedoms the free bird enjoys, although he has never known them; to him, they are “things unknown / but longed for still.”

While the free bird “leaps / on the back of the wind,” the caged bird “stalks / down his narrow cage.” From his cage, he can “seldom see” the outside world, let alone physically take part in it. Instead, he takes part in the world through his song of freedom, which reaches not only beyond the “bars of rage” that imprison him but as far away as “the distant hill.”

In the fifth and penultimate stanza, the horror of the caged bird’s plight, and the anguish of the caged bird himself, reaches a fever pitch. The bird is described as standing on “the grave of dreams”—an image that connotes utter hopelessness—and “his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream.” It is significant that it is not the caged bird himself but his “shadow” who “shouts” in response to his nightmarish situation. While the bird’s subconscious impulse may be to scream in agony, this is not what he ultimately chooses to do. Instead, he sings, and though his song may be “fearful,” it is also hopeful, as he sings not of imprisonment but of freedom. In this way, the caged bird may be considered symbolic of all those who use art to transcend their unjust circumstances and deliver a message that reaches far beyond the real or metaphorical walls that imprison them.

The Speaker

The poem’s speaker describes the two birds in third-person omniscient narration. Although the speaker is not a character per se, they seem to empathize with the caged bird, as they place the greatest emphasis on the caged bird’s suffering and song. It is possible to read the speaker as a reflection of Maya Angelou, an activist as well as a poet who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Many of Angelou’s poems directly address themes of social justice, racism, and the experiences of Black people in the United States, and although it does not name these issues explicitly, “Caged Bird” is no exception.

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