Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

Any analysis of “Caged Bird” must begin with the title. The reader knows immediately from the words “Caged Bird” that the story will necessarily involve the restrictions imposed by a cage on the bird within its bars. Dunbar’s “Sympathy” gave Angelou both the inspiration and the title not only for this poem and but also for her first autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970); these two works by Angelou celebrate her survival and that of all African Americans in oppression.

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Evident in “Caged Bird” are two traditional literary themes: reversal of fortune and survival of the unfittest. By presenting the free bird before depicting the caged bird, Angelou helps the reader visualize what the caged bird must have been like before its capture; the description of the two contrasting environments helps the reader feel the sense of loss of the captured bird because of its reversed fate. Even with its clipped wings, tied feet, narrow quarters, and bars of rage, however, the fragile, caged bird is still able to survive and to soar again through its song; this imprisoned bird truly epitomizes the survival of the unfittest, the major theme in the verse.

These contrasting environments—the freedom of the open world and the restrictive surroundings of the caged bird—create the setting for the poem. The reader can feel the breeze, see the sun, imagine the rich feast of fat worms, and hear the sighing trees of the world of the free creature; in contrast, the reader feels the fear and restricted movement, sees the bars, imagines the wants, and hears the song of the imprisoned bird.

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Latest answer posted July 15, 2018, 8:26 pm (UTC)

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Characterization is important to “Caged Bird.” An important way of revealing the character of the caged animal is to pit the exploits of the bird that is free against the stalking of the penned animal; the reader is able to experience the deprivation of the confined creature and the ecstasy of the free one. A description of the shackled feet, small quarters, and clipped wings acquaints the reader with the physical pain that the prisoner has had to endure; the word “fear” conveys its emotional plight. The most significant characteristic of the manacled creature, however, is its singing despite its fear; this song divulges its hope and its inner strength. The reader’s own throat is closed with emotion as the bird opens its throat in song, its reaction to the indignities and its way to transcend the harsh environment.

The bird’s life reflects more than submission and mere survival. The harsh and painful aspects of the caged bird’s existence do not take away its dignity, and the physical and psychological pain do not destroy its style; the bird continues to know the source of its strength and to use its means of expression—song—to pray and to rebuild its life. The melody signifies the ability of the bird to tap its internal, creative resources for its healing. The beliefs of the imprisoned creature anchor its identity and allow the bird to adapt to its situation creatively. One of the lasting images the reader has of “Caged Bird” is the bird’s raising its head in song, its answer to fear, oppression, and the pressures of life. The political poem encourages strength in adversity.

Angelou did not intend “Caged Bird” for African Americans alone; she intended the poem for any listening ear. Like the caged bird, she uses her own creativity, prepares her own song, and shows resilience and strength in the face of hardships; the poem is her autobiography. Although the bird is still caged at the end, the reader is left with hope. The delicate bird is a survivor and remembers his song. The reader trusts that the bird can endure the oppression that hopefully will soon lift. The denouement is, however, open; readers—and the bird—can complete the ending as they will.

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