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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to help get you started.

Topic #1
Marguerite accomplished many things in the short time Angelou records for us. Which accomplishments do you think are most meaningful to her? Explain each and why it was important.

I. Thesis Statement: Marguerite had many accomplishments in the 16 years recorded in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Three of them are very important: securing a job as a conductorette, graduating from high school, and giving birth.

II. Securing a job as conductorette
A. Was “first Negro on the San Francisco streetcar”
B. Had wanted job and had worked hard to get it
C. Felt had gone against the “system” and won
D. Had controlled her own fate

III. Graduating from high school
A. Had been in many different schools
B. Had a good record
C. Had managed to graduate when pregnant and keep it a secret
D. An achievement—especially for a Black girl at that time in history

IV. Giving birth to baby
A. Had kept it a secret
B. Had finished school
C. Referred to it as a virgin pregnancy
D. Later would say best thing that ever happened to her

Topic #2
Contrast Bailey Johnson, Sr.’s wife (Vivian Baxter Johnson) and his mistress Dolores Stockland. Are they alike in any way? Explain.

I. Thesis Statement: Vivian Baxter Johnson and Dolores Stockland are more different than alike. They are alike in that both were probably once in love with Bailey, Sr., and that both live in California. They were different in that one is very inhibited and the other is not; one is older than the other; one is honest about who she is; one is hostile to Marguerite.

II. Differences
A. Dolores younger than Vivian
B. Dolores not married to Bailey, Sr.
C. Dolores pretending to be what she is not
D. Dolores’s mouth taut
E. Dolores hostile toward Marguerite

III. Similarities
A. Both probably once attracted by Bailey, Sr.
B. Both in California

Topic #3
Were there any long-range effects of the attack on Marguerite by Mr. Freeman? Explain your answer.

I. Thesis Statement: There were several long-range effects of the rape on Marguerite, including her muteness, having her childhood taken away, her embarrassment, her injury, and her fear of Bailey’s sexual experiments.

II. Muteness
A. Refused to talk, except to Bailey, Jr
B. Did not talk for several years

III. Childhood taken away
A. Felt old
B. Did not feel young and carefree

IV. Embarrassment
A. Wondered if others knew
B. Felt embarrassed when disrobed in front of others

V. Injury
A. Physical injuries which took weeks to heal
B. Emotional injuries which took years to heal
C. Still remembers well

VI. Fear of sex
A. Feared for Bailey when he had sex with Joyce
B. Feared that others would know of her rape

Topic #4
Marguerite tells her own story. Do you think an objective narrator could have presented the story better than someone who was so close to the story? Explain your answer.

I. Thesis Statement: Marguerite tells her story more accurately and with more emotion and feeling than an objective narrator might. She is familiar with the time frame, the settings, the characters, and her own feelings and emotions.

II. Time frame
A. Has lived through the events
B. Can understand time because was present

III. Settings
A. Actually lived in South
B. Actually lived in St. Louis and California
C. Understood caste system of South
D. Actually experienced the segregation, racism, and discrimination of St. Louis, California, and Stamps

IV. Characters
A. Knew the characters
B. Could depict their dialect
C. Could describe accurately

V. Feelings and emotions
A. Portrayed honestly—even the ugly emotions
B. Remembered feelings
C. Could describe since had felt

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