Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face and three birds next to an orange sun

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Literary Devices in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou


In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou employs various literary devices, including metaphor, imagery, and symbolism. The caged bird itself is a powerful metaphor for the oppression and confinement experienced by African Americans. Vivid imagery and descriptive language bring scenes to life, while symbolism throughout the narrative underscores themes of freedom, identity, and resilience.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some symbols in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou?

Maya has bought into the notion that white standards of beauty are the only ones that matter. This is because she lives in a racist society where white is considered beautiful and Black anything but. As a young girl growing up in the midst of such stubborn prejudice, it's not surprising that Maya has internalized these attitudes to such an extent that she's come to believe that she can only be beautiful by trying to come up to white society's standards of beauty.

As a result, Maya feels what can only be described as a sense of self-loathing; she cannot accept her identity as a person of color. This can be seen most strongly in the scene where Maya puts on a taffeta dress one Easter morning that her mother has altered for her. Maya thinks that by wearing this dress, which is actually nothing more than a white woman's throwaway, she will immediately become beautiful, thus enabling her to be accepted by others and also by herself.

But when Maya discovers that the dress is only secondhand, she realizes that simply imitating white society's standards of beauty will not make her more beautiful or accepted. It dawns on her that any personal transformation will have to come from within, from the very depths of her soul.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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)

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of figurative language in 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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the allusions in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

Maya Angelou uses allusions through her memoir. Some of them evoke the period and places about which she is writing, while others appear as she struggles to express the agony of the sexual abuse she endured. Angelou mentions popular cultural personalities, such as the world-renowned African American prize fighter Joe Louis, along with fictional characters such as superheroes. Her time in the Store is explored through many products sold there. Marguerite’s growing love of literature is also expressed.

Popular culture allusions include well-known African Americans of the period. In particular, chapter 19 is devoted to a celebrated prize fight featuring Joe Louis, known as the Brown Bomber. Other popular culture references include superheroes from comic books or the radio. When Mr. Freeman attacks her, Marguerite thinks she might be saved by the Phantom or the Green Hornet (chapter 12). Angelou mentions another superhero whom Bailey admires when she discusses the make-shift tent where he takes girls, calling it his “Captain Marvel hideaway” (chapter 21).

The young Marguerite spends considerable time working in the Store in Stamps. Angelou refers to numerous commercial products that were popular at the time and were sold there. Coca Cola is often referenced; other examples are Pet milk (chapter 14), Planters’ peanuts, and the soft drink Dr. Pepper (chapter 21).

The book’s title alludes to earlier African American literary contributions. It is a line from the poem “Sympathy” by African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar.

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,

When he beats his bars and would be free;

Maya’s growing passion for books and reading is closely connected with her relationship with Mrs. Flowers. The “refined” Mrs. Flowers seems like people in books (chapter 15):

Like women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were).

This is an allusion to Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights, in which moors are prominent landscape features. Marguerite’s regard for Mrs. Flowers is so great that she does not want to consider that white people would denigrate her. Angelou expresses the fragility of her image by referring to “the unmendable Humpty-Dumpty,” the egg-man from the children’s rhyme.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the allusions in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

The title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a reference to a late-nineteenth-century Black poet named Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose work Angelou knew and appreciated. It is an allusion to the third stanza of his poem "Sympathy."

In this stanza, the speaker states that he knows why a bruised bird who is caged sings. It is not a sign of joy or contentment but a "prayer" and a "plea" to God for liberation. This stanza, in turn, refers back to the fact that the frequent singing of slaves was often used to argue that they were happy in their situation. Black people, however, knew that their singing was a song of lament and represented a wish to be liberated from their chains.

For Angelou, the caged bird sings to express a desire for freedom. This is what Maya most yearns for in the novel. She would like to be free of the racism and sexism that permeates US society as she is growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. As she puts it, she is

caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.

Being Black, being a woman, and having no power makes it difficult for her to pursue her dreams. The book is thus her form of a song, articulating her desire to be free.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of symbolism in chapters 1-5 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on