I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary
by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings book cover
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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography in which Maya Angelou recounts the story of her life up to the birth of her son. Though she faces many hardships, she eventually finds happiness as a mother.

  • A young Maya Angelou, then known as Marguerite Johnson, is raped. She is left mute for five years.

  • Marguerite moves to San Francisco, where she becomes the first black employee of the San Francisco streetcars.

  • She begins to explore her sexuality and quickly becomes pregnant. At age 16, she gives birth to a son—which she describes as the best moment of her life.

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Summary of the Novel
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiography of Marguerite Johnson, later known as Maya Angelou. The book takes the reader from Marguerite’s arrival in Stamps, Arkansas, to the birth of her son.

Through the writer’s vivid portrayals of events, the reader experiences Marguerite’s insecurity, her love of family, her church and school experiences which were so important in her growing up, and her visits to her mother and father. On one of these visits to her mother’s, Marguerite is raped by her mother’s friend. The ultimate result of this violation is his death at the hands of Mother Dear’s brothers. Marguerite is mute for some time after this. (Some sources say she did not speak for five years.)

Marguerite describes in detail how she returns to Stamps and is at last able to make two friends: Mrs. Flowers and Louise Kendricks. As Marguerite matures she is able to observe the social order around her in Stamps. She describes the church picnic, the congregating of the neighbors in the Store to hear the fights on the radio, and the pride of the community in the eighth-grade graduation exercises. All the while, the young narrator is observing the class and caste system of the South.

It is after her brother encounters a man being dragged from the river that her grandmother takes her to California to live with her mother. Marguerite is impressed with how her grandmother, who has never before left the vicinity of Stamps, is able to function in a new social structure. Marguerite makes the reader aware of the class and caste system which exists in the West. It is when her father invites her to visit him in another town in California that she becomes aware of still another social structure.

Her father lives with Dolores Stockland, who becomes very angry when Marguerite goes with her father into Mexico and does not return until the next day. An argument ensues and Dolores cuts Marguerite. Marguerite’s father is ashamed and embarrassed by the incident and leaves Marguerite with friends; Marguerite runs away.

Marguerite spends her first night in a junkyard and wakes the next morning to find faces peering in the windows at her. She meets a gang of juveniles who live in the junked cars and who have their own code of conduct. Marguerite makes her home with them for a month and finds her insecurity dislodged. She at last calls her mother for plane fare home.

Marguerite breaks racial barriers in California when she secures employment as the first Black employee on the San Francisco streetcars. Even though she has found security with the junkyard gang, Marguerite has trouble dealing with her own sexuality and wonders if she is developing normally. After reading a book on lesbianism, she fears that she is lesbian. To satisfy her questions and to find out about her “normalcy” once and for all, Marguerite decides to have sex and try to work out a relationship with one of two brothers who live near her home. Three weeks later, with her questions still unanswered, Marguerite finds herself pregnant.

Marguerite keeps her secret from everyone but Bailey and manages to graduate from high school about three weeks before the birth of her son. The book ends with Marguerite accepting the care and support of the child she loves.

The most important theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  is the maturation of Marguerite and, to...

(The entire section is 1,746 words.)