I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
Maya is obsessed with her ugliness, and that means she's obsessed with how everyone else looks, too. Nearly every character in Caged Bird gets a detailed physical description that gives us some insight to their personality.
Here's an example. Sure, Momma is described as good-looking, but most of the physical descriptions focus on her height, strength, and rough hands. And of course, her physical strength reminds us of her strength of character—she's a single, working woman who's taking care of a disabled son and two not-so-easy grandchildren.
Momma stands in contrast to Vivian, who is just breathtakingly beautiful. Vivian's beauty reminds us of her vanity and her focus on herself instead of her children. And it's no accident that the other person as gorgeous as Vivian is the eternally absent Daddy Bailey.
Speech and Dialogue
In Maya's world, there are two kinds of people: those who speak proper English and those who don't. When her father comes to town with his "ers and even errers"(9.2), Maya is blown away. Then we've got Mrs. Flowers, whose speech is by far the most refined and delicate in the novel. People who speak Standard English are educated, and when she is young, Maya thinks this is the best thing since sliced bread.
But after her lessons with Mrs. Flowers, Maya learns an important lesson: education doesn't make people good and illiteracy doesn't make them stupid. After this point, Maya finds respect for people who don't speak Standard English (the conmen), and she learns to look beyond the language in those who do (ahem, Dolores).
Let's do a quick rundown of the habits people have in Caged Bird:
- Maya reads. A lot. She is never without a book, she spends her Saturdays in the library, and when Bailey leaves the house, he offers to give her his collection of books. What do we glean from this? Um… Maya is a nerd. She is quiet, bookish, and would rather spend the night reading than out on the town. This is our kind of girl.
- Vivian is always dancing, smoking, and having a good time. But wait, isn't she an adult? Kind of strange that we never see her cooking, cleaning, or even working, right? This tells us that Vivian is a free spirit—she doesn't want to be tied down with kids, and she's all about the fun.
- Momma, on the other hand, is always cooking, cleaning, working, and going to church. Her habits pretty clearly tell us how important duty and religion are to her. She doesn't have to say it, she just does it.
We'll let you fill in the rest of the list. What are Bailey Jr.'s habits and what do they tell us about him? What about Mrs. Flowers? Daddy Clidell?
Social Status and Names
The social hierarchy in Stamps is rigid and strictly followed. Honorifics are one way of making sure that system stays in place:
All adults had to be addressed as Mister, Missus, Miss, Auntie, Cousin, Unk, Uncle, Buhbah, Sister, Brother and a thousand other appellations indicating familial relationship and the lowliness of the addressor. (5.5)
Usually, these forms of address help us figure out someone's social status. For example, Sister Monroe, who is primarily defined through her relationship to the church, is called "Sister" instead of "Mrs." And then of course, there's Joyce, who is poorer than the poorest person in Stamps and depicted as a pretty bad seed. This girl doesn't even get the dignity of a last name.
Since honorifics are so important, what is the significance of Momma calling Mrs. Flowers "Sister"? And how about that scene when Momma is called Mrs. Henderson? What's that about?