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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


by Maya Angelou

Analysis: Tone

Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?

Comedic, Positive

Wait, what? Are we still talking about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Yeppers.

For a novel with some pretty depressing themes and plotlines, this really is a funny book. Angelou really has a way with words (check out "Writing Style" for more on that). Don't believe us? We dare you not to laugh:

Deacon Jackson, a tall, thin, quiet man, who was also a part-time Sunday school teacher, gave a scream like a falling tree, leaned back on thin air and punched Reverend Taylor on the arm. It must have hurt as much as it caught the Reverend unawares. There was a moment's break in the rolling sounds and Reverend Taylor jerked around surprised, and hauled off and punched Deacon Jackson. In the same second Sister Wilson caught his tie, looped it over her fist a few times, and pressed down on him. There wasn't time to laugh or cry before all three of them were down on the floor behind the altar. Their legs spiked out like kindling wood. (6.24)

Did we mention this all goes down in church? Still not laughing? Maybe this is more your cup of tea:

"Well? ... Well? Have you got crabs?"[…]

"I don't know, Mother."

"Do you itch? Does your vagina itch?" She leaned on one elbow and jabbed out her cigarette.

"No, Mother."

"Then you don't have crabs. If you had them, you'd tell the world." (35.16, 18-21)

And how about this gem from Vivian—just for good measure: "Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary, and I can't even read" (26.35).

Just in these three examples, Angelou has infused humor into religion, STDs, and illiteracy. That's pretty impressive stuff.

What's the point of writing in this comedic style? Maybe it's like a spoonful of sugar—you know, making the bad stuff easier to swallow. It could be a way for Maya the author to protect Maya the character from all the sadness she knows she is feeling. Without the funny stuff, Caged Bird would be, well, super depressing. Maybe the point is to be a bit more triumphant.

How do you think the novel would change if there weren't a comedic tone? What other ways could Angelou have lightened the sadness of the story?

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