Study Guide

Marguerite Ann Johnson (Maya/Ritie) in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou

Marguerite Ann Johnson (Maya/Ritie)

The Bookworm

Maya is a total dork. And boy do we love us some dorks.

This girl is nearly the valedictorian of her grade school and she receives a full scholarship to college. She spends most of her Saturdays in the library, and at five years old, she falls in love with Shakespeare the way other girls would be obsessed with, um, Barbies. Oh yeah, and to complete the stereotype, she is tall and skinny with no curves whatsoever. All she needs are some glasses and she'd be a bonafide Poindexter.

But beneath this dorky exterior is… more dorkiness. Just check out the list of "Allusions"—this girl never stops reading. At every moment, it seems that she has a book in her hand that perfectly explains her mood. For Maya, books are a refuge from life.

No one can deny that Maya's life is the pits: she grows up black in the racist South with a strict Christian grandmother, she is raped at the age of eight, and she thinks she is hideous while everyone else in her family seems to have jumped straight out of the pages of Vogue. There are few things that are consistent in her life, but books and their importance persist from the first chapters to the last.

Young Maya almost feels like her life is part of a story. Remember the scene where Mr. Taylor tells the family about his dead wife (Chapter 22)? That could come straight out of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Maya patches the holes in her life with literature, too. When Momma goes in to talk to Dr. Lincoln, Maya imagines a scene that could fit right in with the adventure comics and stories that she reads:

With just an edge of her disgust showing, Momma slung him back in his dentist's chair. "Sorry is as sorry does, and you're about the sorriest dentist I ever laid my eyes on." (24.34)

Of course, she finds out later that what she imagined was far from the truth, but her version creates a nicer view of reality than the real world does.

As she gets older, Maya doesn't use books just as a refuge from the world—she uses them to understand it better. Mrs. Flowers and her "lessons in living" (Chapter 15) help change Maya from just a bookworm into an author and a poet. This is a girl who reads everything from the heroes of the Harlem Renaissance to the Sunday comics to The Rubáiyát.

Angelou takes great pains to let us see how each piece of literature contributed to transforming Maya the girl into Angelou, the world-renowned author. And it's no wonder Caged Bird is so darn good. It was written by someone with a whole lot of experience with literature.

The Ugly Duckling

Maya is also super emo. Look up insecure in the dictionary, and there she is with an afrohawk.

To make matters worse, Maya constantly compares herself to her brother. While she has gap teeth, small eyes, dry skin, and kinky hair, Bailey Jr. is perfect and wonderful in every way:

When I was described by our playmates as being s*** color, he was lauded for his velvet-black skin. His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with black steel wool. (4.9)

Hmph. As if having a beautiful brother isn't enough, turns out Maya's father is also beautiful. And guess what? He makes fun of her lack of refinement. Then there's her mother, who's like Aphrodite and Marilyn Monroe and Rihanna all rolled up in one. Maya figures that's why she got rid of her kids:

I knew immediately why she had sent me away. She was too beautiful to have children. I had never seen a woman as pretty as she who was called 'Mother.' (9.15)

Imagine being surrounded by all of that, and feeling like you lost at the genetic Wheel-of-Fortune.

Lost and Insecure

Her family life doesn't help matters. Maya and Bailey Jr. were sent away from their parents when they were three and four years old. They wonder what they did wrong that their parents wouldn't want them anymore. Their insecurity grows when they find out that their parents were living in the mythical land of California while they suffered in Arkansas. Talk about being rejected.

Bottom line: Maya doesn't feel loved. Even when she asks Momma—the woman who raised her—if she loves her, Momma answers, "God is love. Just worry about whether you're being a good girl, then He will love you" (9.6). Not a great confidence booster for our little Maya.

These insecurities make it tough for Maya to meet people. Other students make fun of her appearance and call her stuck up and arrogant. In the whole book, Maya only has one friend, Louise Kendricks.

But by the end of the novel, Maya builds some self-confidence. With the help of Momma, Mrs. Flowers, Miss Kirwin, and Daddy Clidell, she cobbles together the parents that she never had. Then, in the supportive atmosphere of the junkyard where she was homeless, she stops critiquing herself so much and becomes more independent. We know she's on her way to confidence when she mercilessly campaigns to become the first-ever black conductorette (Chapter 34).

Even though she becomes pregnant because of her rampant insecurity, becoming a mother is a big step for Maya in finally finding love and acceptance. Her son is hers alone, and she loves him intensely. Although at first she has the same old fears of not being good enough, her mother shows her that she is good enough—without even trying:

Mother whispered, "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."

She turned out the light and I patted my son's body lightly and went back to sleep. (36.32-33)

It seems that Maya becomes the mother that she never had, and she gives her son the love that she never felt.

"You Know how Tender- Hearted She Is"

Tender-hearted. This phrase is used to describe Maya six times in the novel, but what exactly does it mean? To get us started, here's list of words that are used when people talk about Maya being "tender-hearted": sad, sensitive, crying, moody, withdrawn, worry, sick, delicate health.

Hmmm, seems like tender-hearted might be a nice way of calling someone "depressed." When Maya moves back to Stamps after her rape in St. Louis, she explains:

Then, too, I was well known for being "tender-hearted." Southern N****es used that term to mean sensitive and tended to look upon a person with that affliction as being a little sick or in delicate health. So I was not so much forgiven as I was understood. (14.26)

Although we could shrug this off as part of her image as the "sensitive artist," that would clash with most of the tone of the novel. This is a funny book, right? Even though so many horrible things happen, Maya almost always seems amused. But remember, this is the tone of an adult Maya looking back at her life. Maybe all of that humor is a way to protect the Maya in the novel from all the sadness that author Maya knows she is feeling.

The Rape

Okay, it's time for the really sad stuff. We'll just go ahead and lay it out there: Maya is raped by her mother's boyfriend when she is only eight years old—so young that she was "sure that any minute […] the Green Hornet would bust in the door and save me" (12.6). The rape seeps into the rest of the novel with consequences that last a lifetime—Maya's lifetime.

When Mr. Freeman first molests Maya, the biggest thing she seems to take away from it is not that he abused her, but that he held her. She feels loved and she misses the connection she felt with this man: "I began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and the encasement of his big arms" (11.25). This is not unusual for child sexual abuse victims. Maya desires that love so much that she vies for Mr. Freeman's attention, sitting in his lap and hoping for a hug.

When Mr. Freeman is found dead, Maya assumes that her lies killed him—this leads her to her vow of silence:

Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they'd curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended. (13.31)

Considering that writing is an author's life, the muteness of a future poet is like death. And sure enough, Maya doesn't speak until Mrs. Flowers teaches her that words have the power to communicate and create, not destroy.

The Aftermath

Maya doesn't talk very much about how she deals with the rape, but there is one tiny little allusion that might shed some light on her thoughts. Maya mentions that she memorized The Rape of Lucrece (which, by the way, is super-long—impressive!) by her main squeeze Shakespeare before her graduation from eighth grade (23.44). The poem talks about the rape of Lucretia, a mythical Roman woman who was known for her chastity. After her rape, she makes the men in her family get revenge and then commits suicide.

Let's take a look at this poem. The way we see it, there are two important things to notice: (1) Shakespeare forgives Lucretia in the poem. (2) The poem mentions Philomela, a woman who was raped and whose tongue was cut out so that she couldn't tell anyone what had happened.

Now that your schooling in Shakespeare and ancient mythology is over, what does it all mean? Well, we're not quite sure. Maybe Maya has finally forgiven herself for the rape. Maybe she realizes that she doesn't want to be silent anymore. And as we know from Caged Bird, Maya is anything but silent.

A Caged Bird

Since titles have to mean something (check out "What's Up With the Title?" for more on that), we're going to say that Maya herself is the famous caged bird. You know, the one that sings. This is a girl who is caged—or trapped—by the big three: racism, sexism, and classism. And what's worse, she's super-aware of it all:

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. It is an unnecessary insult. (Prologue.11-12)

With all of these things caging her, why does she sing? Why does she keep going, and why does she write this book? Well, in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, the caged bird sings a prayer of hope. So maybe this is Maya's prayer.