Study Guide

Vivian Baxter Johnson in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou

Vivian Baxter Johnson

A Force of Nature

Vivian is a force of nature. We'd like to take credit for that metaphor, but Angelou beat us to it: "To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power" (9.15). We all know that a hurricane can crush a whole city in a matter of minutes—Vivian Baxter is no different.

This woman has no mercy or sympathy; if you cross her, you are going down. There are two stories in the novel that detail how she almost killed people just for cursing at her: once by beating them with a club and once by shooting them… repeatedly. So yeah, you don't want to mess with Mother Dear.

Then why are we still so drawn to her? For one thing, she's beautiful:

Her red lips […] split to show even white teeth and her fresh-butter color looked see-through clean. Her smile widened her mouth beyond her cheeks beyond her ears and seemingly through the walls to the street outside. (9.15)

Whew. That's a woman we'd like to lay eyes on. (Angelou's incredible prose doesn't hurt either.)

Vivian also seems like she would be a lot of fun to be around. She is constantly dancing and making jokes, and she throws her kids a secret midnight party. What's better than that? Just be careful not to get on her bad side.

The Other Side of the Madonna-Whore Complex

Did we mention that Vivian is Maya's mom? It's easy to forget, since Momma (Maya's grandma) is the one who really plays the part of mother. The contrast between these two women is important: Momma is tall, Vivian is short; Momma is dark, Vivian is light. Vivian is educated, comes from a big city up north, and wears lipstick (ooh!). She jokes, dances, smokes, and gambles. Basically, she's bizarro Momma.

Quick break for some psychoanalysis (fun!). The Madonna-Whore complex is a term developed by our favorite guy with a giant beard, Mr. Sigmund Freud. The boiled-down version says that women are either saintly, perfect, gentle mothers like the Virgin Mary, or drug-addled, sex-crazed, nymphomaniacs. Sound a little extreme? That's because it is. But you'll see examples of the Madonna-Whore complex everywhere from videogames to TV advertisements.

If you haven't already guessed, Vivian isn't exactly on the Madonna side of the complex. She engages in nearly all of the traditional vices, and her consistent defining feature is her great beauty and power over men. She's a hot mom, and instead of working a regular job, she relies on sugar daddies to support her and her children.

On a Scale of Absent to Helicopter…

Vivian is all about marching to the beat of her own drum:

[H]er major concern was to live the life given to her, and her children were expected to do the same. (36.6)

Think about it. Maya was able to go through nearly her entire pregnancy without Vivian noticing. If she were in Stamps, Momma probably would have known before conception. Vivian also throws late-night parties and allows her children to hang out with all her sugar daddies. But on the other hand, Vivian takes care of Maya after she is raped, and she comes home to support Maya when she finds out she's pregnant.

So what do you think? On that scale of absent mom to helicopter mom, where does Vivian fall? Is she a good mother? Does she provide for her children? Or would we be more likely to find her at the club than at a PTA meeting?