I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Summary and Analysis
by Maya Angelou
They finally reach home, and Dolores is angry; she and Daddy Bailey have an argument, and Dolores accuses him of letting his children come between them. He reacts badly to this, since she is jealous without cause if her problem is Maya being there. She says she wants to marry him, but dislikes Maya and doesn't want her around; he storms out, and leaves her crying there.
Maya feels sorry for her, since she thinks her dad was cruel; she goes out to try and console her, which is not a good idea. Dolores is upset and insults Maya's mother, and Maya slaps her; Dolores cuts Maya somehow, and Maya has to run and lock herself in her father's car to protect herself. Her father comes back, gets Dolores in the house, and Maya tells him that Dolores cut her. Her father drives her away to a friend who is a nurse, who cleans and bandages Maya; he then drives her to a friend's house for the night. His reasoning in not taking her to a hospital is selfish; it would reflect badly on him, and he doesn't want that at all. He comes the next day, to give her money; she decides to run away, and finds herself on the streets.
Probably as a result of the Mexican adventure, Maya suddenly gets a bit full of herself; she thinks that what she is doing is "merciful," letting a bit of the religious self-righteousness that she learned in Stamps get to her. She alludes to Florence Nightingale to describe her manner, reinforcing this belief that she is innocent and can do some good; but, she is clearly naïve, if she thinks that she can console this woman, who just declared that she hates Maya. She does display her mother's temperament, though, as she is hot-tempered and violent in their encounter.
Again, Angelou's tone turns melodramatic as she tells of thinking she is going to die from the minor cut that Dolores gives her. She even comes up with a quote to say before she dies, that is suitably maudlin. And her shallow consideration of suicide also reveals a young girl with a taste for drama; perhaps viewing recent events through the lens of melodrama makes bearing the facts easier for Maya.
Maya wanders around town, and decides to spend the evening in a junkyard car. When she wakes up, she finds a bunch of young people surrounding the car. As it turns out, all of them live in the junkyard in separate cars, and go about doing various menial jobs during the day. They share everything among the group, and Maya ends up living there among the kids for a month. Then, she phones her mother and tells her that she wants to come home. Her mom pays her airfare, and all Maya has to do is get to the airport. She says her goodbyes to the group, which are pretty casual; and she arrives home in San Francisco, her mother having no idea of Maya's adventures during the summer.
The junkyard seems like an ideal refuge for Maya; she is among a group of people her own age and makes many friends, which she hasn't done too often. Again, the theme of abandonment which could have taken over the story after the last episode with her father is avoided. And there is a certain dramatic irony in the fact that when we'd expect Maya to be in a position of loneliness and hardship, she actually feels more secure and befriended than ever before. She sheds her naivete, and her melodramatic tendencies, and any self-righteousness she has; she becomes more adult during this episode, and more at home with people.
Maya comes back, feeling much older; Bailey has also grown up over the summer, since he's been hanging out with a bunch of tough kids and has become rougher and less emotional. Their friendship cools a little because of this, and they do not talk very much. Maya is finally able to dance well, thanks to her newly-found confidence; she and Bailey go to swing dances in the city, and have a lot of fun. Maya begins to lose interest in a lot of things, finally becoming "blasé".
Mother orders Bailey from the house, since they need a separation due to his growing up; he leaves and becomes like the men she knows, dressing flashy and "acquiring" a white prostitute as a girlfriend. When Bailey gets home a few hours after his curfew, there is a bust-up and Bailey decides to leave home to prove to his mother that he is bolder than she thinks. He stomps out, and Maya is sad, of course; she finds him the next day, and talks to him.
Bailey is determined that he shouldn't go back home; he thinks it's better that way, and that he has reached a "time in his life" when it makes sense for him to strike out on his own. Maya doesn't think he is making any sense; he is barely 16 and can't really take care of himself. However, she know that he believes that what he is doing is right, and will not be dissuaded; she tells him that if she can do anything for him she will, and they say goodbye.
The theme of family ties again becomes prominent in the narrative; Bailey and his mother are at odds, with Mother determined to straighten Bailey out in an attempt to prove that she is a good mother. Angelou's metaphor comparing herself to "Switzerland" shows how powerless she is in the face of this feud; although she loves both, she is not close enough to be able to soothe the fray. She compares the blow-up to the end of the world, an overstatement surely, but conveying the significance of the event to her. Even Bailey becomes nothing like the brother she knows; he is hard and angry, contrasting sharply with who he used to be.
It's rather apparent from Bailey's diction that he is at least a little deluded about the choice he is making. He repeatedly says that he is a "man," though he is no more than a child; he also starts to speak in cliches, saying "there is a tide and time in every man's life," and saying that every man must "cut the apron strings." His use of these cliches suggests that he is merely mouthing other people's words, and using these common phrases as a weak attempt to justify his decision. He probably does need some space from his mother, but moving in with a prostitute and living off her money isn't the most mature decision to make.
The metaphor of Bailey's determination being "armor" reinforces his stubbornness, and the fact that Maya will not be able to tell him he's making a mistake. The images of sin Angelou uses in this passage are juxtaposed with Bailey's naivete and ignorance; he is a boy who needs his mother and his home, but is living in a whorehouse with gamblers and lowlifes around him. It's clear that Bailey is not in the right place, but hopefully he will grow out of his determination and learn better.
Maya feels the need for a change, though leaving home is out of the question for her. She decides that she has to get a job, and thinks her mother will support this decision. She decides she can probably get a job on the streetcars, though her mother tells her they don't hire colored people to work on them. But, she sees Maya's determination, and tells her to go for it if that is what she wants.
Maya goes to the offices of the streetcar company, and finds them run-down and shoddy. When she asks for the personnel manager, she gets a run-around because she is black; she gets the man's name, and is still determined to get the job. She visits the office frequently, over a number of weeks; finally, she fills out an application, takes some tests, and is hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
The job helps her to feel independent, as she is making her own money; her mother drives her to work early in the morning, and also picks her up whenever she needs it. When she does go back to school, she can't relate to the other pupils; she has seen and done too much, and grown too old, to have anything in common with them. She decides to tough it out, though, so she doesn't shame her mother. Growing up was certainly not easy for Maya, but she managed to get through it and not compromise herself in the process.
The theme of racism makes another return to Angelou's story; but, unlike in Stamps, she is able to triumph over it and accomplish what she wishes to. She becomes an "enraged bulldog," the metaphor highlighting her determination; and without this determination, and her mother's support, she would never have been able to get the job. Angelou comparing her confrontation with racism at the office to a "play" being staged again and again shows that racism is still institutionalized in the city, and that the outcome of these situations is always the same. This metaphor seems to foreshadow failure in Maya's attempt to get hired, although she ends up making a surprising triumph.
That images of San Francisco grow "alien and cold" to her shows the resistance Maya faces when she decides to fight the system. And when she finally achieves her goal, San Francisco again becomes a place of wonder, as Angelou describes the sights with more passion and warmth. The city is a symbol reflecting Maya's feelings at any given time; whatever she feels about life, she seems to see it reflected back at her through the sights of the city.
Angelou's metaphor of youth being a tightrope tells of the difficulty of growing up, and staying balanced through the trials. And, staying balanced while being faced with sexism, racism, and racially related limitations is infinitely more difficult. Angelou's story is as much about overcoming obstacles as it is about growing up, and is a reminder that limitations can be overcome through determination and work.
Maya has a book called The Well of Loneliness, which is racy and about lesbianism. The fact that she likes it so much makes her fear that maybe she is a lesbian, which she regards as a distinctly negative thing; she tries to find out exactly what a lesbian is, and whether she really is one or not. She decides to ask her mother about it, though she is embarrassed and wonders what her mother will think of the question. When she does talk to her mother, her mother assures her that there is nothing wrong with her at all; but Maya is not totally convinced by her mother's assurances.
She has a friend of hers over to spend the night, and is intrigued by the sight of her getting changed. Again, she thinks that she must be abnormal, and sets out to prove to herself that she is not. She decides to get a boyfriend, to prove to herself that she is a woman; so, she asks a good-looking neighbor boy to have sex with her, and they do. There is no pleasure or mystery in the experience, and it doesn't settle her mind either. But, a few weeks later, she finds out that she is pregnant.
Once again, Maya is faced with insecurity and shame on the subject of sex. More than anything, she worries what her mother and Bailey would think if they knew what was going on; her reaction parallels her reaction after the thing with Mr. Freeman. At this stage, she is so desperate to be seen as normal, at least in a sexual sense, that she feels a desperate need to reassure herself in any way she can.
Maya is confounded by stereotypes, and ideas of what she should be and look like as a woman. But even though she is insecure, she again demonstrates the same determination she showed driving the car down the mountain; she will prove to herself that she is normal, despite the consequences of doing so. The theme of gender pops up again in her life, coupled with gender expectations; and perhaps it is ironic that with as much as she has learned, she buys into these expectations herself. But she is not a victim, and makes up her mind to "take" what she wants; she may have been steered in the wrong direction, but she goes with determination.
Maya is convinced that the world has ended; she is guilty about being pregnant, and loathes herself for what she has done. She writes Bailey and tells him, and he advises her not to tell her mother; she will finish high school, and then figure out how to deal with it. Her mother is too busy to notice that she is pregnant, which is good for Maya. Maya becomes interested in school again; she graduates, and then leaves her mother and Daddy Clidell a note saying that she has messed up, and is pregnant.
Daddy Clidell and her mother are supportive; they take care of Maya, and she has the baby and continues to live with them. Maya loves the baby, and is proud that it is hers alone. She is afraid to touch the child, and tries to convince her mother that she shouldn't sleep with the baby, because she might crush him. She falls asleep with her baby in the middle of the bed, and her mother on the other side; her mother wakes her up, and tells her not to move. Maya is lying on her side, with the baby touching her and her arm around the child. Her mother reassures Maya that if she means to do the right thing, she will, and Maya goes back to sleep without worry.
The theme of motherhood is the most important in this event in Maya's life; throughout the book, Angelou has regarded motherhood as something sacred and special, and even with her baby son it is no exception. Angelou's passage into motherhood marks her coming of age, and is also the end of her struggles of her young life. And although Maya regards the pregnancy as distinctly negative before she tells her parents, afterward, it becomes a "blessed event"; Maya is redeemed and cleansed through her child, and indeed the baby's birth represents a kind of rebirth for Maya.
The birth of Maya's baby is also the first time that someone actually belongs to her, and that she feel unconditional love for another. "He was beautiful and mine," Maya declares, regarding her child with love. The self-doubt that had plagued Maya is gone, as she has accomplished something she never anticipated. Her motherhood is a fitting end for the novel, since it signals the end of Maya's childhood, but also introduces her motherhood, which is one of the most important themes throughout the rest of her autobiography.
Mother tells Maya, "if you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking"; this is valuable advice for Maya, and also one of the lessons of the novel. Although Maya has acted rashly and made mistakes growing up, in the end she's still a good person and things have come out for the best. Maya learns a valuable lesson in life, which is the value of following her heart; she will make mistakes in the years to come, but she manages to follow her heart, and everything does end up being for the best.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Essays and Related Content
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- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Introduction to Chapter 6
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-24
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 25-30
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