I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Literary Elements


Autobiographical Literature; Bildungsroman

Setting and Context

During the 1940s and 1950s in Stamps, Arkansas, St. Louis, Missouri, various locations in California, and Mexico

Narrator and Point of View

The narrator is Maya Angelou herself, albeit at a much younger age than Angelou was when she wrote the book. For this reason, in interviews Angelou differentiates between herself and “the Maya character.” The book is told from the first-person point of view.

Tone and Mood

The tone of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is at times loving, at times wry, and sometimes indignantly angry. The mood flits between slice of life and tragic, at ease and anxious.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist of the story is Maya Angelou. The antagonist is broadly the challenges of growing up in a society pervaded by racism and sexism.

Major Conflict

The major conflict of Caged Bird is Maya Angelou’s struggle to discover her identity and self worth in the face of racism, white supremacy, and sexism.


As the book is composed of many vignettes or episodes from Angelou’s colorful life, it is hard to pinpoint a “climax.” It is arguable that Maya’s rape is the climax, because it irrevocably changes Maya’s life path. The birth of Maya’s baby boy is another climatic event, because it also changes Maya’s life trajectory and reaffirms her sense of self.


Maya and Dolores’ awkward, strained meeting foreshadows their rocky relationship.


“The white man played like he was going to lock us all up in there, but Mr. Bubba said ‘Ow, Mr. Jim. We didn’t do it. We ain’t done nothing wrong.’” (330)


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has numerous historical, cultural, and political allusions. Joe Louis is just one example of a famous person mentioned in the book. Katina Paxinou and Kay Francis are other celebrities alluded to, and even the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata Salazar receives a nod.

Segregation, Jim Crow, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, and World War II are some of the overarching historical and political allusions of Caged Bird.


See “Imagery” section of the guide.


The paradoxes of racism are something constantly on Maya’s mind. A great example is Momma’s relationship with the "powhitetrash" people of Stamps. Though Momma is clean, kept, and of a higher economic status, she must still grovel and prostrate herself before the "powhitetrash" because she is black and they are white.


Maya and Bailey lead parallel lives for most of their childhood, but end up taking divergent life paths. Bailey leaves home somewhat estranged from Mother, whereas Maya stays home to have her baby and becomes closer to Mother.

Metonymy and Synecdoche