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Free Study Guide-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou-Summary
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OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Marguerite "Maya" Johnson

Maya Angelou has reconstructed her personal history in this autobiographical tale whose protagonist is the child narrator, Maya. In reality, she becomes the collective consciousness of Angelou’s past experiences.

As a character Maya has many obstacles to overcome, including her sense of abandonment when her parents send her away, her grandmother’s rigid fundamentalism, the racism of Stamps, and poverty. In her childhood, her love of books and her devotion to her brother Bailey are the only sustaining things in her life.

Maya’s sense of alienation is compounded when she is reunited with her father and then abandoned again. She is left with Vivian, her beautiful mother, who only makes Maya feel more awkward. Since Vivian has no parenting skills, she often leaves Maya in the care of her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, while she stays out all night gambling. When he makes sexual advances towards Maya, she misinterprets them as fatherly concern. In the end, Freeman loses control and rapes Maya when she is only eight years old. When Freeman is killed by her uncles, Maya feels guilty about his death, as well as ashamed over what has happened to her. Unfortunately, there is no loving figure in her life to help her understand what has happened and to free her from guilt and blame.

The tragedy of the rape has profound consequences for young Maya. She withdraws from all social contact, refusing to speak to anyone other than Bailey. Unable to cope with an emotionally bruised child, Vivian rejects her daughter for a second time and returns her to Stamps to live with Momma once again. Fortunately, Maya is rescued by the kindness of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who helps in her recovery and once more introduces her to the world of books; but Maya never feels that she belongs in Stamps.

When Momma decides that it is time for Maya to return to California, due to the racism of Stamps, Maya is almost numb. The fact that she has been constantly tossed back and forth has created in Maya a devastating sense of not belonging anywhere. In addition, the prejudice that she endures as a black and a female makes her feel that she has no worth or power.


When Maya arrives in California, she is shocked to find that Daddy Bailey is living with Dolores, a girl who is not much older than she. The two young women fight for the attention of Maya’s father. Upset over the fact that Bailey took Maya with him to Mexico and left her behind, Dolores picks a fight with Maya and stabs her with a pair of scissors. The attack causes Maya to think about her painful past, and she decides to runaway before she is seriously injured again. She meets a group of runaways living in a junkyard and stays with them for more than a month. They accept Maya for who and what she is. For the first time in a long time, she gains some self-confidence and self-worth. Although she is happy in the runaway commune, she wants more for herself; therefore, she decides to return to Vivian.

Back in San Francisco, Maya realizes how much she has changed. She no longer sees Bailey as a perfect human being and realizes that adults have no real power over her. Even the city itself has lost its charm for Maya. When Bailey moves out to take a job with the railroad, Maya once again feels totally isolated. Wanting to do something with her life, she decides she wants to be a conductor on the San Francisco streetcar line. Vivian warns her that she will not be hired because she is black. Maya, however, is determined and doggedly pursues the position. In the end, she becomes the first black female to ever be hired. Once again, Maya feels that she has some worth.

When she returns to school in the fall, Maya has matured to the point that she no longer fits in with her peers. Feeling like she does not belong, she begins to skip school. When Vivian suggests that she simply quit school, Maya wakes up. She suddenly accepts that she is in control of her life and her destiny. As a result, she begins to apply herself in high school, determined to graduate.

As Maya goes through puberty, she becomes conscious of her appearance and her body. She worries about whether she is developing in the right way. Unfortunately, since she is not close to Vivian, there is no one to assure her, and she continues to have doubts. When she learns about lesbianism, she is worried that she might be one herself. To prove that she is not, she asks a neighborhood boy to have sex with her. Unfortunately, she gets pregnant. Maya, wanting to continue in school, hides the pregnancy from everyone. At graduation, she is eight months pregnant, and no one realizes it.

The birth of her son at the end of the novel finally gives Maya the connection she has wanted. Throughout the book, she has ached for a sense of belonging, but unfortunately, she only meets with rejection. She is jeered by her peers, taunted by the white race, sexually abused by a man who should have cared for her as his child, neglected by an egocentric father, and abandoned by her mother. In spite of the "masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power," Maya emerges as a whole person who adores the child she has produced.

As a narrator and as a character, Maya is compelling. Her voice is real and always changing; sometimes she is childlike and sometimes reflective. But she is always honest, frank, evocative, and fresh. Since she is able to expose her strengths and her weaknesses in the book, the reader associates with her. In the end, she becomes an unforgettable character.

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