Maya Angelou’s I Know Why Caged Bird Sings illustrates how an innocent and naive girl growing up in the midst of the Great Depression overcomes life’s many obstacles and becomes the powerful and influential woman she is today.
Maya is a world renowned author, teacher, speaker, actress, and mother. Through this autobiographical piece, Maya’s use of figurative language and allusion compounds her thoughts, as she depicts how one can supersede the expected barriers and soar to new heights.
In chapters 14 and 15 of the book, Maya’s usage of figurative language conveys her struggle to speak. Through a tragic rape by her mother’s boyfriend, Maya is scared for life and is led to believe that the very sound of her voice is lethal, consequently, she conceives a six year silence that, not knowing then, could limit her opportunities and convert her fate. After returning from St. Louis and entering Stamps, Maya entered her six year “cocoon.”
This haven extricated her metamorphic spurt into reality and womanhood. As with every cocoon, there is always a time when one must leave and bravely enter the unknown world behind the shell. Mrs. Flowers encouraged Maya to emerge and assisted her in finding her strongest defense and force, her love of literature, to open this barrier and allow Maya to end the silence.
By doing this, it enhanced Maya’s courage and willingness to conquer other barriers and fortresses. Maya’s love of literature expanded and opened her horizons. One of Maya’s favorite pieces of literature is The Tale of Two Cities.
She enjoyed it because it was a tale of her life, although in different cities, now being St. Louis and Stamps, it seemed as if she was reading her own autobiography, which is, in fact, rather portentous and foreshadowing. With the first line of the book being, “it was the best of times and the worst of times…”, it paints a portrait of Maya’s childhood. Maya, even though she struggled through adolescence, it was the best time of her life. It was her learning period. It was her no turning back period. She felt as if, even though the outer exterior of the environment was corrupt, why must her life be? It didn’t have to be. Maya emerged into being a “dirty and inedible biscuit.”
Maya is becoming a very strong and independent woman. Most biscuits, when old, are moldy and have a very hard outer covering with a soft inside. Maya has, again, built herself a fortress of protection, yet she is able to express herself freely. With this hard, outer covering, it protects her from insults and segregation. This also demonstrates her incredible lack of self-esteem. During the Depression, food was hard to come by, most would consume food even if appeared to be inedible. She compares herself to a needed, yet unwanted, source, making her very insecure and unable to express her feelings. Like most other stale foods, biscuits crumble easily. If handled or touched the wrong way, she would, indeed, crumble and leave bits of her soul behind.
Figurative language continues throughout the chapter establishing Maya’s mentor, Mrs. Flowers. She is the one person whom targeted Maya’s weaknesses and powerful points, hence making her the significant woman she is today. She was a beautiful black woman whom was so frail, she would “snag like a plum” if touched. Mrs. Flowers was put on a pedestal. She was an educated woman, whom, by this statement, seems to have been very beautiful, much like a porcelain doll. She was a role model for Maya.
Maya looked up to her in every way, for beauty, intelligence, and her “womanly like” stature. She was like the “women in English novels who walked the moors.” Mrs. Flowers was much like a white person to Maya. She seemed fictional, like it was too good to be true. A beautiful woman strolling through open wasteland is how Maya saw her. She was peaceful, yet powerful, and beautiful, yet independent. This being what Maya
Wanted and hoped for in life… her own independence, intelligence, and beauty. Mrs. Flowers and Mamma expected Maya to be “womanly like,” not knowing what happened in St. Louis. Maya was afraid that they would find out what happened to her. Mrs. Flowers built her to be a woman, without Maya even acknowledging it. She did it patiently, therefore succeeding and constructing a path for Maya on her way to becoming a woman.
In conclusion, Maya sets an example, just as Mrs. Flowers did for her, and tells the world that anyone can succeed if they try. Maya overcame the wrath of childhood rape, segregation, prostitution, hate, and love. She writes this to express that she, too, knows why the caged bird sings and anyone can overcome if they merely open their wings and fly.