Irony in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will discuss the various types of irony in Maya Angelou's autobiographical novel about her abusive childhood, ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings''. Afterwards, take the quiz to see what you learned.


Have you ever tried to do something nice for someone, only to have it backfire on you? When things don't work out the way you expect, it is called irony. In Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the author uses verbal, situational, and dramatic irony to describe her childhood experiences with racism and abuse. Let's look at some examples of the three types of irony from this novel.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when what a person says and what they mean are not the same. Sometimes, verbal irony is sarcastic. When describing the level of racism in Stamps, Arkansas, where she grew up, Maya writes, 'People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn't buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate.' Maya does not literally mean that white people eat vanilla and black people eat only chocolate ice cream, but declaring that vanilla ice cream can only be enjoyed on a national holiday is a way that Maya expresses her frustration with unfair segregation that she experiences in her environment.

Situational Irony

Situational irony is when what happens is the opposite of what you would expect. Maya explains, '. . .I sweated through horrifying nightmares. . . on my particularly bad nights my mother (Vivian) would take me in to sleep with her, in the large bed with Mr. Freeman (Vivian's partner).' Maya's mother brought Maya to her bed to try to make her feel safe. Ironically, the act of sleeping in bed with Mr. Freeman led to Maya's rape. She would have been safer in her own bed.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader is aware of some facts that some of the characters do not know. This lack of information leads to the character saying or doing things that they would not if they knew the entire story. After Maya is raped, she lays in bed. Maya explains, 'When Mother called us to eat and I said I wasn't hungry, she laid her cool hand on my forehead and cheeks. 'Maybe it's the measles. They say they're going around the neighborhood.'

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