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Point of View in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Instructor: Joe Ricker

Joe has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

Maya Angelou's autobiographical work illustrates the precocious perspective of a child, and the reflective perspective of her as an adult. Through this work, the reader can see her intellectual perspective on the events in her life develop.

The Child and the Adult

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical work, which means it's told in first person point of view. The novel dictates Maya Angelou's experiences growing up with constant transitions with family members and different regions of the country. Most of her childhood and upbringing takes place in Stamps, Arkansas, where she learns about culture, but more specifically, the intricacies of being Black in the South. During different periods of her life, Marguerite, or Maya, lives with both of her grandmothers, her mother and her father. She even spends a brief stint being homeless.

The most significant aspect about the point of view in this narrative is the presence of the narrator and closeness she has to the situations she faces. We also see the reflection of Angelou as an adult as she recalls past events. The best way to illustrate this is to look at some passages from the book. This lesson will look at some quotes and analyze the point of view from them.

A Child's View

Despite her grandmother status in the community of Stamps, Arkansas, Marguerite's grandmother, whom she calls 'Momma,' is diligent about teaching her a safe role to follow because she is black and living in the South. Angelou writes:

'Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones.'

While she doesn't fully understand the severity of 'knowing her place' as an African-American, even as a child she understands that her grandmother is trying to show her the best way to keep herself from getting into trouble.

Marguerite's perspective is also closely attached to what she's learned through religion - Christianity, specifically. While her and Bailey (her brother who is a year older) wear clothes her grandmother has made for them, their Uncle Willie, who is a cripple, is the only one in the family who wears store-bought clothes. Despite his disability, Marguerite sees him as vain, as seen in the following passage.

'I thought Uncle Willie sinfully vain, especially when I had to iron seven stiff starched shirts and not leave a cat's face anywhere.'

Perspective Transitions

As Marguerite gets a few years older, her child-like perspective begins to fade with some observations and is a more subtle, adult observation of the things around her. For example, how Marguerite sees her mother and her relationships with men is illustrated in the following line.

'To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.'

However, Marguerite's perspective as a young girl returns with the things she knew little about. She knows little about sex and what's appropriate between a child and an adult. While living with her mother, Marguerite is sexually molested by her mother's boyfriend. The event Marguerite describes below.

'He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn't ever let me go.'

This child-like yearning for a father-figure to be present in her life veils the true nature of what's happened. It leaves her with obvious confusion, and her feelings are misguided. However, the older Marguerite's perspective seeps into the point of view with the following passage. Here she acknowledges the event with a more knowing perspective of how she became a victim.

'The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.'

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