Rhetorical Devices in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Want to add a little extra memorability to your writing? Consider rhetorical devices. In this lesson, we'll take a look at some examples of rhetorical devices in Maya Angelou's, ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings''.

It's All Rhetorical

Imagine you're having a chat with a co-worker over lunch, when your friend asks you to do something you think is impossible. You utter, ''Who do you think I am, Superman?'' Perhaps without knowing it, you've employed a rhetorical device to try to get across your point. The device in this instance is an allusion, a passing reference to the strength of a superhero.

The use of rhetorical devices is common in all types of media, including literature. There are literally hundreds of choices of rhetorical devices that authors can use to jazz up their writing, like antimetabole, epizeuxis and onomatopoeia. No, those aren't made-up words, but real literary devices that can create a more memorable experience for readers.

Maya Angelou used a number of the more popular rhetorical devices in her writing, including hyperbole, simile and alliteration. In this lesson, we'll take a look at some examples of rhetorical devices in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Rhetorical Devices in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou's unique writing style in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is due in part to her use of rhetorical devices that help to make scenes, characters and conversations more memorable while shining the spotlight on themes, actions and ideas. Here are a few:


Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration to help make a point. For example, you might say, ''He's older than dirt!'' Well, he's not really older than dirt, but the intended audience gets your point: He's really, really old.

In Angelou's book, a good example of hyperbole is a young Angelou trying to keep control of her bladder after a church service: ''I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I'd have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place.''

Now, we all know Angelou's head is not going to burst like a dropped watermelon, but the over-exaggeration gets across her point: She really, really needed to go. Hyperbole works well coming from younger characters because, as children, we're more likely to over-dramatize a situation for attention.

Here's another example: ''Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary, and I can't even read.'' Of course, those two words are not anywhere near each other in the dictionary alphabetically, but the author is making a point about what sympathy is worth in her mind.


Similes are a very popular rhetorical device, used to compare two very different things to make the text more vivid. Maybe you've heard, ''She's as slow as a snail.'' She's not really that slow, of course, but by comparing someone's movements to a notoriously slow creature, you get the impression of just how long it's taking to get something done.

Angelou uses a simile to describe her favorite place, the store: ''Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger.'' A present is something we love and cherish, so in using this example, Angelou is telling us how much the store means to her.

Check out this example: ''There was that hateful word again. That treacherous word that yawned up at you like a volcano.'' In this comment, Angelou is comparing the word ''love'' to a volcano, something we view as dangerous, unpredictable and volatile. What does that say about Angelou's feelings on love?


Alliteration is a fun one. It's the recurring use of certain consonant sounds at the beginning of words, like the tongue twister, ''Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.''

Angelou makes use of alliteration in this phrase: ''Up the aisle, the moans and screams merged with the sickening smell of woolen black clothes worn in summer weather and green leaves wilting over yellow flowers.'' This is really two examples in one because you have a recurrence of ''M'' words and of ''S'' words: moans and merged; sickening, smell and summer. This rhetorical device gives a little more pizzazz to what would be an otherwise uninteresting sentence.

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