Symbols in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

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

In her autobiography ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,'' Maya Angelou explored her life through symbolism. Learn about symbolism in literature, the Easter dress, the doll, the general store, and the towns of Stamps and San Francisco. Updated: 01/12/2022

Symbolism in Literature

There are lots of ways to accomplish telling a story or conveying an idea without coming right out and saying it. That's where symbols come in. Whether in literature or in movies, symbols such as characters, objects, colors, or even household items can help the author convey deeper meaning to an idea or concept.

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is no exception. In fact, we can see three examples of symbolism right in the title! The bird represents freedom or desire to be free, while the cage symbolizes confinement or oppression. Even the act of singing shines a spotlight on the author's ability to grow and flourish despite her challenges.

Of course, there are many other symbols in this story, which is what brings us to this lesson. Let's take a look at a few.

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  • 0:03 Symbolism in Literature
  • 0:52 The Easter Dress
  • 1:44 The Doll
  • 2:43 The General Store
  • 3:41 Stamps Town & San Francisco
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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The Easter Dress

Early in the story, we find our first symbol: the Easter dress. Angelou has spent a long time dreaming about this dress's magical powers. ''I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world.''

The dress is made of lavender taffeta, yet to Angelou, the Easter dress represents transformation to her idea of beauty: being a little white girl with long, blonde hair and light-blue eyes. ''But Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway.''

The realization that the dress does not have the power to transform her is the first harsh reality the author explains to us. She cannot accept herself in her current form and expects the dress to change her into something unattainable. In reality, transformation only comes from within.

The Doll

Another symbol is a doll that arrives as a Christmas gift from the mother who has abandoned Angelou. Once again, Maya struggles with the notion that beauty equals being white because the doll is white with ''blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her head.'' So, she is faced with another reminder about unattainable beauty.

But the doll also symbolizes abandonment. Up to that moment, Angelou was confident her parents were dead. Yet, the doll is a painful reminder of how they walked out of Angelou's life. She recounts, ''One Christmas we received gifts from our mother and father, who lived separately in a heaven called California, where we were told they could have all the oranges they could eat. And the sun shone all the time.''

It's fitting that just a few paragraphs later, ''Bailey and I tore the stuffing out of the doll the day after Christmas.'' Even the act of tearing apart the doll offers symbolism: the tearing apart of the relationship between mother and child.

The General Store

Angelou's grandmother, Annie Henderson, owned and operated a grocery store, a place that Angelou loved. ''Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for good, the Store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger. Opening the front doors was pulling the ribbon off the unexpected gift.''

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