In Maya Angelou’s autobiography, ‘I know why the caged bird sings,’ many themes and issues are examined. This autobiography shows the difficulty of a black woman growing up surrounded by discrimination and poverty and shows her determination, joy and hope. Maya Angelou describes her relationship with many characters; this in itself is a theme of her writing, the way she sees people in her light. Some characters that may be seen to be good people are changed by Maya’s opinion.
An excellent example of this is the contrast between Maya’s mother and Maya’s father’s girlfriend. If both these characters were described, the father’s girlfriend might be considered the better person. However, this is not the case after reading this book, as Maya has a way of making the reader see these characters as she sees them. After the separation of Maya Angelou’s parents, she and her brother Bailey were sent away to live with her grandmother when Maya was only three.
This must have been a terrible experience for a young child to go through, which some may think would have left Maya with resentment towards her mother. This was quite the opposite. When Maya met her mother again after she left her, Maya discarded that she sent her away. She describes how as soon as she saw her mother, the nights she spent crying for her were forgotten. ‘I knew immediately why she had sent me away. She was too beautiful to have children.'(Maya Angelou, 1984, P58)
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This was Maya’s way of justifying her mother’s actions. Even if it may be considered a bad thing her mother did, Maya still thought she was beautiful. Later on in this book, Maya’s mother did another bad thing. She shot someone twice, which again may be considered a bad thing to do. ‘Since she had intended to shoot him (notice: shoot, not kill), she had no reason to run away, so she shot him a second time. – He had been shot, true, but in her fairness, she had warned him.'(Maya Angelou, 1984, pages 202 and 203)
The language used when Maya describes this event shows she thinks that this is not a primary or bad thing. Maya again shows her mother as not a bad person even though what she has done is wrong. Maya’s mother was also believed to be a prostitute; Maya believes this too but again discards the idea because she knew that if that were true, she wouldn’t be able to live with her, which she wanted to. Even though Maya’s mother could be considered a bad mother, Maya thinks extremely highly of her.
This can be seen from the choice of lexis Maya uses to describe her mother. Maya always used nice words such as ‘beautiful,’ ‘warm,’ ‘glorious.’ Maya is also enthusiastic when talking about her mother. At one point, Maya goes to stay with her father and his girlfriend. Maya believed that being her mother was so beautiful; any woman her father was with after her mother would have been just as beautiful if not more. This was the start of Maya’s disappointment when meeting her stepmother.
Maya disliked Dolores (her stepmother); you could tell this from the contrast in tones, from the happy tone when she talks about her mother to the dull and spiteful tone used when describing Dolores. ‘If Dolores had been a little less aloof, a little more earthy…- She was mean and petty and full of pretense.'(Maya Angelou, 1984, pages 222 and 223) Dolores theoretically was a good, honest person. She was a good, hardworking wife; she took Maya into her home and treated her well. Even though this, she is still seen as the bad one by the end of this part, from the way Maya talks about her.
Maya uses mean words to describe Dolores and is also sarcastic when talking about her and their home. ‘She was on close terms with her washing machine and ironing board.'(Maya Angelou, 1984, P221) This shows one of the sarcastic phrases used by Maya Angelou. It also shows that Maya was not the innocent party in her conflict with her stepmother. Maya went out of her way to irritate Dolores and make her jealous of Maya’s relationship with her father. Dolores still comes off as the bad one at the end, after an argument with Maya. Maya tries to be nice to Dolores, but Dolores calls Maya’s mother a ‘whore’.
Even though this is possibly true and Maya questions this, she still defends her mother. Maya makes the first attack on Dolores; Maya justifies her behaviour, which leaves her looking the better person. ‘What did she expect if she called my mother a whore?’ (Maya Angelou, 1984, P239) Another character who has an unexpected outcome is the dentist, Dr. Lincoln. At one stage Maya, as a child, was in a lot of pain with a toothache. At the Maya was living with her grandmother in Stamps. The nearest Negro dentist to them was twenty-five miles away, which was too far for Maya to travel in such pain.
As a result, Maya’s grandmother took her to a dentist nearby that owed her a favour. Many would believe a dentist to be a respectable, reasonable, reliable person. This was not the case for Dr. Lincoln. He refused to help a child in pain, even though Maya’s grandmother stopped him from losing his business by lending him money. When speaking to Maya’s grandmother, Dr. Lincoln was very abrupt and rude to her. He did not even acknowledge Maya or her face was swollen, and she was in pain. ‘I’d instead stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s(Maya Angelou, 1984, P184)
This was the harsh phase that Dr. Lincoln used. This also shows discrimination and racism, another major theme in Maya Angelou’s autobiography. After Dr. Lincoln refuses to help, Maya’s grandmother follows him in his office. When she later describes what happened she says that Dr. Lincoln and the nurse were as ‘thick as thieves’. This is a simile used to accentuate Dr. Lincoln’s characteristics. From the way Maya Angelou has written her autobiography ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ she has managed to successfully express people’s true characters. People that may be considered to have a good character such as Dr. Lincoln have been shown for who they really are. This has been done by the choice of lexis and the tones that she has used to create different atmospheres when describing certain characters.