Critical Essays Style in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings underscores meaning through the stylistic details that illuminate its themes and action. Angelou utilizes literary devices to emphasize scenes and conversations which reveal the foibles of her characters. For example:


  • . . . when she was called upon to sing, [Momma] seemed to pull out plugs from behind her jaws and the huge, almost rough sound would pour over the listeners and throb in the air.
  • Hence the janitor who lives in one room but sports a robin's-egg-blue Cadillac is not laughed at but admired, and the domestic who buys forty-dollar shoes is not criticized but is appreciated.


  • Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary, and I can't even read.
  • She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her.


  • Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they'd curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended. I had to stop talking.
  • [Bailey] said I was quite brave, and that was my cue to reveal our confrontation with the peckerwood dentist and Momma's incredible powers.


  • I was called Old Lady and chided for moving and talking like winter's molasses.
  • [Bailey] smelled like a vinegar barrel or a sour angel.


  • During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love.
  • tamps, Arkansas was Chitlin' Switch, Georgia; Hang 'Em High, Alabama; Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive.
  • I could cry anytime I wanted by picturing my mother (I didn't quite know what she looked like) lying in her coffin.
  • [Bailey] was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death.


  • I mastered the art of crocheting and tatting, and there was a lifetime's supply of dainty doilies that would never be used in sacheted dresser drawers.
  • The time crowded together and at an End of Days I was swinging on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading my charges to "step forward in the car, please."

Sense Impressions

  • The odors of onions and oranges and kerosene had been mixing all night and wouldn't be disturbed until the wooded slat was removed from the door and the early morning air forced its way in with the bodies of people who had walked miles to reach the pickup place.
  • I sliced onions, and Bailey opened two or even three cans of sardines and allowed their juice of oil and fishing boats to ooze down and around the sides.

Biblical Allusion

  • My pretty Black brother was my Kingdom Come.
  • The laws were so absolute, so clearly set down, that I knew if a person truly wanted to avoid hell and brimstone, and being roasted forever in the devil's fire, all she had to do was memorize Deuteronomy and follow its teaching, word for word.

Literary Allusion

  • Momma and other ladies caught him in time to bring him back to the bench, where he quickly folded upon himself like a Br'er Rabbit rag doll.
  • My pity for Mrs. Cullinan preceded me the next morning like the Cheshire cat's smile.


  • "Thou shall not be dirty" and "Thou shall not be impudent" were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation.
  • Can't do is like Don't Care.

Parallel Construction

  • We danced the jitterbug to Count Basie, the Lindy and the Big Apple to Cab Calloway, and the Half Time Texas Hop to Duke Ellington.
  • A pyramid of flesh with the whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths.


  • Naw, Helen, you ain't standing like her. This here's it.
  • Bah Jesus, I live for my wife, my children and my dog.
  • Ritie, don't worry 'cause you ain't pretty. Plenty pretty women I seen digging ditches or worse.