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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou
  • Study Guide
Summary

Chapters 32–36

Summary Chapters 32–36

Maya gives birth to a son. She is fascinated by the baby and afraid to touch him. Vivian finally makes Maya sleep with her three-week-old son. Fearing that she will crush him, Maya attempts unsuccessfully to stay awake all night. Vivian wakes her later to show how the baby lies, resting comfortably in the crook of her arm. Vivian tells Maya that she does not have to worry about doing the right thing because if her heart is in the right place, she will do the right thing regardless. Maya peacefully returns to sleep next to her son.

Analysis: Chapters 32–36

The final chapters of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings detail Maya’s rapid journey into adulthood. Maya experiences important intellectual growth while staying in the junkyard. After a month, she says, “[M]y thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself.” Before she stays in the junkyard, she has limited contact with people of other races. That month in the junkyard, she forms full-fledged friendships with Mexican and white teenagers. Her acceptance into such a mixed group proves an unusual experience, considering her isolated childhood. She feels that she is part of the greater human race.

The experience in the junkyard also shows that Maya’s growing sense of independence and confidence in her self has begun to -coalesce and intensify. Only days before, she surprised herself by driving the car in Mexico, and now she strikes out on her own to spend a month in a junkyard living in a responsibly managed communal society. The intensity of her poise and self-assurance fuels her quest for the position on the streetcar when she returns home to San Francisco. Other employers desperately seek laborers at higher wages without discrimination, yet Maya refuses to give up the job she has chosen. At age fifteen, she has developed a surprising adult will. Once hired, she ceases to live in a world demarcated by black neighborhoods and continues to rush headlong into the larger world.

Nevertheless, Maya’s most rapid affirmation of her induction into the world of adulthood—the birth of her baby boy—also symbolizes the fact that Maya is still a child in many ways. The final chapter details Maya’s sensual awakening, not unlike the awakening of a typical adolescent, complete with fears and questions about sex and appearance. Angelou specifically references her youthful innocence when she uses the phrase “had I been older” in describing the incident with her classmate’s beautiful breasts.

Just as Maya’s rape appeared to be a direct result of her displacement, in some ways Maya’s pregnancy results from her continued displacement from her mother Vivian. Vivian certainly takes Maya seriously when Maya questions her about sex. Vivian does not, however, take an active interest in finding out whether she has answered all of Maya’s questions, thinking that everything will be all right once Maya washes her face, has a glass of milk, and returns to sleep. Even up until the end of the book, Vivian continues to look at Maya not out of the corner of her eye, but “out of the corner of her existence.” Maya remains a child sexually and thus without parental guidance in matters concerning sex she is loosed to the world of sex and pregnancy and physical adulthood with only her own instincts to guide her.

The autobiography ends, however, with an overwhelmingly positive picture of Vivian. Vivian makes mistakes along the way, but she nevertheless survives with the strength and honesty that provide sustenance for and rub off on Maya in the end. When Maya becomes pregnant, Vivian supports and encourages her without condemnation, and she gives Maya her first and most important lesson about trusting her maternal instincts. Maya admires her unflinching honesty, her strength, and her caring nature, despite her frequent fumbling as a parent.