Written contemporaneously with the Civil Rights Movement, this bildungsroman novel elucidates on the life and struggles of a young, African-American girl on a life journey from the ages of 3 to 16. Influenced strongly by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (1899), and her own poem titled, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (1969), Maya Angelou manages to retell her own story, using the caged bird as a metaphor for a victim of oppression. Common subjects that knit the poem to the novel are oppression and freedom, ugly realities and beauty. Maya undergoes psychological stages of development which synchronizes with Erik Erikson’s model.
The developmental theories concur in explaining mental, physical, sexual, social, and moral development of the human being. Erik Erikson is one of the psychological fathers of developmental theories. Erikson focused on psychosocial development and was a disciple of Sigmund Freud. He traces the personality growth of the child as he interacts with his physical and social environment and the child’s maturing awareness through eight stages of development. Each stage of development is critical to maturity and retains a dynamic impact on the life of the adult. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) is an acclaimed novel written by Maya Angelou and represents a bildungsroman novel in which the protagonist undergoes a life journey from childhood to adulthood. Originated in a place called Stamps, Maya starts off life as a poor African-American girl growing up in a broken home with little regard for herself. In the novel she faces disillusionment, overt and hidden racism, abuse and rape. Through it all, she retains self-determination and learns to heal from the wounds of the past. She succeeds at many endeavors however, becomes pregnant at the end of the book, birthing her first son Guy. Following Erik Erikson’s stages of development theory, the protagonist Maya enters the world as a plain, poor, uneducated African-American girl who experiences incest at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. Erikson pinpoints eight major levels of psychosocial development a) basic trust versus mistrust b) autonomy versus shame and doubt c) initiative versus guilt d) industry versus inferiority e) identity achievement versus role confusion f) intimacy versus isolation, g) generativity versus stagnation, h) ego integrity versus despair. Throughout these stages Maya feels herself bound by the chains of racial oppression, female subjugation, socio-economic hardship, inferiority complex, low self-esteem, loneliness and fear. Basic trust versus mistrust Maya develops from basic, child-like trust into a mature mistrust. She transitions through this stages because she encounters harsh realities involving the betrayal of trust. As a child she initially trusts the adults and family in her life such as Momma Henderson, Bailey Johnson Jr, Mr. McElroy, Daddy Clidell and Uncle Willie; however, she experiences a series of betrayals: rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, absence of her father (Bailey Sr.), the separation of her family, periodic let-downs by her brother Bailey Jr. (her closest friend) and the persecution of the children who continually tease her. Her mistrust of the world leads her to become distrustful until she locks up herself in a mute and isolated world. Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt Autonomy vs. shame and doubt is another developmental phase in Maya’s life. Owing to her itinerant lifestyle and broken home, Maya acquire a unique level of autonomy. She knows firsthand life alone and homeless and hardship spurs her to learn to depend on herself. Maya relishes her newfound freedom as “