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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 15

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 15 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 15 | Summary



After Maya spends a year in silence and withdrawal, Mrs. Bertha Flowers reaches out to her, throwing her "a lifeline." Mrs. Flowers is a highly educated, refined woman, and Maya has always admired her. Momma and Mrs. Flowers enjoy conversing, but Maya is embarrassed by the contrast between Momma's poor grammar and Mrs. Flowers's excellent grammar. One day Mrs. Flowers asks if Maya will help her carry her purchases home. Over lemonade and cookies, Mrs. Flowers offers Maya some gentle advice about tolerating illiteracy and appreciating folk wisdom.

Recognizing Maya's love of words, Mrs. Flowers introduces her to the power of the spoken word. She gives Maya some books to read, encouraging her to read aloud with expression. She also asks Maya to memorize a poem to recite the next time she visits. Maya continues to visit Mrs. Flowers for what they call her "life lessons." Years later, as an adult, Maya realizes Momma had probably asked Mrs. Flowers to help Maya.

After visiting Mrs. Flowers, Maya returns to the General Store feeling joyful and looking forward to sharing cookies with Bailey. But she runs afoul of Momma when she unknowingly utters the phrase "by the way," which Momma considers to be cursing. According to Momma's belief, "Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light," so she thinks "by the way" is equivalent to "by Jesus." After Momma, Maya, and Bailey tearfully pray for forgiveness, Momma punishes Maya by hitting her with a switch from the peach tree.


When Maya still isn't speaking after being back in Stamps for a year, Momma must be worried that Maya needs something to spark her interest and bring her out of her withdrawal. Her friendship with the well-read, genteel, highly educated Mrs. Flowers leads to the perfect solution. Mrs. Flowers is able to connect with Maya through their shared love of literature. The special attention Mrs. Flowers gives to Maya in their "life lessons" bolsters Maya's self-image in addition to encouraging her to break her silence.

Angelou ends the chapter on a note of situational irony with the episode describing Momma's outrage over Maya's use of the phrase "by the way." Maya has just come from her first "life lesson" with Mrs. Flowers, and feels hopeful and happy about her new appreciation for the power of the spoken word. This power is brought home to her in a dramatic way when a seemingly innocuous phrase sets off Momma's anger. Depending on the situation and the associations the receiver has with the message, phrases can spark unintended responses.

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