Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt

Author Background

Angela’s Ashes is the story of Frank McCourt’s childhood and adolescence which were spent amidst grinding poverty and deprivation. He had a drunkard for a father who abandoned his large family of nearly ten children. Many of the children did not survive beyond childhood.  When Frank McCourt was 19, he migrated to US where he spent the rest of his life. Frank did not begin writing until he was in his sixties – all his life he had wanted to be a writer – but true success came only with Angela’s Ashes.

Relevance of the Title

Angela’s Ashes refers to the ashes from the endless cigarettes that Angela, Frank’s mother smoked while struggling with life. Ash is lifeless but the fire that produces it burns.

Main Themes

Boundaries Created by Class

Frank is intelligent and capable but his shabby clothes and torn shoes puts off people by which he is denied opportunities in life. People judge him by his appearance for which he is not responsible. All the time, he wants to prove that he is as good if not better than the rich boys who get all the opportunities. He believes that chances for poor people are brighter in America. Though the American society was by no means classless, he achieves a level of success there that may not have been possible in Ireland.

Hunger

Frank is hounded by hunger when he is in Ireland. There is never anything to each and daily life is a struggle. With the main bread winner an alcoholic and the mother having to care for a large brood of children, providing for the older children was no one’s responsibility. The children began work early but money was not enough. Especially when drunk, the father waxes eloquent about the glory of Ireland but the mother sees through these empty boasts.  She hates that they have debts that cannot pay off. The whole family craves dignity and self-respect.

Characters

Frank McCourt

The early part of the memoirs, written in present tense, shows Frank as a young boy who merely reports events. He does not pass any opinion; he is too young to do that. The more mature Frank is different in that he passes judgment or has an opinion about events that affect him and his family. He comes through as an intelligent and street-smart character who has to skirt the law in order to survive and save a little money. Poverty denies him opportunities that he deserves. He suffers from physical hunger all the time and also hungers for success and fulfillment. As he matures, he is bothered by intolerable guilt that results from having to do things which as a good catholic he should not have done. But gradually, he convinces himself that there was no other way for him as poverty gave him few opportunities.

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Summary

The novel begins with an account of the author’s parents met in New York, fell in love and married. His mother was already pregnant with him. Five children follow in quick succession but malnutrition and disease kill some of them. When Margaret, their only daughter dies, Angela and husband Malachy fall into depression and decide to return to their native Ireland. By now Malachy is an alcoholic and most of the money he earns is spent drinking. In Ireland, they find life as difficult as it was in New York. Though they live a life of great deprivation with no change of clothes and inadequate food, Angels surrounds her children with love and humor.

Frank is smart and intelligent but he does not get opportunities that he deserves as he is shabbily dressed always. This makes him strive for success harder. Very often, his work borders on the illegal and he suffers pangs of guilt. He is sure that he will go to hell when he dies. Though Malachy is an alcoholic, he earns the love of his children. He gathers them around him and regales them with stories of Irish heroes.

When Frank is in school, he falls ill with typhoid and has to be hospitalized. In hospital, he has the opportunity to read. From Shakespeare to newspapers, he reads them all. When he returns to school, his new gift with language gets noticed by his English teacher. For Frank, it is the birth of his ambition – to be a writer. When WWII breaks out, Malachy gets a job in London. Though he leaves with promises to send money home, only installment arrives. The rest go into drinks. Angela and the children are evicted from their home. She moves in with her cousin. This is a sexual relationship he offers in turn for a shelter. This makes Frank very uneasy. He is also uneasy with his own sexual feelings which come into conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Frank feels the urge to get away from Ireland to America. He saves money for the passage and sets sail.

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Metaphors

Ashes

The ashes that fall from the endless cigarettes that Angela smokes represent the death of her hopes. She wants to provide a decent life to her children. But there is no money; the husband is an alcoholic and there are so many children.

Quotes

  1. When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
    . . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

With these words, McCourt opens his memoir. This passage is spoken as an adult who looks back on his childhood. But the rest of the memoir is recorded through the sensibilities of a child who merely notes down events. There are no opinions passed or judgments delivered. The author’s childhood seems to have been singularly bleak with no mitigating joy or treat. Yet, one does not encounter self-pity in it.

  1. The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live. My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith. Dad says they were too young to die for anything. Mam says it was disease and starvation and him never having a job. Dad says, Och, Angela, puts on his cap and goes for a long walk.

The master in the school and his father tell Frank that there is glory in death for a cause. It is hardly the thing to say to a child who endures hunger and sees his siblings dying out of starvation and disease. Instead of providing causes worth living for, the adults give reasons for death. It’s the hard-nosed mother who sees the death of her children for what it is. They were killed by poverty. Rather than face reality and accept facts, the father does out for a long walk. He is very likely to come home drunk.

  1. 3. I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg . . . but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I’m up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep?
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This passage shows that Frank found it hard to choose between his parents. He loves his father though he is aware that he spends all the money on drinks. It puts pressure on the mother who has to borrow and beg to feed the family. But the father loves his children and the children cherish that love. They spend quality time together when Malachy tells stories about Irish heroes.

  1. I’m on deck the dawn we sail into New York. I’m sure I’m in a film, that it will end and lights will come up in the Lyric Cinema. . . . Rich Americans in top hats white ties and tails must be going home to bed with the gorgeous women with white teeth. The rest are going to work in warm comfortable offices and no one has a care in the world.

Frank has idealized notions of America. He believes that people live perfect lives there will no deprivations to trouble them. Reality is different. Poverty exists everywhere in the world. But his illusions are intact at the moment.