Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

Malachy Sr. is due to come home at Christmas, but when Angela and Frank go to the train station to meet him, he does not appear. The next day, however, he shows up with no money and a half-eaten box of chocolates. He leaves again on Christmas Day, promising to send home money, which he never does.

Within the McCourt family, Frank takes the alleys to school because he does not want to run into "the respectable boys," the boys who wear nice clothes and go to better schools, preparing them to run the world, while he is in a school for the boys who will serve those who run the world. In addition he listens outside Mrs. Purcell's window to Shakespeare being broadcast on the radio, until one day she asks him in and they listen to Shakespeare and American jazz by Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington. Angela offers strange women and children tea and a seat by the fire, while Michael brings home stray dogs and old men. When one guest leaves lice behind, they decide to stop such charity because "we don't want any more diseases and infections."

The family owes rent, and the collector threatens to evict them. It is so cold in the house they begin to burn the walls. "Mam says, One more board from that wall, one more and not another one. She says that for two weeks till there's nothing left but the beam frame." When Frank accidentally chops down a bearing beam, the house comes crashing down. They are evicted and move in with a distant relative who lives in a house outside of town. He moves into the attic, and the McCourts take the one bedroom. He seems a respectable and hardworking man who drinks only on Fridays, but in exchange for living rent free, he makes Angela empty his chamber pot every day, thereby humiliating her. An avid reader, Laman sends Frank to the library to get books. Frank is allowed to get himself and his mother some books, too.

Frank's grandmother dies, as does Uncle Tom and his wife. Their children have to go to an orphanage. Malachy Jr. is accepted into the Army School of Music in Dublin.

Analysis

Despair and hope are never far away from each other in the McCourt household. In stark contrast to the previous chapter, which offered a glimmer of hope, this chapter sends the McCourts hurtling downward and deeper into misery, accentuated by the symbol of persistent rain, adding to the family's discomfort and despair.

Whereas the red heart of the soccer uniform in the last chapter represented a sliver of hope connected with the winning goal, the holes in the boys' socks and shoes represent the stigma of poverty. "We're ashamed of the way we look and if boys from the rich schools pass remarks we'll get into a fight and wind up with bloody noses or torn clothes." Frank is humiliated when people move away from him because he smells; no matter how hard he scrubs, he has only one shirt to wear to sleep, to school, and to soccer practice. This shame makes him take back alleys to school, and he sees the way the world works: "We know they're the ones who will get jobs in the civil service and help the people who run the world." The world is divided into "haves" and "have nots," and it takes very little for him to realize where he belongs. Gone is the hope for success he felt when scoring the winning goal because his background decides the course of his life. He has no hope, for he sees no escape from poverty, no matter how hard a person may work.

As if to prove him right, Angela and the boys are evicted because they can't pay rent, have used the wood from the walls to light a fire, and have burned down the house. Now they are dependent on charity for shelter as well. Angela has to humiliate herself every day and clean out Laman's chamber pot.

Although he still does not openly blame him for their situation, Frank no longer believes in his father. "He doesn't care about us. He's just drunk over here in England." Although Malachy Sr. brings home a box of chocolate and refuses to eat his Christmas dinner, his gestures seem as empty and meaningless as does the box of chocolates. Half empty, it proves yet again Malachy Sr.'s lack of restraint is responsible for his family's situation: he still spends his money on drink.

The only refuge for Frank and his mother are books, and the eviction thus seems a blessing in disguise as Laman's library card offers Frank free access to books. Angela's spirit seems unbreakable, and her determination to create a life for her sons boundless. She cleans out Laman's messy place, making the one room cozy and livable, and begins to make plans for growing their own food and sipping tea in the garden in the summer. Similarly, Frank listens to jazz on the radio and dreams of going to America: "Oh, Billie, Billie, I want to be in America with you and all that music, where no one has bad teeth, people leave food on their plates, every family has a lavatory, and everyone lives happily ever after."

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