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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 16 | Summary



Frank delivers a sympathy telegram to Mr. Harrington, who is British and whose wife has just died. Mr. Harrington makes him sit with him and view his wife's body; he offers sherry and ham sandwiches. When Mr. Harrington runs out to get more to drink, Frank, tipsy already, baptizes Mrs. Harrington. Furious when Frank refuses to eat and drink more, Mr. Harrington chases him out. Frank vomits all over Mrs. Harrington's rosebush. Upon Mr. Harrington's complaint the post office fires Frank but takes him back when the priest interferes on his behalf.

Frank fears he will be expelled from church, because he masturbates and had premarital sex, while everyone around him is "in a state of grace ... peaceful, easy, ready to die at any moment and go straight to heaven ..."

Mrs. Finucane, a money lender, hires him to write collection letters. To do the job, Frank needs his own stationery, which he steals. His letters are so powerful the customers pay their debts. When Mrs. Finucane falls asleep, he steals extra money so he can save more and faster to get to America, justifying his petty theft by his working late, using big words, and assuring himself there will be less money going to the church that slammed doors in his face. However, he cannot indicate his complicity when his mother rails against letters her friends have received from Mrs. Finucane, "The person that would write that letter is worse than Judas or any informer for the English" and "should be boiled in oil and have his fingernails pulled out by blind people."

The day of the post office exam is drawing near. It would guarantee a permanent job, but Frank is hesitant. Pa Keating advises Frank to "make up your own bloody mind" and not take the exam, as it only leads to a dead-end job. On the day of the exam Frank sees a help-wanted note at an office and applies there instead. When he gets the job, his supervisors at the post office mock and shame him: "I hear a certain upstart from the lanes walked away from the post office exam. Too good for it, I suppose."


The chapter begins with another episode illustrating death as a constant companion for Limerick youth: the telegram boys discuss how to get a tip from those people to whom they deliver sympathy telegrams. The constant tension between English and Irish, Protestants and Catholics, and the accompanying stereotypes, turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as Frank delivers a sympathy telegram to Mr. Harrington. Harrington believes all Irish are alcoholics, and although Frank requests lemonade rather than sherry, he forces the boy to drink sherry; believing all Irish are starving, he forces a ham sandwich on Frank, although he doesn't want to eat it. Predictably Frank gets drunk, confirming the stereotype. It seems no matter how hard he tries, he cannot escape from his background.

When Mr. Harrington complains, even the employees at the post office believe him rather than Frank, suggesting the Irish themselves accept the stereotype the English impose upon them, for "Mr. Harrington is a refined Englishman and there is no reason for him to lie and we don't want your kind in this post office, people that can't keep their hands off the ham and sherry."

The episode functions as a warning: Limerick is a dead end indeed. If he stays, Frank will end up like his father. But Frank vomits, violently rejecting the alcohol in his system, the stereotype that goes with his background, and as it turns out, his seemingly inescapable fate. The scene echoes the one earlier upon his First Communion when he involuntarily and unknowingly rejected the religious system that would not permit him to hold a position as an altar boy or train him as a priest.

Talented with words like his father, he gets a second job writing collection letters. His determination to get out of Limerick is so great, he is willing to take on any hardship just to save a little more money: he keeps the money for stamps, and delivers the letters himself at night. Readers may think the theft Frank commits is more serious than previous thefts of food; however, it is carnal sin that haunts him and nags at him to confess. His rationalization for theft—his own needs and ambition as opposed to those of a usurer who has enough and gives money to the church that has no use for poor people—may seem weak if one is concerned with law. His guilt and the need to be forgiven pale in contrast to the sins of the flesh.

Frank's letter-writing job is but a stepping stone to yet another, better opportunity: he decides not to take the post office exam but to apply for an office job instead. This decision is tantamount to a decision to rise above his humble beginnings, despite the scorn he faces from his superiors who can't hide their jealousy because they sense Frank will rise above them. He leaves feeling confident: "I shake my head and walk up the street where a smart boy is wanted."

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