Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 17 | Summary

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Summary

On the night before his 16th birthday, Frank goes with Pa Keating to have his first pint. The men talk about the atrocities of the Nazis in Germany, and soon Frank is drunk. He wants to go to confession to be pure on his birthday, but the priest will not hear confession from someone drunk. He goes home, where Angela accuses him of being just like his father. Frank responds "I'd rather be like my father than Laman Griffin." They get into a fight, and Frank slaps her. The next day he goes to church and remembers what he believes to be his mortal sins; he breaks down crying because St. Francis has never helped him and will not help him now. A priest, hearing his sobbing, comforts him, and Frank shares his life story: the death of his siblings, his father's drinking, his involvement with Theresa, and his fight with his mother. In response the priest paints an image of a benevolent God: "He tells me God forgives me and I must forgive myself, that God loves me and that I must love myself for only when you love God in yourself can you love all God's creatures."

Frank starts his new job at Eason's, delivering the Protestant newspaper The Irish Times. The other boys working there spend most of their time looking at pictures of women, masturbating, and composing and responding to letters about sex and bodily functions. One day after delivering the magazine John O'London Weekly, they have to race around Limerick to tear out an advertisement for contraception, which Frank has never heard of and which is illegal in Ireland. The boys decide not to destroy the ad but to keep the pages and sell them separately. Frank makes a lot of money and puts most of it aside, but he also splurges on a big dinner for his family. His mother does not know he has been saving nor does she know he writes collection letters for Mrs. Finucane.

Angela has found a job caring for a rich elderly man. Malachy Jr. works for a rich Catholic school in England but gets fired when he refuses to show humility in his demeanor. He finds a job shoveling coal, biding his time until he can go to America with Frank.

Analysis

Around his 16th birthday, Frank matures into a man in a number of ways. He gets drunk when sharing his first pint with Pa Keating the night before his birthday. Although his mother may consider his behavior as proof he is like his father, the memoir shows Frank is anything but. He is determined to better himself and get his family out of Limerick. To achieve his goal, any means are acceptable: he continues to write collection letters and behind his employer's back sells illegal newspaper articles to people willing to pay for them. Although he feels a pang of guilt, particularly for writing the collection letters that go against his spirit of compassion, the end justifies the means. He wants to be the provider for his family his father never was and ensure their well-being.

However, the end does not justify all means: he cannot quite forgive his mother's relationship with Laman, which at least in part was the price she had to pay to ensure her family could live in his house. On the night before his birthday, fueled by alcohol, he gets angry at his mother for selling herself to Laman, at his father for abandoning them and thus leaving her no other choice, and at himself for being powerless to prevent it and he slaps her. He has arrived at a breaking point, where he realizes, acknowledges, and fumes at the "terrible state of the world." The slap signifies his power over Angela as well, just as she slapped him when she was in charge. Contemporary readers may find such action akin to abuse, but an occasional slap was part of life.

Devastated over the atrocities of the Nazis that go unpunished, desolate over his siblings' deaths, angry at his father's abandonment, betrayed by society's lack of support, and tormented by what he perceives is his own sinful nature, he goes to pray to St. Francis. However, St. Francis has not and never will help him. As an institution, the church has turned its back on the poor in Limerick, paying nothing but lip service to the principles of Christianity, demanding the poor bear their cross, while the rich enrich themselves.

The chapter deals in part with guilt and forgiveness, as the priest explains to Frank. And a great burden is lifted. As in previous chapters, despair and anguish are never far from hope and optimism. Assured God will forgive him, Frank can forgive himself. To be human is to be fallible. While as a child he thought being an adult meant knowing everything, he now understands being an adult means taking responsibility for one's own shortcomings. When his capacity for compassion reaches his own limitations, Frank can move on. And consequently from this turning point, Frank's life moves in the right direction.

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