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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 3 | Summary



To escape the memories of their dead children, the McCourts move to a new house in the lanes, right next to the filthy lavatory for the entire community. Trying to hang up the picture of Pope Leo XIII, Malachy Sr. hurts his finger and bloodies the picture. As an outsider in the community Malachy Sr. cannot find a job: "When he opens his mouth and they hear the North of Ireland accent, they take a Limerickman instead." Sometimes he finds work on farms outside of town but never brings home his earnings because he stops by the pub on his way home.

Two weeks before Christmas rain floods the downstairs of the house and the McCourts move their belongings to "Italy," as they call the warm and dry upstairs. They cannot afford ham for Christmas dinner and get a pig's head instead. Helping his mother carry it home, Frank is teased by schoolmates. Frank feels sorry for the pig "because he's dead and because the world is laughing at him." Malachy Sr. teaches his children a man's pride is priceless: a man should not carry everyday items like pigs' heads and "never leave the house without collar and tie. A man without a collar and tie is a man with no respect for himself."

On Christmas Day Malachy Sr. takes the boys to mass. Afterward the boys are sent to collect coal for the fire. They meet Pa Keating, who takes them to a pub where they get a bag of coal and drag it home through the rain. The bag has a hole in it, and they have to keep picking up the coal to put it back into the bag. Angela cooks the pig's head, and the family enjoys the Christmas meal.

Angela gives birth to another boy, Michael. Malachy Sr. tells the boys an angel left the baby on the seventh step. Frank asks questions about that angel but receives no answers. When baby Michael has trouble breathing, Malachy Sr. saves him by sucking the mucus from his nose.

As the welfare society checks up on their claim, Angela asks for boots for the children. Malachy Sr. is upset she has stooped to begging and fixes the children's worn shoes with a bicycle tire. When they show up at school in these shoes, their schoolmates tease them. The teacher steps in, chastises the offenders, and warns them never to laugh about another person's misfortunes.

Finally Frank's father is hired at the cement factory a few miles out of town. On the first payday the entire family waits for him to come home for tea, but he never shows. Late that night Malachy Sr. returns drunk, offering Frank and Malachy Jr. the Friday Penny. Both boys refuse it, and Angela sends him to the living room to sleep. The next day Malachy Sr. oversleeps, misses work, loses his job, and the family is "back on the dole again."


Nothing goes right for the McCourts. What seems like good luck—they manage to find a house for little money—is actually bad luck: the house is right next to the unmaintained toilet for the entire neighborhood, which creates a cesspool of bacteria and a foul smell; Angela worries the "lavatory will kill us with all the diseases." The lavatory, with its seepage and constant wetness, underscores the symbol of dampness, rain, and the unhealthy river.

Despite their living situation, Malachy Sr.'s pride demands he appear respectful: he takes care of his appearance, refuses to beg for necessities, and never carries things he considers this beneath him. He tries to impress upon his boys that a man's pride is a valued possession. Angela, however, mocks his pride as grand manners. While her words seem like an attack on her husband's integrity, they expose a harsh truth: her husband's refusal to do what is needed to put food on the table, clothes on his children's backs, and shoes on their feet is nothing but a self-serving attempt to preserve the appearance of dignity. Because he drinks all the money away, somebody has to beg. Angela and her young children have no choice but to do what he deems beneath them: beg for food and clothes, collect coal scraps from the street, and carry a pig's head through town so they have something to eat for Christmas. Predictably, the chapter ends with Malachy Sr. out of a job and another beginning of a downward spiral.

The memoir goes beyond revealing Malachy Sr.'s pride as self-interest and comments on the role of women in Irish society. Angela is not the only woman in Limerick forced to carry more than her weight. The men of Limerick sit around collecting the dole, drinking and smoking it away, while their wives "stay at home, take care of the children, clean the house, and cook a bit." Unfair gender roles hail the man as the hard-working ruler of the house, when in reality the wives keep most families afloat. While Malachy Sr. indulges in the luxury of putting on a collar and tie every day, goes on long walks to get work on a farm so he can drink at the pub at night, his pregnant wife and young son go begging at the butcher, then struggle up a hill, carrying heavy groceries home to prepare Christmas dinner. Malachy Sr.'s pride comes at a high price: Frank has to endure his schoolmates' taunts—for the pig's head he carries while his father sits at home and reads the newspaper and for the ridiculous shoes his father has fixed so he wouldn't have to beg for new ones. Angela's struggles thus become representative of the struggles of women in general.

And yet, although the chapter harshly reveals Malachy Sr.'s shortcomings, the characters and the family's situation once again are not as clear cut as they may seem. Malachy Sr. eats sparingly at Christmas, leaving most of his food for his boys, obviously willing to make sacrifices after all. And his actions save Michael's life, showing that Malachy Sr. is not a completely inadequate father. He also tells his sons that the baby was left on the seventh step by an angel, thereby shielding them from sexual knowledge, despite the adult themes to which they are exposed every day. The angel on the seventh step becomes a recurring presence for Frank, an imagined, half-real presence he can go to for advice and comfort, given to him by his father.

Amidst poverty and loss, life still holds promise, and Frank can't wait to grow up. In his childlike awe he believes adults know everything. Frank and Malachy Jr.'s many questions are answered either with false platitudes or not at all, satirizing Frank's naïve trust in his parents. At the same time, however, the boys' questions illustrate the bright-eyed curiosity of children. Despite their dire circumstances, there seems to be far less bitterness and intolerance than humor. This perspective may be the adult narrator looking back on the good old days, or not-so-good old days, when he was young and poor but felt loved and safe, similar to Angela's recalling life in New York and having "a nice warm place to live and a lavatory down the hall like the one in Classon Avenue." Frank's conversations with the angel on the seventh step provide solace to Frank and to his parents a source of amusement fused with love and pride.

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