Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Mikey, an older boy in the neighborhood, is the man in his house despite his ailments —he is cross-eyed and has epilepsy—because his father, like Frank's, drinks the dole money away, entering drinking contests at the pub. His mother voluntarily goes to the town's mental hospital regularly. Before she checks in, she bakes bread for her family to ensure her children won't starve. Mikey is not a proper Catholic because he has not yet gone through First Communion; his epilepsy won't allow him to swallow the wafer.

At school Frank studies the Catechism to prepare for his First Communion. One schoolmate, Brendan "Question" Quigley, is cruelly punished for asking questions because Mr. Benson does not tolerate questions. Paddy Clohessy, another schoolmate, is so poor he goes barefoot and has to share his clothes with his siblings. One day Frank gives him the raisin he finds in his muffin, although he would have liked to eat it himself. Not allowed to ask questions at school, the students learn by rote, repeating schoolmaster Benson's lessons verbatim to escape punishment. In the neighborhood Frank learns from 11-year-old Mikey, who knows about girls and "dirty things" and reads a lot because his father brings home books from the library. He shares some of his stories with Frank, among them a story about Cuchulain's meeting his wife Emer, who won a pissing contest.

Worried that having listened to this story and having used the word piss is a sin, perhaps even the worst sin of all, he speaks to the angel on the seventh step, who tells him not to fear.

Frank decides to confess his sin. The priest reacts with hidden amusement, absolving him, but warns Frank that "books can be dangerous for children." Frank's family takes great care in helping him get dressed for First Communion and arrive just in time for him to take the wafer.

After the service his family does not allow him to go through town to collect money for the movies, a tradition in town, before he had a proper Communion breakfast. He eats hurriedly, gets sick, and vomits in the backyard. His grandmother, worried because he threw up the body of Christ in her backyard, forces him to go back to confession and ask what to do. The priest is amused yet again and suggests he clean up the body of Christ with a little water. Unsure whether the priest means regular or holy water, his grandmother sends him back into the confession box yet again. Frank misses his collection, but Mikey fakes an epilepsy attack to distract the ticket man, and Frank sneaks in to watch his hero James Cagney.

Analysis

This chapter introduces the dominating role of religion and the rituals of the church in the life of the neighborhood. In spite of its power, the young Frank—as seen by the older narrator Frank—recognizes at least some of it as questionable. When the schoolmaster tells him "it's a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland," Frank wonders "if there's anyone in the world who would like us to live." Noting that Limerick is full of adults who are still alive, he implicitly exposes the idea of dying for a cause as a mere cliché.

The description of the Malloy family is another illustration of gender roles at the time. Nora Malloy and her son are forced to shoulder the responsibility for the family's well-being because Nora's husband, Peter, drinks his money away at the pub and worries more about his successes in championship drinking than his family's welfare. At a mere 11 years old, Mikey has to work odd jobs to ensure the family's survival. Indeed the Malloys seem to be doing even worse than the McCourts: Mikey grapples with physical issues, and his mother is afflicted with mental ones. Still, she seems to manage better than Angela, planning her mental illness while still managing to take care of her family. Frank's father wonders whether Nora goes mad from baking and the men take her away or whether she is baking because she has gone mad and the men take her away. He thus reveals the circularity of their dire situation: there seems no way to know which is cause and which is effect, illustrating that life in Limerick is a vicious circle.

Yet Mikey is the one who holds the key to knowledge beyond Limerick: he reads books. His curiosity, much like Brendan "Question" Quigley's questions, illustrates the open-mindedness of children while criticizing the obedience to ritual and faith in rote knowledge. The headmaster teaches by rote and punishes curious questions with physical violence, and the priest considers books dangerous to children.

Frank shows an innocent desire to do the right thing and be good. Unable to ask his teacher about the nature of sin, because questions threaten the status quo, he cannot find out what it means to be good. As a result he is deeply worried he may have committed an unforgivable sin by listening to Mikey's dirty stories about Cuchulain. Seeking advice from the angel on the seventh step, he summons enough courage to confess his sin. The priest's benevolent amusement over Frank's honest worry underscores the value of Frank's innate moral compass. After all he is the one who shows empathy and kindness amidst institutional cruelty. While the school's headmaster beats up a child for asking a question, Frank shares the one raisin in his muffin with a child worse off than he.

While the chapter underscores the destitution running rampant in Limerick, the entertaining scenes depicting the dire situation allow Frank to find a certain humor in life-threatening circumstances, once again from the distance of years but giving readers a sense of immediacy. Imagining the Malloy children covered in flour makes light of the fact their mother is frantically baking bread to ensure their survival while she is in the mental hospital. Describing the headmaster's spittle flying across the room makes his violent outbursts less threatening, even amusing, but not less repellant. Frank's worry that using a bad word might be the unforgivable sin that condemns him to hell reduces notions of condemnation and salvation to manageable transgressions the angel on the seventh step—or his father, for that matter—can absolve. And finally the priest's reaction to his grandmother's worry about the body of Christ in her backyard makes a representative of the church human, showing that in the end no sin is so bad it cannot be washed away with a bucket of water.

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