Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

A new geometry teacher, Mr. O'Neill, appreciates questions from his students. Every day he peels his apple and promises the peel to the student who answers the most difficult question. One day Fintan Slattery wins the peel and shares it with Frank, Question Quigley, and Paddy Clohessy. The boys are embarrassed because they don't want to be teased by the other students for friendship with the effeminate Fintan, who invites them to his house for lunch, where they are served milk and sandwiches. The boys enjoy the treats but don't know how to react to Fintan, who is "very odd" and who has confessed to liking to watch Frank in the lavatory. A few days later they go back to Fintan's house for lunch, but his time his mother is not at home, and Fintan does not offer them food or milk. Rather they watch him eat his lunch. Hungry they skip school and go to a nearby farm to steal apples and drink milk directly from a cow.

Frank learns from Question Quigley that his parents know he skipped school and are looking for him. Scared, he goes home with Paddy. Paddy's living conditions are desperate: "you have to go down four flights to the lavatory and slip on shit all the way down"; the children sleep in street clothes so they don't have to fight over them in the morning; Paddy's father, sick with consumption, coughs up fluids into a bucket. Frank can barely sleep because he is both cold—they have no blankets—and homesick. The next morning his mother comes to fetch him. It turns out she knows Mr. Clohessy and used to dance with him when they were young. Before they leave, Angela sings for the sick man. Frank is sorry for the Clohessys' situation, which is much worse than his own. Frank's mother takes Paddy and Frank to school and talks to the headmaster, who does not punish the boys for skipping school.

Analysis

Mr. O'Neill, the geometry teacher, is the first authority figure who appreciates curiosity and a thirst for learning. Unlike the other teachers who punish questions, he praises those who ask them and rewards those who can answer them. One question seems particularly poignant: Why does geometry matter when the Germans are bombing everything? On the one hand this question establishes the historical background of the memoir, World War II. On the other hand this question opens the discussion of whether academic learning has any validity in a time and place ruled by the constant threat of death. Death by illness, starvation, or war is always present in the memoir so that surviving long enough to use geometry in daily life may seem a stretch.

Poverty and hunger are such motivating forces, making Mr. O'Neill's apple peel a coveted treat that inspires fierce competition for learning, and the hope for a sandwich is a strong enough lure for Paddy and Frank to withstand peer pressure and go to Fintan's home although they are uncomfortable with his effeminate behavior and will likely face teasing from their schoolmates the next day.

The home situations of Fintan and Paddy invite comparison, with Frank's most likely between the extremes. While Fintan seems to live in relative luxury, given his mother can spare milk and sandwiches with mustard for her son's guests, Paddy's family is so destitute they can barely spare weak tea and plain bread. Yet the spirit of Christianity seems more alive in Paddy's home than in Fintan's. No matter how poor they are, the Clohessys share what they have with Frank, while Fintan, despite his overt religious posturing and house full of religious images, behaves selfishly, bordering on cruelty, the moment his mother turns her back.

Realizing his family is far better off, Frank feels bad for the Clohessys' situation, and yet he acknowledges guiltily their dire circumstances in part saved him from his mother's wrath. Angela feels compassion for Dennis Clohessy not only because he is ill and his family worse off than hers but also because she recognizes parts of herself in him and acknowledges the happier past and the unhappy present. "My dancing days are gone," Mr. Clohessy states, as if to say that his youth, and with it, his hopes are gone, as are Angela's. Angela complains throughout the memoir, and rightfully so, about a husband who drinks his earnings away and leaves his family in poverty. But this dancing partner of her youth would not have left her in any better straits. There are no better days to pine for, no hope for a better future, in Limerick at least.

At school Angela appeals to the teacher to have compassion for Paddy's dire situation, "and when she leaves he walks between the seats and pats Paddy Clohessy on the head." When pupils face life and death situations, a compassionate teacher will place school policy in second place.

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