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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Nothing has changed at the McCourt household: Malachy Sr. keeps drinking and "comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland." He loses a job every three weeks.

Mickey Spellacy's family experiences several deaths from consumption. For each death he gets time off from school and money to buy sweets from the people in the neighborhood. Worried his sister may die during summer break and he'll miss out on his week off, he asks his schoolmates to pray for "Brenda to hang on till September." They do when he promises they can come to the wake, but when the time comes, they are sent away after all. When Mickey dies the next year, they think this will teach him a lesson.

Frank helps his uncle Pat deliver the Limerick Leader. On the route he meets Mr. Timoney, who offers to pay Frank to read to him. Frank earns sixpence for reading Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," and Mr. Timoney asks him to return the next week. Angela is satisfied thinking it a children's book, as it is included in the volume of Gulliver's Travels. However, when Mr. Timoney's dog bites several people, including a nun, the dog is taken away and Mr. Timoney committed to a home.

Angela gives birth to another boy, Alphonsus Joseph. Before the child is baptized, he almost chokes on a clump of dried milk. Everyone is relieved he survives because unbaptized babies end up in limbo. When Frank openly says he doesn't like the name because it isn't Irish, his mother slaps him. Malachy Sr. drinks away the five pounds his father has sent for the new baby. Trying to find him in the pubs, Frank gets so hungry he steals a drunk man's food. Afraid he is doomed, he goes to confession and is absolved. Finally he finds Malachy Sr. but cannot get him to come home, "raging inside" at his father because "a man that drinks the money for a new baby is gone beyond the beyonds."

Analysis

To this point, life and death have been taken for granted, as part of life's cruel fate. Here, as the boys Frank's age begin to mature, they take on a deeper, more sinister meaning. There appears to be some element of choice in who dies and who lives, or at least when, and with choice comes profit. In their desperate situations, the boys begin to use the one weapon they have—their lives—to earn whatever small pleasures life has to afford.

For Frank, the idea is manifest in his father's drunken night time demands for loyalty to Ireland. Frank doubts the promises do any good, given many men have died for Ireland and the situation has not changed. Still, Frank plays along because his father might reward him with a penny for sweets. It may be that Frank is too young to understand the exchange, but with the amount of death he has seen, it is more likely that he is desperate enough to believe that such a treat is worth it.

In an escalation to higher stakes, Mickey Spellacy is willing to barter his sister's life for a week off from school. At first glance, this exchange seems cold-hearted and cruel. However, the death of a child is so regular an occurrence it has become as common as a sprained ankle or skinned knee. So many children will never reach adulthood that the life of a child has become worth however much the survivors can benefit: a week off from school or "a wake for having a good time." When Mickey does not follow through with his promise to host his classmates at his sister's wake, his death a year later seems to Frank like fair punishment for breaking a macabre promise.

Integrity is hard to come by when the stomach is growling. Illustrating that theme, Frank steals fish and chips from a drunk who fell asleep. Worried his soul will go to hell, Frank goes to confession. The priest reacts with understanding and compassion, echoing pure Christianity when commenting he, as a priest, should be washing the feet of the poor rather than doling out penance. This simple gesture reveals the hypocrisy of Catholics and Protestants who argue over the validity of their respective faiths, shunning those who worship differently, when Christianity teaches compassion and love. Compounded with Frank's sadness over the thought of Protestants going to hell and Bridey Hannon's hope of God never condemning an innocent child no matter whether and in what faith it might be baptized, Frank McCourt the author is making a statement against dogmatic denominational faith in favor of compassion for human shortcomings and suffering.

Not everyone in Limerick follows strict religious dogma, whether Catholic or Protestant. Mr. Timoney, for example, is a free-thinking man. He reads works of great literary merit rather than the Limerick Ledger, follows Buddhist beliefs rather than Catholic or Protestant rituals, appreciates Frank's intelligence and curiosity, and introduces him to Jonathan Swift who, according to Mr. Timoney, "is the greatest Irish writer that ever lived, no the greatest man to put a pen to parchment." Frank is too young to appreciate the content of "A Modest Proposal," in which Swift satirically poses the solution to Irish poverty: eat the children—with so many starving and so many babies born, this solution seems obvious. That Frank doesn't react seems odd, given his curiosity and interest in literature. If he is too young to understand the satire, he expresses no sense of outrage or even questions Swift's "proposal." His lack of reaction may simply be part of his lackadaisical attitude toward death.

Nonetheless for the brief moment Mr. Timoney takes him under his wings, Frank seems to learn to stand up for himself. He defends his Uncle Pat when confronted by Declan Collopy, openly admits he dislikes his new brother's name, and toward the end of the chapter even stands up against his father. Frank is getting older and realizes not everything he was told and believed as a child is true and right. The angel on the seventh step is not there for him when he feels lonely after his mother slaps him for expressing his opinion about his brother's name.

His attitude toward his father is changing as well. Although he loves his father and his stories by the fireplace, he cannot accept his father's lack of restraint as he drinks away the money meant for the new baby. Frank's heart is "raging inside like [his] mother by the fire;" his anger is tantamount to a loss of innocence paired with a newfound integrity. He understands humans are fallible—after all, he himself stole a man's food—yet he draws a moral line in the sand, deciding for himself what is right and what is wrong.

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