Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 8 | Summary



On the night before Confirmation, Quasimodo, so called because of his hunchback, lets his friends see his sisters naked for money so he can save to get to London and apply for a job at the BBC, where "he could be heard and not seen." When Mikey climbs up to the window to look at the sisters and masturbates, he has an epilepsy attack and falls to the ground. Quasimodo's mother breaks up the commotion, locks her son in the coal cellar, and tells Angela that Frank needs to go to confession. Angela drags him home and makes him swear before the picture of the pope he didn't see the girls naked.

After Confirmation Frank is diagnosed with typhoid fever and ends up in the hospital. He is so sick he is given last rites before the fever finally breaks. His father comes to visit and kisses him on his forehead for the first time.

Patricia Madigan, a girl ill with diphtheria and confined to the adjacent room, gives Frank a history book; Frank reads his first line of Shakespeare, words that are like "jewels in my mouth." Patricia teaches him the lines of Alfred Noyes's ballad "The Highwayman," but before she can recite the ending, Frank is moved to a different floor. Shortly afterward, Seamus, the janitor, tells him Patricia died in the bathroom. Upset he'll never learn the ending of the poem, he asks Seamus for help. Seamus memorizes the poem and recites it. In the poem, hero and heroine die a sad death. During the rest of his 14-week stay Frank reads as much as he can.

Frank returns home on his 11th birthday and learns he is held back in school. Although very weak, he goes to the statue of St. Francis across town and prays to be moved to the sixth grade. When they read his essay about what would have happened had Jesus lived in Limerick, the teachers realize he is too advanced for fifth grade and move him to sixth. His new teacher, Mr. O'Halloran, teaches them that not only the English but the Irish as well have committed atrocities. The students have never heard this before and are taken aback: "Next thing he'll be saying is the English did good things."

Frank admits loving his time alone with his father in the mornings when they read the newspaper together. He also admits knowing his father does bad things when he drinks the money away. Malachy Sr. tells him in his youth the English closed the schools and the Irish had to learn in secret. He also tells him to study hard and go to America to work in an office because "America is not like Limerick, a gray place with a river that kills."

Malachy Sr. takes Frank along to complain about the lavatory next to their house, but his request to install more lavatories in the lane is turned down. The stable next to the lavatories doesn't get cleaned properly either, and flies and rats increase the discomfort from the lavatory's smell. Yet the neighborhood children love the horse, Finn, that lives at the stable. When Finn gets sick, Michael is devastated. In his anger he attacks the man who shoots the horse and defends Finn's corpse against the rats.


In this section, Frank learns that life is complicated and rarely one-sided. While at the hospital Frank is confronted with anti-English sentiment. There are no Irish history books there, and the staff tells him he shouldn't read English history. He overhears that children died during the potato famine while the English feasted. His father adds to the sentiment by telling him about the closed schools. However, once he is back at school, a new teacher shatters this simplistic, one-sided view of history by disclosing that the Irish committed atrocities as well. Frank realizes this fact might indicate that good and bad depend on your point of view. In accepting the idea that more than one interpretation of facts exists, Frank is learning to understand the world from different perspectives.

Similarly Frank looks at his father as both good and bad. His disappointment over Malachy Sr.'s playing with Alphie when he returns from the hospital implies his criticism of Malachy Sr.'s failure to provide for his family. Yet in the time Frank spends with him in the morning or at night, his father opens the world to him by discussing history and politics and helping with his schoolwork. Although he keeps drinking his money away with little regard for his family's needs, he also who goes to the city to argue for more lavatories in the lane, thus showing Frank it is necessary to stand up for one's needs and fight for one's family.

Like his father Frank has a deep love and respect for words. His first acquaintance with Shakespeare is an introduction to poetry and literature as the stories of Cuchulain introduced him to the history and culture of Ireland. Sharing poetry with Patricia provides a way for both of them to escape from their situations—illness and poverty. When Patricia dies, Frank seems more concerned about finding out how the poem she recited to him ends than with her death itself, echoing and underscoring the sentiment of earlier chapters: that death looms large even in a child's life and the effects of the death are more significant than the death itself. Throughout his stay at the hospital, Frank reads everything: a hodgepodge of poetry, history, fantasy stories—anything that can provide an escape from his life in the hospital.

Despite sufficient food and a clean bed in the hospital, he misses his family and desperately wants to be home. As in previous chapters, family and togetherness are more important than anything else. Although they are poor and their living situation shameful, the family makes do, working together to keep the lavatory's smell and the rats at bay, trying to keep the house as clean and comfortable as possible. The sensory imagery is strong, especially the descriptions of the presence of flies, fleas, rats, and the never-ending smells coming from the lavatory, with its overflow, knowing the worst-smelling buckets, which "stink to the heavens" are those from "families who are cooking with curry."

The symbol of rain and the river appears in this chapter as a source of poverty, despair, and disease. Malachy Sr. advises Frank to return to America, "get an inside job" where he'll be "out of the rain." America, he says is a land of opportunity, unlike Limerick, "a gray place with a river that kills." This is his ambition for Frank, who his father knows shows promise. The river as a symbol of despair and disease is reinforced by the descriptions of the overflow from the lavatory, the McCourts' personal and persistent body of polluted water continually seeping into their kitchen. Angela comments "It's not the River Shannon that will kill us, but the stink from that lavatory" which attracts flies, bluebottles, and rats.

In the scene ending the chapter, Michael, "small as he is," fights strong adults to defend the horse he loves. Although his stance is in vain and the horse shot anyway, Michael's actions loudly declare a life is worth protecting even if it is old and sick and useless. Defending the horse's corpse against the rats all night and against the careless movers that come to pick up the carcass in the morning, shows that dignity and integrity exist and are valuable, even in the lane where poverty reigns supreme.

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