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Angela's Ashes | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Frank's mother does not want more children. Because the only birth control available is abstinence, Malachy Sr. is upset when Angela refuses to "perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation." Meanwhile, many fathers have joined the English war effort in the fight against Germany during World War II. They send home money every week, and their families are prospering. Pressure from Angela—"Mam says, sitting on your arse by the fire is no place for a man"—finally makes Malachy Sr. leave for England to find work in a munitions factory. They see him off at the station and feel sad he will be gone. Angela promises the boys an egg once the first wages come in. Every week the McCourts wait for the delivery boy to drop off the telegram with wages, but while many families in their neighborhood receive money, the McCourts do not.

Frank gets conjunctivitis. Although to Angela getting help from the Dispensary is far worse than being on the dole or receiving help from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, she has no choice but to see the doctors at the Dispensary. The doctors send him to the hospital immediately, where he sees Mr. Timoney, who is no longer interested in reading because he has all the stories he needs in his head. Frank also sees Seamus, who recites poetry to him before he leaves to find better work in England.

From a soldier who returns to bury his mother, they hear that Malachy Sr. drinks his wages away in England and, when drunk, rants against the Queen. Angela realizes he will not send home money and finally goes to the Dispensary, where a self-righteous official claims her family does not deserve assistance because her husband is from Northern Ireland: "Why don't you go up to Belfast and see what the Orangemen will do for you, eh?"

Analysis

The humiliation that accompanies poverty permeates this chapter. Wartime England offered Irish families employment opportunities either as soldiers or workers in munitions factories. Indeed many families in the lanes are enjoying relative comfort from the wages the men are sending home from England, thus making the McCourts even poorer by comparison. The family is sinking ever deeper into poverty. Angela is so desperate she threatens to look for work herself. Malachy Sr. cannot accept that proposition; it would shatter his sense of self-respect because "a factory is no place for a woman" even though he does little to do what he should in his position as a man. The difficulty of overcoming poverty in a system that discouraged women from working outside the home and did little to encourage men to fulfill their responsibilities seems nearly impossible. Malachy Sr.'s false sense of pride and entitlement hasten the descent into deeper poverty.

However, before the situation worsens and with the usual optimism, or at least to ease the pain of Malachy Sr.'s departure, Angela promises the boys an egg when the wages start coming in. For the family, now in this state of desperation, an egg seems an attainable luxury—something they enjoy in better times yet still within their grasp. In fact it symbolizes those better times when there was enough money for food and the family was stable.

After Malachy Sr. leaves, the situation gets progressively worse, and Angela is forced to compromise her standards. When Frank contracts conjunctivitis, she has no choice but to go to the Dispensary, the equivalent of a welfare office, for medical treatment. To her this need is humiliating, as it suggests the next step is begging on the streets and sending her children to an orphanage. When Malachy Sr. predictably fails to send home any of his wages and drinks them away as usual, she is forced to go on welfare, where she must face discrimination not only because of her poverty but because she is the wife of a man from Northern Ireland. To get the help she so desperately needs, Angela must swallow her pride and agree with the mean-spirited government official, conceding she is ignorant and her husband lazy. Frank "knows what Mr. Kane did to our mother," and so does the reader: to put food on the table, she had to give up her sense of dignity. The attitude of the government officials who ridicule those at their mercy illustrates the lack of empathy of the class system. Those at the bottom of the social ladder are dismissed as useless and lazy and no longer treated with respect.

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