Telling his story from the perspective of a child and later an adolescent, Frank McCourt both directly and indirectly reveals his innocence and optimism throughout the book. Although Frank has adult responsibilities on his shoulders, he navigates his childhood and adolescence without complaints or assigning blame. Like other boys his age, he would rather play than go to school, he loves reading material adults deem inappropriate, he grapples with his budding sexuality, and he faces the strict notions of sin of his Catholic upbringing. Sharing his father's intelligence, appreciation for literature, and education on the one hand and his mother's determination, perseverance, and courage on the other, Frank embraces his humble beginnings and works to overcome them. While he resents his father's irresponsibility, he never condemns him and in fact shows empathy for him. At the same time, Frank knows how others look down on him and his family, but he neither retaliates nor gives in when people mistreat him.
Angela McCourt loves her family. At first optimistic her husband will provide, she slowly loses hope and resigns herself to a life of hardship. Living in a society that believes a woman's place is at home with the children—many of them, often, due to Catholic prohibitions on birth control—she remains dependent on her irresponsible, alcoholic husband. Sinking further into destitution because of him, she is forced to humiliate herself; she begs for food when her husband is too proud to do so and has sex with a cousin who offers shelter when she and her children are evicted. Not one to shy away from sacrifice, she nearly breaks when three of her children die, yet each time she trudges on. Her devotion is rewarded by her children's devotion to her.
Malachy McCourt Sr.
Handsome, charming Malachy McCourt Sr. is an accomplished storyteller, intelligent, and relatively well educated. He is a Catholic and devoted Irish nationalist with a strong sense of pride and dignity. However, his sense of self-respect and all his positive traits become hollow when his failure to provide for his family forces his wife and sons into poverty and humiliation. Although he may mean well at times, he never finds the strength to overcome his addiction to alcohol and follow through with his promises. In the end, he disappears, leaving his family to fend alone.