Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Summary

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Summary

From Brooklyn to Limerick

Recently arrived in the United States from Ireland, Angela Sheehan meets Malachy McCourt in Brooklyn, New York, and marries him soon after she discovers she is pregnant with Frank. They have four more children within the next four years: Malachy Jr., the twins Eugene and Oliver, and Margaret. Soon after seven-week-old Margaret dies, the family returns to Ireland and settles in Limerick to be near Angela's family. Since he is from Northern Ireland, Malachy, Sr. is an outsider in Limerick and has trouble finding work. Angela's family resents him as well, in part because he is a stranger but mostly because he is an alcoholic who spends all his money—wages from odd jobs and unemployment money—on alcohol, and despite his intelligence and charm cannot support his family.

Growing Up Poor

Arriving in Limerick the family lives in a single room, having to share one flea-infested mattress. They live off the dole (unemployment) and charity from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. When the twins die, the McCourts move into a house in the lanes—a very poor part of the city—next door to the lavatory for the entire neighborhood. The ground floor of their house floods when it rains, and the family moves to the upper floor, which they call "Italy" because it is warm and dry. Although Malachy Sr. repeatedly drinks their money away, the McCourts are a tight-knit family trying to carry their hardships with optimism and humor. Malachy Sr. initially means well, tells stories, and often gives up his share of food for his sons, but he cannot rise to the challenge of providing for his family. Although Angela's extended family looks down on her and her situation, they offer help when necessary.

Frank's childhood dramas feature a broad cast of characters, many of whom try hard to live in difficult circumstances. Some are more successful than others; some show different sides of their nature; some open doors for Frank, while others close them—literally.

Rites of Passage

As Frank grows up, Angela has two more sons, Michael and Alphie. Like all Catholic boys in Ireland, Frank faithfully participates in the rites of passage of the Church. At 10 he attends his First Communion but eats so much he gets sick and throws up the wafer that symbolizes the body of Christ. On his confirmation day at 13, he falls ill with typhoid. During his 14-week hospital stay, he discovers his first lines by Shakespeare in a history book, and he is hooked. Although the priests warn him of the dangers of books and girls, like many teenagers he disregards their advice. In the public library he reads about the lives of the saints until the librarian throws him out when she catches him reading a book on human anatomy. He listens to Shakespeare on a neighbor's radio, and from his friend Mickey Molloy, a self-proclaimed authority on girls and a young man who reads as much as Frank does, he begins to understand human sexuality.

Mature Beyond His Age

All along, Frank tries to help his mother put food on the table and coal in the stove by taking odd jobs. His ability to read and write gets him his first job reading for Mr. Timoney. He also works for Grandma Sheehan delivering lunch to a lodger but loses the job when he eats the lunch himself. He works for Uncle Ab delivering newspapers and for a neighbor, Mr. Hannon, delivering coal. Frank becomes used to seeing death around him, for the combination of disease and poverty claims lives that might have been spared in better circumstances.

When Frank's father goes to England to find a job and rarely sends money back home, Angela and her children can no longer make ends meet. After they burn the wallboards to keep warm, they are evicted from their house in the lanes and forced to move in with Angela's cousin Laman, who exploits their desperate situation. Angela must serve him and even sleep with him in exchange for free shelter.

Rising Above

When Laman won't allow Frank to use his bicycle, although Frank made a bargain and worked hard for the privilege, Frank leaves Laman's house and moves in with his Uncle Ab. Frank finishes school and when he turns 16 takes a job as telegram boy at the post office. It is a good job, and he imagines he can take care of his mother and brothers after he takes the post office exam and becomes a permanent employee.

During one of his deliveries, he meets Theresa Carmody, a rich girl sick with consumption, and loses his virginity. Heartbroken when she dies, he wonders whether he is responsible for her damnation. At about the same time, Mrs. Finucane, a moneylender, hires him to write collection letters, a job that disturbs his conscience but not enough for him to give up the high pay he gets. Realizing his education and skills might get him out of poverty—and encouraged by his teacher, Mr. O'Halloran, his neighbor, Mr. Hannon, and his Uncle Pa Keating—he decides not to take the post office exam and go to America instead.

From Limerick to New York

A few months after his 19th birthday, Frank sets sail for New York. Although sad to leave Ireland and his family behind, he is hopeful for the future, vowing to save enough money to buy passage for his family.

Angela's Ashes Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 The McCourts move from New York to Limerick, Ireland.

Rising Action

2 The twins Oliver and Eugene die in short succession.

3 The McCourts move to Roden Lane.

4 In the hospital with typhoid, Frank discovers Shakespeare.

5 Malachy Sr. slowly abandons them and Angela falls ill.

6 The McCourts are evicted and move in with Laman Griffin.

7 Frank fights with Laman and moves in with Uncle Pat (Ab).

8 Frank works as a telegram boy and writes collection letters.

9 While delivering telegrams Frank discovers love and sex.

10 Frank decides not to take the post office exam.

Climax

11 Frank finally confesses his sins and receives absolution.

Falling Action

12 With Mrs. Finucane's money Frank buys passage to America.

13 Angela makes a farewell party for Frank.

14 Frank revisits places important to him in Limerick.

Resolution

15 Frank returns to the United States.

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