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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Quotes


It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 1

Frank McCourt introduces the main theme of his memoir—misery—with dry humor. With the distance of the adult who has managed to escape, McCourt looks back on his impoverished childhood. Most of the memoir is written from the child's perspective, told as if events were happening before the reader's eye. The opening is reminiscent of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."


If there's the odd flea I don't mind because it's warm in the bed.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 2

The McCourts left New York to return to Ireland, hoping to escape the effects of the Great Depression. Yet their dire circumstances do not change. Arriving in Limerick, the family lives in a single room, sharing a flea-infested mattress and little money for heat. Nonetheless Frank experiences a sense of togetherness in a close-knit family that sticks together against relatives who show nothing but scorn toward the McCourts, who are outsiders in Ireland because the children are Yanks—born in America—and their father is from the North. The moment of happiness and warmth with his family is brief. His twin brothers die soon after, in part because of their poverty.


A man without a collar and tie is a man with no respect for himself.

Malachy McCourt Sr., Chapter 3

To Frank's father a collar and tie are the outward signs of dignity, self-respect, and social standing. Hoping to convey an image that distinguishes him from the other unemployed and poor in the lanes, Frank's father places pride over his family's practical needs. He refuses to help collect coal, carry groceries, or beg, believing himself above such tasks. This attitude exposes his double standard. He does not bring home money and thus forces his wife and children to do these things for him. His logic allows his wife and sons to give up their pride in favor of his. Preserving his dignity becomes an empty gesture meant to feed his ill-conceived notions of manhood and pride.


He ... sleeps on the chair, misses work ... loses the job ... and we're back on the dole.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 3

Referring to the routine his father has established by drinking his wages away the moment he receives them, Frank illustrates that his father cannot escape the vicious cycle of alcoholism. By extension the entire family cannot escape poverty. Introducing the sequence of events as if it were a checklist, Frank, at the time a mere child, acknowledges the predictable pattern and accepts it stoically. At the same time, these events happen overnight, in quick succession, as if unstoppable, illustrating that life is unpredictable and can introduce hardship when everyone is asleep.


It's a glorious thing to die for the Faith.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 4

As Frank is preparing for his First Communion, the priest insists on the absolute value and significance of faith, similar to Malachy Sr.'s claim that it is glorious to die for Ireland. However, Frank has already seen the death of three siblings and a number of friends, suggesting perhaps a better objective would be to try to survive rather than die for a cause. With dry humor, McCourt exposes the notion of honor in death as the misplaced delusions of grandeur of adults who wish to belong to something bigger than themselves rather than accept responsibility for the struggle to survive.


'Tis class distinction. They don't want boys from lanes on the altar.

Angela McCourt, Chapter 5

When Frank is turned down as an altar boy, although he knows enough Latin to do the job well, Angela shares with Frank a hard reality of life: family background and tradition decide an individual's opportunity far more than intelligence, education, hard work, and perseverance. It's a lesson Angela has come to accept, but one that Frank is determined to overcome.


You can't make up an empty mind.

Mr. O'Halloran, Chapter 8

Mr. O'Halloran is the only teacher, and one of very few adults, who encourages students to read and ask questions. Whereas other teachers and most adults expect students to learn by rote and do as they are told, Mr. O'Halloran expects his students to acquire knowledge and think for themselves. Knowledge, he suggests, is power. Enamored by books, Frank takes this advice to heart and uses his skills to imagine a life beyond Limerick. Instead of taking the post office exam, he makes up his own mind and embarks on the journey to New York.


I know when Dad does the bad thing ... but I don't want to back away from him.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 8

Frank is aware that his father does little to ensure his family's well-being and that his drinking—and spending the "dole" money on drink—causes their misery. But Frank can see his father's tender side as well. He cherishes the time he spends with him, as his stories and conversations open up a new world, and he appreciates his father's occasional selflessness when he gives up his food for his children. However, as Frank grows older, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile his love for his father with his father's failure to support his mother.


Sitting on your arse by the fire is no place for a man.

Angela McCourt, Chapter 9

In these simple sentences, McCourt defines the roles of men in Irish society at the time. Men are supposed to head the household and provide for the family, while women take care of the house and the children. Malachy Sr. does not succeed at playing his part, and in many ways neither does Angela. She fulfills her social function, having and raising children. She also applies for charity, collects scraps of coal off the street, negotiates with grocers, and even begs. But she also does plenty of sitting on her own "arse," smoking cigarettes, gossiping with the neighbors, and indulging her depression while her children care for her and run the streets.


I want the job. I want to bring home the shilling. I want to be a man.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 11

In a conversation with his mother, Frank displays a sense of responsibility beyond his age. Despite the serious repercussions on his health—his eyes are infected with coal dust—Frank is willing to deliver coal for the money his family so desperately needs. Realizing the pressure Frank is under, his mother sends him to rest instead, ensuring his physical health and his ability to perform at school. Frank's desire and her reaction reveal the bond of love between mother and son.


Shakespeare is like mashed potatoes, you can never get enough of him.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 12

Equating Shakespeare with food is the strongest endorsement of the value Frank could place on something. For someone growing up in poverty and facing real hunger every day, mashed potatoes are a luxurious nourishment for the body as Shakespeare is for the mind. Shakespeare, whose words Frank refers to as "jewels in my mouth" earlier in the memoir, allows him to imagine beauty despite the dreary circumstances of his life and instills hope in nearly hopeless circumstances.


One more board from that wall, one more and not another one.

Angela McCourt, Chapter 12

Angela is referring to the wallboards they are using as firewood when Malachy Sr. fails to send money from England. They have no money for rent or food and now are forced to burn down their shelter. Although Angela seems to be telling herself she can stop burning the boards any time, they end up burning a bearing beam that brings down the house and gets them evicted, illustrating the downward spiral of her family into destitution cannot be stopped.


Mam stares into the dead ashes in the fireplace.

Frank McCourt, Chapter 13

Realizing the improved living situation at Laman's has come at a high price, Angela is overcome by despair. While other wives receive support from their husbands, hers has left her with none. She has no choice but to submit to Laman's every whim. She cleans his chamber pot every night, serves tea, and even sleeps with him. When he becomes more demanding, she feels she has failed as a mother, and her hopes for a better life disappear along with her waning self-respect.


Why should I squander money on stamps when I have two legs to deliver the letters myself?

Frank McCourt, Chapter 16

Frank has set himself a goal—going to America—and knows he needs to save enough money for the fare. Unlike his father he can withstand the temptation of temporary pleasures and comforts such as alcohol, sweets, or stamps. He does what he must, literally going the extra mile to save money, to reach his goal as soon as possible. Such foresight shows his maturity and his perseverance.


Isn't this a great country altogether?

Wireless officer, Chapter 18

Looking out on the American shore, the Wireless officer expresses admiration for the United States. Frank responds with the typically Irish monosyllabic 'Tis, confirming he holds high hopes. He has grown up and will take his life into his own hands, making the best of it.

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