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Angela's Ashes | Study Guide

Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes | Symbols


Poverty and its effects on physical and psychological health are an integral part of Frank McCourt's story. Symbols representing both misery and the hope to overcome it merge despair with optimism.


Frank McCourt himself has explained the title refers to his mother's ashes: before his story was split into two books, Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, the memoir was to end with an image of his spreading his mother's ashes after cremation. The first memoir did not end that way but contains references to ashes throughout.

Angela enjoys sitting by the fireplace, smoking cigarettes. In fact, she claims, "I'm a martyr for the fags and so is your father." Despite cigarettes being responsible for their rotten teeth, Angela and Malachy Sr. do not give up smoking. "There may be a lack of tea or bread in the house but Mam and Dad always manage to get the fags" (Chapter 5). Cigarettes take precedence over nutrition, suggesting Angela and Malachy Sr. are as hopelessly addicted to nicotine as he is to alcohol. On the other hand Frank understands "the fag is the only comfort they have" (Chapter 5).

The fire in the fireplace functions as a center of warmth for the entire family, and they spend many an evening in front of it listening to Malachy Sr.'s stories. The symbol of warmth and togetherness slowly becomes a symbol of unfulfilled expectations, and Angela often stares into the smoldering ashes when her husband fails to return home with money or when her children face humiliation. When Malachy Sr. gradually disappears from their lives, Angela and her sons have to burn the wallboards of the house she shared with him, symbolically burning all hope—the house next to the lavatory is gone, turned to ashes.

Cigarettes are her only luxury and the ashes of a dying fire her only source of warmth, symbolizing her hopes for a secure family life supported by a responsible husband have burned down in the firestorm of poverty.


To Frank and his family, eggs symbolize financial stability, security, and a comfortable existence with good food to eat. "God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt" (Chapter 9). However, Frank's family is so poor they cannot afford to eat eggs regularly. In fact eggs become a luxury. "It's a hard-boiled egg and Dad peels off the shell. He slices the egg five ways and gives each of us a bit to put on our bread" (Chapter 9). This image symbolizes the McCourts' destitution as well as their close-knitted love for one another.

The children are so malnourished—many days they live on only weak tea and a few pieces of bread—that two of them, Oliver and Eugene, die in part because they lack the physical strength to fight the illnesses that plague them. Hunger is so severe that Frank and his younger siblings have to steal to survive. Dying of hunger is not new to Ireland: Frank learns in the hospital that in the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of people died during the potato famine. No wonder to Frank imagining better times means having decent food, and other than fish and chips that food is eggs.

The River Shannon and Rain

"Above all—we were wet" (Chapter 1). In a reversal of water as an image of the source of life, McCourt describes the rain in Limerick and the river Shannon as the causes for the eternal wetness which in turn causes the coughs, asthma, and consumption that killed so many throughout his childhood. Together with the family's constant lack of coal to feed a fire to dry the uncomfortable dampness and provide warmth, the wetness permeating Limerick becomes a symbol of death. Questioning God after Eugene's death, Frank's father holds the river responsible: "Och, it was the River Shannon that harmed you, the dampness from that river that came and took you and Oliver" (Chapter 2). The frequent rain and the filthy, foul water from the lavatory that seeps into the McCourts' kitchen emphasize the symbol of wetness as a source of ill health and desperation.

Toward the end of the memoir, Frank throws Mrs. Finucane's ledger into the River Shannon in a gesture that frees the poor of Limerick from debt and prepares his own journey to freedom. Although he pollutes the river, figuratively, with her unrelenting figures, they soon will be washed away, and the river becomes a route to freedom. "Her ledger is well on its way down the Shannon and out to the Atlantic and I know I'll follow it sometime soon" (Chapter 18). Frank takes his fate into his own hands, suggesting it is possible to overcome the limitations of poverty and class.

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