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Angela's Ashes | Themes

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Poverty and Class

Frank McCourt grows up destitute—"in the lanes," the slums of Limerick, Ireland. McCourt does not hesitate to describe living conditions in detail. "It's raining again and small children are playing in the hallway and up the stairs. Paddy says, 'Mind yourself, because some of the steps are missing and there is shit on the ones that are still there'" (Chapter 6). Readers can almost smell the stink from the lavatory, feel the bites of the fleas and lice, and hear the rats scurrying on the floor. McCourt focuses on the difficulties of growing up in such conditions, sinking deeper into poverty, and experiencing the shame connected with it. A long-established social hierarchy seems to prevent Frank and others like him from rising above their humble beginnings. "I'd like to be a Jesuit someday but there's no hope of that when you grow up in a lane. Jesuits are very particular. They don't like poor people. They like people with motor cars who stick out their little fingers when they pick up their teacups" (Chapter 10).

Furthermore, only the boys growing up in richer areas of Limerick go to the elementary and secondary schools that guarantee well-paying jobs, while the people from the lanes are destined to work in jobs serving them.

Although Frank is clearly bright and willing to learn, doors slam in his face. The Church does not accept him as an altar boy or as a student, despite his teachers' support for his application. "They don't want boys from lanes on the altar. They don't want the ones with scabby knees and hair sticking up. Oh, no, they want the nice boys with hair oil and new shoes that have fathers with suits and ties and steady jobs. That's what it is and 'tis hard to hold on to the Faith with the snobbery that's in it" (Chapter 5). Class consciousness extends even into religion.

Tradition, background, and class rather than intelligence, education, and determination decide one's course of life. However, unlike most of the other residents in the lanes, Frank is unwilling to accept the destiny prescribed to him by the class system. He does not want to become a postal worker just to raise a family of more postal workers. Instead, both smart and determined, Frank uses his reading and writing skills to get additional jobs to help him save money for fare to America, where he will have more opportunities to live a more rewarding and comfortable life.

Education and Literature

Growing up in poverty as the son of an alcoholic father who repeatedly shatters all hope of a warm meal and a better future, Frank finds reprieve and a way out through reading and writing. A love for stories instilled by his father, Frank loves reading and comments, as a hungry child might comment on something appealing, "Shakespeare is like mashed potatoes, you can never get enough of him" (Chapter 12). Although Mr. O'Halloran encourages him to remain in school, Frank feels he cannot; however, he will return eventually and attain an advanced degree.

Books open the world of history, culture, and literature to Frank, allowing him to escape from the dreary circumstance of his life into a world of imagination. His teacher tells him, "You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can't make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it" (Chapter 8). And not only figuratively when he is in the hospital with typhoid, but literally as well. From the beginning his ability to read and later to write becomes a source of additional income, which he uses to save for fare to America, where he will become a teacher and ultimately a writer.

Guilt and Forgiveness

Frank grows up in Catholic Ireland: "The sisters knew what was right and they knew what was wrong and any doubts could be resolved by the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church" (Chapter 1). Frank goes through the rites of passage prescribed by the Catholic faith: First Communion and Confirmation. Both rites are meant to welcome youngsters into the community of the church. An integral part is the confession of and repentance for sins. The sins the children confess before First Communion are rather innocent—using bad words, lying to a parent, fighting with a sibling or a friend—and meant to satisfy the ritual rather than represent true repentance. Even sins such as stealing food from a grocer or money from a mother's purse seem rather small infractions in the context of the poverty and hunger the children in the lanes live with.

For adolescents the notion of sinfulness begins to focus on sexual transgressions. "Oh, boys, the devil wants your souls. He wants you with him in hell and know this, that every time you interfere with yourselves ... you not only nail Christ to the cross you take another step closer to hell itself" (Chapter 13). Frank worries he is damned because like every youth he masturbates, and he is troubled that sex might damn not only him but the young woman he had sex with as well, imagining, "There he is, Frankie McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell" (Chapter 16).

Paradoxically, Catholicism instills the idea of the sinfulness of human sexuality at the same time as it offers confession as a way to relieve that guilt. The belief in a benevolent and merciful God encourages forgiveness and empathy. "God forgives me and I must forgive myself, that God loves me and I must love myself for only when you love God in yourself can you love all God's creatures" (Chapter 17).

Frank grows up with a stern belief in dogma and doing what's right, but the compassion of the confessional becomes an integral part of his life. He implicitly and explicitly criticizes his father's drinking that caused the family's hardships, his relatives' resentment that exacerbated their situation, and the authorities' harsh treatment of the poor that caused his mother's shame. And yet a sense of compassion for human frailty permeates the pages. After all humankind is fallible indeed.

Alcoholism

Malachy McCourt Sr.'s drinking is a major source of the family's continuing poverty. He regularly spends his wages in the pub and loses his jobs because he fails to show up on time after a night of drinking. He disregards the repercussions his drinking has for his family, which is no surprise, given that alcoholism is an addiction. He loses control when he drinks and is not ashamed to say, "I want ye to stand in the middle of the pub and tell every man your father is drinking the money for the baby. Ye are to tell the world there isn't a scrap of food in this house, not a lump of coal to start the fire, not a drop of milk for the baby's bottle" (Chapter 7).

The problem was endemic in Ireland where drinking was an integral part of life, providing relief from hardship in a poor country. In fact, alcoholism is part of growing up, a rite of passage almost rivaling Confirmation. Drinking the first pint at age 16 turns a boy into a man. "The barman brings the pints, Uncle Pa pays, lifts his glass, tells the men of the pub, This is my nephew, Frankie McCourt son of Angela Sheehan, the sister of my wife, having his first pint, here's to your health and long life, Frankie, may you live to enjoy the pint but not too much" (Chapter 17).

Alcohol is considered acceptable as a pastime and as medicinal—a way to mitigate depression. Even the otherwise critical grandmother supports Malachy Sr.'s desire to get a drink after his son's death. "He doesn't have the pills to ease him, God help us, and a bottle of stout will be some small comfort" (Chapter 2). While criticizing his father's addiction and its devastating consequences, McCourt shows insight into the culture and circumstances that make drinking an acceptable vice and at the same time shows compassion for those too weak to resist.

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