McCourt writes his memoir in the present tense from the perspective of a young boy. The memoir often distances Frank, the young boy who simply reports on events without forming opinions, from McCourt, who offers the reader a deeper, more adult perspective on those events. Frank is lively and streetwise, thoughtful and sensitive. Though physically weak and prone to infection, he has emotional strength and a survivor mentality. He is also a highly intelligent, diligent student and a quick thinker.
As the narrative progresses, Frank strives to reach beyond the limitations forced upon him by poverty. He becomes determined to achieve success in life and to provide for his family and, indeed, he is relieved to leave school at age fourteen in order to get a job. Though he does not explicitly acknowledge it, Frank is burdened by the necessity of acting as a father figure for his family.
As Frank matures, he starts to suffer from an overwhelming sense of guilt. He worries that by sinning he has doomed himself and the people he loves. Frank channels the disappointments of his difficult life into self-recrimination. Frank escapes his fears and guilt by reading, watching movies, listening to the radio, and daydreaming. He also thinks optimistically about the future, gradually focusing not just on what he wants to do for his family, but on what he wants to achieve for himself. Frank reconciles himself to the fact that in order to reach America, he will have to take risks, pass up safe jobs, and perform ethically dubious tasks such as writing threatening letters for Mrs. Finucane and delivering Protestant newspapers.
Despite constant poverty, a criminally irresponsible husband, and the death of three of her children, Angela is a loving mother who retains her sense of humor. Angela must sacrifice her standards of dignity and class in order to provide for her children. Still, she never lowers her expectations for her sons—she raises them to be well-behaved, conscientious, kind, and hardworking men.
Frank often reacts harshly to the measures Angela takes to help her family, condemning her for begging outside a church and later for sleeping with Laman Griffin. However, despite Frank’s hostility to some of her decisions, it is clear that Angela is simply struggling to cope under highly difficult and painful circumstances. McCourt makes it clear that Angela’s first priority is her sons’ welfare.
In some ways, Frank’s father can be considered the antagonist of Angela’s Ashes, because his actions keep the McCourts destitute. (As antagonist is a character or obstacle in a literary work that opposes the protagonist and causes the major conflict.) While his family suffers from crippling hunger, and his children contract diseases caused by weakness and malnutrition, Malachy drinks excessively and comes home roaring that his sons must be ready to die for Ireland.
Frank’s father drinks himself into a stupor partially to dull the pain of the deaths of his twin sons and baby daughter. But McCourt emphasizes that Malachy’s drinking is more than just a means of coping with bereavement; it is an illness that constantly jeopardizes the survival of his family. Despite the burdens that Malachy’s alcoholism places on Frank’s shoulders, Frank almost always remains loyal to his father. He treasures the times that he and Malachy sit chatting and drinking tea in front of the fire and loves his father’s way with words, his lively imagination, and his flair for storytelling.
When Malachy goes to work in England, he uses his physical distance to justify abandoning his family, leaving them without his emotional or financial support.