When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
. . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
This passage introduces McCourt’s memoir. It is one of the only times in the narrative that we hear the adult McCourt expressing a strong, clear opinion. From this point on, the narration proceeds from a child’s point of view. While we are able to infer implied opinions, the narrator never again expresses his views overtly. Young Frank simply reports events objectively.
In this opening passage, the author’s wry humor contrasts with the bleakness of his subject matter: a child with an unhappy family life who encounters oppressive authoritarians at church and at school, and who is further demoralized by the historical injustices done to his country. Throughout the autobiography, the author reports on his trouble as he does here—with good-natured humor, and without self-pity.
The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live. My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith. Dad says they were too young to die for anything. Mam says it was disease and starvation and him never having a job. Dad says, Och, Angela, puts on his cap and goes for a long walk.
This quotation comes from Chapter IV. McCourt points out the danger of sentimentalizing death. When adults tell children to look forward to death, children will lose motivation and abandon their ambitions. This quotation uses the rhythm and style of a real conversation, which reveals Frank’s awareness of his parents’ conflicting views. Angela is typically hard-nosed and feisty, blaming the death of her children on Malachy’s inability to hold a job and feed his family. Malachy’s behavior is also typical, for he often says “och, aye” in response to difficult situations, and then goes out to escape conflict rather than confront or resolve it.
I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg . . . but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I’m up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep?
This quotation comes from Chapter VIII. Throughout the novel, Frank struggles to reconcile his love for Malachy with his anger at the way Malachy’s drinking nearly destroys the family. As this passage shows, Frank has an enormous amount of respect and love for his father, and he cherishes the time they spend together. At the same time, however, Frank realizes that his respect for his father might offend his mother. When Malachy has been drinking, the rest of the children refuse to talk to their father. McCourt reveals here that Malachy’s drinking causes not only hunger and monetary ruin for the family, it forces the children to choose between their mother and father.
Mam turns toward the dead ashes in the fire and sucks at the last bit of goodness in the Woodbine butt caught between the brown thumb and the burnt middle finger. Michael . . . wants to know if we’re having fish and chips tonight because he’s hungry. Mam says, Next week, love, and he goes back out to play in the lane.
In Chapter IX, Frank observes his mother’s growing despondency as another week passes without the arrival of a paycheck from England. The ashes in the fire symbolize the crumbling of Angela’s hopes: her dreams have withered and collapsed, leaving her with only cigarettes for comfort. Frank considers himself mature in comparison to his younger brother’s naïve sanguinity. Frank knows that the promise of fish and chips is an empty one, because money will never arrive from their father. He knows that next week they’re likely to face the same hunger, and the same frustrations.
5. I’m on deck the dawn we sail into New York. I’m sure I’m in a film, that it will end and lights will come up in the Lyric Cinema. . . . Rich Americans in top hats white ties and tails must be going home to bed with the gorgeous women with white teeth. The rest are going to work in warm comfortable offices and no one has a care in the world.
Frank’s arrival in America at the conclusion of Angela’s Ashes is presented as a dream sequence. The narrator’s surreal perceptions of American life—men dressed in top hats and accompanied by beautiful women—are more poignant than ridiculous, for they show how Frank has come to idealize the country of his birth. We assume that Frank’s vision will be tainted once he gets off the boat, but a few pages later, he actually does go home to bed with a gorgeous woman, and we begin to have hope that his life in America will be more successful than even he ever dreamed.
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