Frank wants to go on a cycling trip with his friends from school, and convinces Laman to let him borrow his bicycle. In return, he promises to empty Laman’s chamber pot every day and to run all of Laman’s errands.
One day at the library, the librarian gives Frank a book called Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The deaths of the virgin martyrs, “worse than any horror film,” fascinate Frank. He does not know what the word “virgin” means, and although he looks in the dictionary, the definition is too abstract to be of help. The librarian, Miss O’ Riordan, is so impressed by Frank’s supposed religious zeal that she writes to congratulate Angela on her son.
Frank’s teacher, Mr. O’Halloran, tells Angela that her son is intelligent and must continue school instead of becoming a messenger boy and wasting his talents. On his advice, Angela takes Frank to the Christian Brothers to inquire about further schooling, but the priest there slams the door in the McCourts’ faces, telling them that there is no room for Frank. This infuriates Angela.
The post office supervisor offers Frank a job as a telegram messenger. This job offer pleases Frank, who is anxious to finish school. Mr. O’Halloran tells his students that he is disgusted with the class system that forces smart boys into menial jobs, and he tells Frank that he should leave for America. Frank tries to apply to be a chaplain in the Foreign Legion, but his doctor thinks Frank too young and refuses to give him the necessary physical examination.
Frank worries that he is committing a sin by masturbating. He also worries about the fact that his mother is sleeping with Laman Griffin. The day before Frank is due to go on his cycling trip, he forgets to empty Laman’s chamber pot. Angered, Laman says that Frank cannot borrow his bike. Frank protests that Laman is breaking his promise, and Laman starts beating Frank. Frank leaves the house and goes to stay with his Uncle Ab Sheehan.
Angela sends Michael to Ab Sheehan’s house with food for Frank. Michael feels bereft without his big brother, and asks Frank to come home. Frank refuses, but feels guilty. It tears at his heart to watch Michael walk away in his broken shoes and his raggedy clothes, and he thinks of all the things he will buy for Michael once he gets his job at the post office.
Frank spends his days going on long walks in the countryside. He is ashamed that he masturbates, especially when he once masturbates on a hill, “in full view of Ireland.”
Uncle Ab refuses to give Frank food, so Frank steals milk and bread from wealthy houses. He concludes that since he is doomed for his sins anyway, a few more will not make any difference. Still, he feels that he is little more than a beggar, standing outside stores and asking for leftover fish and chips.
At the library, Frank happens upon a sex manual written by Lin Yutang, and, after reading it, finally understands the mechanics of intercourse. He says, “My father lied to me for years about the Angel on the Seventh Step.” When the shocked librarian discovers that Frank has been reading the manual, she orders him to leave. Frank falls asleep in a park and dreams of virgin martyrs dressed in swimsuits. He wakes up to discover that he is having a wet dream, and people in the park are watching him ejaculate.
Frank returns to Ab’s house and washes his clothes in preparation for his first day of work as a messenger boy. He finds a loaf of bread that Ab has hidden in his coat pocket and helps himself to one slice, drinking a glass of water as he eats to make himself feel more full. Because his clothes are still drying and he is cold, Frank puts on an old woolen dress of his grandmother’s and goes to bed. His Aunt Aggie brings his drunk uncle home from the pub and finds him in his grandmother’s dress. Frank explains and says that he is living with Ab until he can afford to buy a house for his mother and brothers. His aunt concedes that this is “more than your father would do.”
Although Frank does not comment on Mr. O’Halloran’s actions, McCourt makes it clear to the reader that O’Halloran is an inspirational and good man with a keen sense of social injustice. The teacher’s indignation at the unfairness of the class system is the first such anger Frank or the reader has heard about Frank’s supposed lot in life. For the first time, someone is prompting Frank to think about the unseen forces that keep poor people poor. Although Frank does not explicitly comment on O’Halloran’s ideas, he demonstrates that he has noted his teacher’s righteous anger; when he reports on O’Halloran’s speech, he replicates its fury, saying, “[Mr. O’Halloran] is disgusted by this free and independent Ireland that keeps a class system foisted on us by the English, [and says] that we are throwing our talented children on the dungheap.”
Like Mr. O’Halloran, Angela is angry that Frank cannot get the education he deserves. Angela’s anger is directed not at the class system, however, but at the church. In previous chapters there were subtle indications that although Angela brings her boys up as Catholics, she does not embrace the church: she was not the one to take Frank to church on Christmas, and she did not seem overly concerned with the technical cleanliness of Frank’s soul prior to his Confirmation. In Chapter XIII, however, she finally voices some of her frustration with the church. She tells Frank, “That’s the second time a door was slammed in your face by the Church,” and she exhorts him never to let anyone slam a door in his face again.
Frank continues to worry about masturbating, which one priest terms the “vile sin of self-abuse.” Although the priests assure the boys that when they masturbate the Virgin Mary weeps, Christ’s wounds are reopened, and they take a step toward hell, Frank cannot stop himself from masturbating. His natural urges come into conflict with the stern warnings of the priests, and his guilt deepens.
Frank disapproves of the sexual relationship his mother has with Laman. When Laman beats Frank, Frank thinks that his mother should demonstrate her loyalty to her son by sleeping alone, and he is disgusted when instead, “she cries and begs till there’s whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.”
Although young Frank does not fully recognize his mother’s pain, McCourt shows the reader how difficult the situation is for Angela. She has no money to buy or rent a place of her own, and so to ensure the survival of her children and keep a roof over their heads, she must stay with Laman and keep him happy. Laman’s mistreatment of her children torments Angela. When he laughs and assigns Frank the humiliating job of emptying his chamber pot, Angela “stares into the dead ashes in the fireplace.” When Laman beats Frank, Angela screams and protests. Still, she sleeps with Laman on the same night that Laman abuses Frank. McCourt does not make it clear whether their sexual relations are partially a relief to Angela in her loneliness, or whether they are simply an odious duty she feels compelled to perform in order to keep Laman satisfied.
Frank is determined to move to America and to someday provide for his mother and brothers. He would rather “jump into the River Shannon” than give up on his dream.