Summary: Chapter XVII
On the eve of his sixteenth birthday, Frank goes to the pub for his first pint. Traditionally, fathers take their sons for the first pint, but because Malachy is gone, Pa Keating takes Frank. The men talk about Hermann Goering’s suicide and the horror of the concentration camps. Frank gets very drunk. He leaves the pub and decides he wants to confess his sins before he turns sixteen, but he is sent away from the priests’ house because he is drunk. Frank goes home to Angela and picks a fight with her about Laman Griffin, for the first time telling her he knows that she was sleeping with him. Angered, he slaps her. Although he feels sorry for what he has done, Frank reasons that none of this would have happened had Angela not slept with Laman.
The next day, Frank goes to church and wonders angrily why he ever prayed to St. Francis of Assisi, who has not helped him or saved Theresa or prevented children from being murdered in concentration camps. A kind priest named Father Gregory sees Frank crying and says that if he wants to, Frank can talk about what is troubling him. Frank tells him everything; about his dead siblings, his father, having sex with Theresa, hitting his mother, masturbating, and the unfairness of a world in which no one can be punished for what happened at the concentration camps. Father Gregory listens and says that since God has forgiven him, Frank must forgive himself.
Frank begins working for Mr. McCaffrey at Easons Ltd. delivering the Protestant newspaper The Irish Times. His coworkers Peter and Eamon spend most of the day running into the bathroom to masturbate over pictures of women in the magazines. One day, the delivery boys have to race around Limerick tearing out a page about contraception from John O’London’s Weekly magazine, because the government has declared the article unfit for the Irish people to read. Eamon advises Frank to stash some of these pages and then sell them later. Many wealthy people in Limerick approach Frank and ask if he has any copies of the article, and Frank earns nine pounds selling the contraband sheet. He puts eight pounds aside for his fare for America, pays off Peter so he will not tell McCaffrey, and buys his family a big dinner.
Angela has a new job working in the home of an old man named Mr. Sliney, who used to be a friend of Mr. Timoney. One day, Frank has tea with his mother in Mr. Sliney’s house, and he meets the wealthy owner. Angela looks contented working in the big, clean, richly appointed house.
Frank becomes the senior boy working for Mr. McCaffrey, and continues to dream about going to America. Frank’s brother Malachy works at a rich Catholic private school, but gets fired because he acts happy and confident instead of browbeaten. Malachy moves to England and gets a job in a gas works shoveling coal, and waits to join Frank in America.
Summary: Chapter XVIII
I’m on deck the dawn we sail into New York. I’m sure I’m in a film. . . . [T]he sun turns everything to gold . . . no one has a care in the world.
Frank spends three years working at Easons and writing letters for Mrs. Finucane. The old woman dies the night before his nineteenth birthday, and Frank takes seventeen pounds from her purse and forty of the hundred pounds in her trunk upstairs. Feeling like Robin Hood, he throws her ledger into the River Shannon so that no more impoverished debtors will have to pay back the money they owe.
Frank now has enough cash to book passage on a ship to America. He tells Angela he is leaving, and she cries. Frank walks around town, trying to memorize the familiar sights. Now that he is going, there are times that he wants to stay home. Some nights, he sits around the fire with his family, and they all cry at the thought of Frank’s departure.
The McCourts throw a party on the night before Frank’s departure. Pa Keating and Aunt Aggie attend.
On board his ship, the Irish Oak, Frank wishes he had stayed in Ireland, taken the post office exam, and provided for his mother and brothers. As he cries, a priest from Limerick who now lives in Los Angeles approaches and begins talking about how hard it is to leave Ireland. Eventually, the ship reaches Manhattan, which looks to Frank like a vision from a movie. The ship gets rerouted to Albany, New York, and on its way stops in Poughkeepsie. A small boat sails up to the ship, and its Irish pilot invites the First Officer, the priest, and their friends to a party onshore. Frank accompanies the priest, and is taken to a house where he meets a group of flirtatious women. The men pair off with the women; Frank has a drink and ends up having sex with a woman called Frieda. The priest is disapproving. On deck back at the ship, the Wireless Officer says to Frank, “Isn’t this a great country altogether?”
Summary: Chapter XIX
This chapter consists of one word. In answer to the Wireless Officer’s question at the end of Chapter XVIII, “Isn’t this a great country altogether?” Frank replies simply, “’Tis.”
Analysis: Chapters XVII–XIX
In these final chapters, Frank comes to terms with his religion. He has a moment of painful honesty in front of the statue of St. Francis, when he expresses his anger at the unfairness of life, and the seeming futility of his prayers. He finally expresses anger at the church, but he also finally feels its capacity to heal. McCourt shows us that although the Catholic church may compound the guilt that Frank feels about his bad behavior, it also has the unparalleled power of forgiveness. When Frank goes to Confession and pours out his worries to the priest, he is forgiven and leaves the church with every burden lifted from his back. He is perfectly happy.
As the book progresses, Frank’s formative experiences center less on his family and his mother, and more on his individual process of maturation: he encounters boys who feel no shame about their own sexual impulses, he learns about birth control, he steals from an old woman and feels perfectly justified, he sleeps with a married woman and feels little but elation. While Frank is still a moral person, some of his childish worry and moral fastidiousness is being replaced by a mature toughness.
Frank leaves for the United States filled with expectation, but he also remains strongly connected to Ireland and committed to providing for his family.
The final chapter ends with a simple statement of agreement. Placing the word “’Tis”—a colloquial contraction for “it is”—in a chapter by itself emphasizes how vehemently Frank agrees that America is a great country. It ends the “epic of woe” with a glimpse of hope.
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