Why does Frank rarely blame his father for the suffering that his alcoholism inflicts upon the family? How does this lack of censure affect the moral tone of McCourt’s memoir?
Readers might find surprising the fact that Frank does not outwardly condemn his father for his selfish actions; Malachy drinks away his wages, his dole, and even the money relatives sent for baby Alphie, but McCourt is not interested in airing grievances about his childhood. Rather, he aims to convey the events of his youth as he experienced them. McCourt describes Malachy as he saw him as a child—a father who came home reeling and rousting the boys out of bed, but who also sat with his sons in front of the fire, telling stories and sharing tea. The portrayal leaves us with an impression of a deep fondness, a great love between father and son.
McCourt’s memoir lacks the accusatory, resentful tone we might expect. Frank spends more time chastising himself for his own sins—such as masturbating and listening to rude stories—than he does complaining about his father’s sins. Once again, this suggests that McCourt’s primary aim is to convey the self-conscious emotions he experienced in his youth, rather than to voice judgments he may have formed about his father or other family members later in life. McCourt does not set out to demonize his father’s vices and promote his own virtues. Instead, he draws an evenhanded picture that encourages the reader to sympathize with everyone.
What role do women play in McCourt’s memoir? Is it fair to describe their characterization as stereotypical?
The women in McCourt’s memoir share certain traits. The older women seem hardened, critical, and embittered. In contrast, the younger women in Frank’s memoir, such as Theresa Carmody and Frieda, whom Frank sleeps with on his first night in America, are gregarious and sexually forward. They are free with their bodies and seemingly desperate for male affection.
However, McCourt does not dismiss the women in his life as mere stereotypes. In fact, he paints a subtler and more varied picture of women than might be apparent at first glance. Frank does not have many female friends during his childhood, and the women he meets during his adolescence therefore seem striking and unfamiliar, which might explain their stereotypical depiction. As Frank gets to know these women more closely, his portrayal of them becomes fairer and more authentic. For example, Frank is initially bewildered by Theresa Carmody’s forwardness but, as the couple’s relationship deepens, he grows to admire Theresa for her courage and to empathize with her need for romantic solace. Theresa is older than Frank, and she knows she will die soon. She is not a sexual predator, as we come to learn, but a brave woman trying to enjoy life while she can.
Grandma, Aunt Aggie, and the McNamara sisters are characterized as ill-tempered and petulant, but again, McCourt describes these women from the limited perspective of his youth. Young Frank does not understand the acute disappointment that these women have encountered in their lives, and he fails to perceive that their gruffness masks underlying affection. As he matures, Frank’s understanding of women deepens, and thus his characterization of women grows more complex and sensitive. In particular, he forms a closer relationship with Angela founded on a deeper understanding of her plight. From the beginning, Frank’s depiction of his mother is anything but unfair; she is described not as a stereotypical woman, but as a loving and fiercely devoted mother whose flaws are excusable in light of the struggle that she has endured.
What is Frank’s relationship to Catholicism, and does this relationship change as the memoir progresses?
Some of the most important moments in Frank’s childhood revolve around Catholic sacraments such as First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation. In practice, Frank is a good Catholic: he attends Confession, worries about the sins he has committed, and prays frequently. Frank begins to question his own religious integrity and fixates on his sins. Because Frank becomes increasingly self-critical, he turns to sources of comfort other than faith, such as books, plays, stories, and newspapers, in order to escape from the harshness of reality. After he begins his sexual relationship with Theresa, Frank cannot go to Confession, because he thinks that his sins are unpardonable. Frank never abandons his faith, however, even if he doubts his chances for redemption. Before leaving for America, he confesses his sins to a kindly priest and, for the first time, feels the powerful relief of repentance and forgiveness.
1. In what ways does McCourt use his infancy in New York to foreshadow his experiences in Limerick?
2. What role do Frank’s and his friends’ escapades play in establishing a sense of fun and vitality within the memoir?
3. What do you think McCourt’s primary motivation was for writing his memoir? To earn the sympathy of his readers? To teach them something? Explain.
4. Does Frank’s relationship with Ireland change during his childhood? If so, how does this affect his subsequent return to the United States?