Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Because of social snobbery, Frank is unfairly denied many opportunities. Although he is an intelligent, quick-witted, and eager student, he is prevented from becoming an altar boy and deprived of chances to further his education, because when people see him dressed in rags, they shun him. Frank’s natural fighting instincts and the encouragement of a few family members help him to oppose and overcome the limits set by his low-class status.
Even small victories, such as beating a team of wealthy boys in a soccer game, help to bolster Frank’s self-esteem. As the memoir progresses, Frank grows determined to prove that he can succeed and earn people’s respect. In particular, he looks to America as a classless society where his ambitions will be realized and his talents rewarded, despite his lower-class upbringing. Some might view Frank’s vision of America a classless society as idealistic, since class consciousness pervades American society as well. Even so, McCourt’s success as a teacher, performer, and world-renowned author stands as a testament to his ability to surmount the impediments of class, and to the society that made his idealistic dream a reality beyond his—or anyone’s—greatest expectations.
Frank is plagued by hunger throughout his childhood. The McCourts never have enough food to eat, and the food they do manage to procure is scant and unsatisfying. Hunger is mentioned over and over again until it becomes a haunting presence in the narrative. Frank’s father often drinks away the money the family needs for food, and comes home wailing about the plight of Ireland and the Irish. Frank’s mother realizes the pettiness of patriotism compared to the very real hunger her children suffer on a daily basis. When her husband sings songs about “suffering Ireland,” she responds, “Ireland can kiss [my] arse.” Frank then observes, “[F]ood on the table is what she wants, not suffering Ireland.”
Food assumes a symbolic as well as a practical value in the memoir. Frank starts to associate feeling satiated with feeling like an independent and successful member of society. Frank’s need for food is thus more than physical: he craves the self-esteem and freedom that come with being able to eat what he wants. Frank is unwilling to appear needy or to appeal to other people’s charitable instincts to satisfy his hunger. In fact, he would rather steal than beg to survive. Once, when Malachy brings home a week’s pay, Frank notices how his mother can again hold her head up in the grocery and pay the man behind the counter. “There’s nothing worse in the world,” he muses, “than to owe and be beholden to anyone.” Here once more we see how the ability to pay for one’s food brings dignity and self-respect.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In the opening lines of his memoir, McCourt ascribes some of the sorrow he endured as a child to “the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.” Most of the adult characters in the memoir condemn past English invasions of Ireland and contemporary English repression of the Irish. Frank is brought up assuming that the English are essentially immoral and evil. He is taught from the start that Ireland thrived before the English came and spoiled their way of life. Once, when his father is outside trying to beat the fleas out of a mattress, a passerby watches and says that there were no fleas in “ancient Ireland”—the English brought them over to drive the Irish “out of our wits entirely.” “I wouldn’t put it past the English,” he adds. A revealing turn occurs when Frank hears Mr. O’Halloran say that the Irish, as well as the English, committed atrocities in battle. From this point on, Frank starts to question the assumption that Irishmen versus Englishmen means good versus evil.
As a young child, Frank loves listening to his father’s boundless repertoire of stories and folktales. Often Malachy returns from the bar drunk and gregarious, telling stories of the lives of great Irish heroes, or of neighbors who live down the lane. Song has a important place in Irish culture, and bits and pieces of rhymes from old tunes pervade Angela’s Ashes. Most of the songs tell of better days gone by and express regret at joy remembered in times of grave suffering. Lines like “Oh, for one of those hours of gladness, gone, alas, like our youth too soon” resound throughout the memoir. Frank later finds comfort in hearing Shakespeare, P. D. Wodehouse, and songs and poems read aloud by his friends and family.
Throughout his childhood, Frank is burdened by guilt at his own sinfulness, particularly the sinfulness of his sexual thoughts and behavior. He frequently worries that he is damned or that he has damned other people. McCourt suggests that his guilt results primarily from his Catholicism. In the days of Frank’s childhood, priests tirelessly cautioned against the evils of masturbation and sex—their admonishments haunt Frank’s thoughts. As he matures, Frank learns to use Confession to relieve himself of guilt, and he stops feeling doomed by his natural sexual impulses.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The symbolism of the River Shannon changes as Frank’s outlook matures during his childhood and adolescence. Initially, the river symbolizes Limerick’s bleakness and the brooding desolation of Frank’s childhood. Frank associates the river with the endless rain that torments Limerick, which he describes as a virulent disease-carrying wetness that causes people to fall sick with coughs, asthma, consumption, and other diseases. As the memoir progresses, Frank begins to see the river as a route out of Limerick. As a result, it comes to symbolize escape, movement, and freedom. When Frank throws Mrs. Finucane’s ledger into the river—thus liberating all of her remaining debtors—he suggests that soon he, like the ledger, will use the river to leave Ireland behind and set sail across the Atlantic.
Angela’s Ashes takes its name from the ashes which fall from Angela’s cigarettes and those in the fireplace at which she stares blankly. The entire setting of the narrative feels draped in ash—dark, decrepit, weak, lifeless, sunless. Angela’s ashes represent her crumbling hopes: her dreams of raising a healthy family with a supportive husband have withered and collapsed, leaving her with only cigarettes for comfort and the smoldering ashes of a fire for warmth.
Unlike other families, the McCourts cannot afford to buy eggs regularly. Eggs are a familiar yet unattainable luxury, and Frank associates them with wealth and security. They become symbols of the good life that Frank wishes to provide for himself and his family. Eggs symbolize the financial security, the satisfaction, and the indulgences available beyond the boundaries of Limerick.