McCourt writes his memoir in the present tense from the perspective of a young boy. The memoir often distances Frank, the young boy who simply reports on events without forming opinions, from McCourt, who offers the reader a deeper, more adult perspective on those events. Frank is lively and streetwise, thoughtful and sensitive. Though physically weak and prone to infection, he has emotional strength and a survivor mentality. He is also a highly intelligent, diligent student and a quick thinker.

As the narrative progresses, Frank strives to reach beyond the limitations forced upon him by poverty. He becomes determined to achieve success in life and to provide for his family and, indeed, he is relieved to leave school at age fourteen in order to get a job. Though he does not explicitly acknowledge it, Frank is burdened by the necessity of acting as a father figure for his family.

As Frank matures, he starts to suffer from an overwhelming sense of guilt. He worries that by sinning he has doomed himself and the people he loves. Frank channels the disappointments of his difficult life into self-recrimination. Frank escapes his fears and guilt by reading, watching movies, listening to the radio, and daydreaming. He also thinks optimistically about the future, gradually focusing not just on what he wants to do for his family, but on what he wants to achieve for himself. Frank reconciles himself to the fact that in order to reach America, he will have to take risks, pass up safe jobs, and perform ethically dubious tasks such as writing threatening letters for Mrs. Finucane and delivering Protestant newspapers.