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
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.