Angela’s Ashes

by: Frank McCourt

Chapter II

Summary Chapter II

Tragedy again befalls the McCourts as Eugene dies of pneumonia, six months after the death of his twin brother. The doctor prescribes pills for Angela’s nerves, and Frank’s father copes with his grief by drinking himself into a stupor. The day Eugene dies, the adults mourn, and Pa Keating tries to distract everyone by telling funny stories. On the day of Eugene’s funeral, while the dead boy is laid out in bed at home, Frank has to retrieve his father from the pub. He sees that his father has placed his pint of Guinness on top of Eugene’s pristine white coffin. After the funeral, the two surviving McCourt boys eat fish and chips, and Frank thinks of Eugene and how he has been swept by angels from his cold grave and taken up to heaven to see Oliver and Margaret.

Analysis

Although Angela tells the sergeant’s wife that it feels good to be “back among our own,” she is clearly worried about her family’s future in Ireland. Just as Angela has mixed emotions about coming home, Angela and Malachy’s families are not looking forward to the McCourts’ return. It is clear, however, that the grandparents’ restraint is not the result of unkindness but of worry. Malachy’s mother does not have enough room or money to feed and house six people, and Angela’s mother feels pity, anger, and anxiety over her daughter’s condition: Angela has a deadbeat drunk husband, no money, and four little children.

The McCourts are strangers everywhere they go. In America, everyone sees them as Irish, and in Ireland, everyone sees them as American. Over and over people ask with varying degrees of incredulity, disgust, or interest if the boys are Yankees. Because of her American coat, Angela is initially treated coolly by the women waiting for assistance from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. When the boys at school find out that Frank grew up in New York, they taunt him and ask if he is a “gangster” or a “cowboy.” The conversation results in a fistfight.

This fistfight emphasizes the contrast between the dark-haired, dark-eyed Frank and the blue-eyed, blond-ringleted Malachy. In contrast to Malachy, who is sunny and happy and beloved by all, Frank shares some of what his grandmother calls his father’s northern oddities. He is introspective, and when stirred, “the blackness” comes over him.

As in America, the McCourts’ first months in Limerick are filled with hardship and misfortune. Death saturates the memoir, and while always horrifyingly sad, it begins to seem almost routine. Eugene dies, and the similarity of his death and funeral to Oliver’s death and funeral is striking. Death is not sentimental, romantic, or rare—it is quick, dirty, and predictable. After a tender paragraph about Malachy Sr.’s hope that his oldest sons’ kindness will help Eugene forget Oliver, the next paragraph begins, “He died anyway.” This bluntness is not cruel; it is a realistic portrayal of the blank suddenness of death.

The protagonist does not apportion blame for his siblings’ deaths, and neither does Angela. In fact, the narrator never overtly criticizes his father, in part because the five-year-old Frankie would not have done so. Still, the image of two black pints standing on top of Eugene’s white coffin seems plainly symbolic, suggesting that Malachy’s alcoholism kills his children. It is surprisingly difficult to determine whether the author feels bitterness toward his father, as he only hints at his buried resentment. Frank’s uncertainty about how to respond to his father’s alcoholism comes through in his comment that he “didn’t know what to say” to his father when Malachy spent his entire dole on drink.