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.