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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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Angela's Ashes!