There are several themes in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes: poverty, religion, stereotypes, mass disease, and the heroic male who is to rise from the destitution of Ireland (as he perceives it). Angela's Ashes is a first-person/present-tense account (an intensely effective way to draw the reader in). McCourt uses no quotations in dialogue and it works quite nicely! One neednt wonder why he won the Pulitzer for this endeavor.
The story begins by stating, "My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead..." his youth was the kind of hell that most do not experience. This statement conveys that his life is going to be a struggle the likes of which we have seldom seen before (and uniqueness helps agents sell books to publishers). He continues, in the introduction, by saying what a terrible childhood he had and that it was a wonder he survived, having lost three siblings to either consumption (tuberculosis) or starvation. It's surprising that his parents stayed together at all after such devastation as losing three children. More often than not, the loss of a child harms a marriage, if not destroys it.
The stereotypical drunk, proud Irishman and a passive but caring mother are Frankie's parents. His dad, Malachy McCourt, says "Och" innumerously as he stands idly by, doing nothing to improve his family's supreme squalor and thus hunger! He starts out swallowing the week's wages and eventually stops working altogether, resorting to drinking away the dole money (which he'd never stoop to getting himself, instead sending Angela and his shamed offspring). Malachy, a self-important drunk, spends any money he happens by (even so far as his own child's casket money) at the pub, preferring not to demean himself by working. Malachy wakes his sons up from sound sleep, making them swear to die for Ireland, singing Roddy McCorley or Kevin Barry songs. McCourts details draw stereotypes that are real (finally, his dad abandons the family altogether by a move to England).
Angela endures plenty I would never stand for, as a woman nor as a mother. Frankie's mother has to chase down her husband for the money to feed their poor children at first, (ultimately being reduced, through Frankie's eyes, to a common beggar by pleading for scraps of food and preparing a pig's head for Christmas). It is a sad life for her, as she averts her gaze to any stationary object when experiencing a humbling situation, including one dead fireplace full of ashes (another example is when Frankie cleans Laman Griffin's chamber pot and doesn't even get to use the bike he was promised). Does Angela make a stand for the rights of her son? No, she climbs up to the loft that night to have sex with him! (Hello? Her cousin! Nasty!!) Maybe shes lonely after being abandoned by her pathetic husband but she possibly does it for shelter, to provide, nevertheless it amounts to incest. It may have been humiliating for Frankie, but it was beyond his realm of control as a child.
People all around Frankie, while in Ireland, die due to the River Shannon, which floods its banks right into their homes, keeping everything damp and ripe for disease to spread (so much so that they must migrate to the loft-'Italy'-where it's tolerably dry). Besides siblings, Frankie loses friends: Mickey Spellacy (whose sibling were dying off too), Quasimodo Dooley (the BBC wannabe), and Theresa Carmody (his first love) of consumption; Patricia Madigan (the Catholic hospital patient, who loved poetry) of diphtheria. Everyone else is just sick all the time, Frankie himself having bouts of typhoid fever and chronic conjunctivitis. He turns to the adult advice given him, in that, "When you grown up you'll laugh," even if it came from his Uncle Pat (who everyone knows was dropped on his head as a babe). Humor is a method of coping that adds well to the humanity of McCourt's tale! How we cope is imperative.
McCourt chooses another method of coping, which many become disillusioned with through the process of learning: religion. The Roman Catholic Church is full of moral-based interpretations infused into one piece of literature, The Bible. In Angela's Ashes, Catholic education is reverberated (to me, having been-there; done-that): we see the Sacred Heart as well as other Catholic symbolism and ritual. Communion is (symbolically) the body and blood of Christ, who has died so that we may be redeemed of sin. Frankie's Grandma takes religion too literally; getting offended that he should get so sick as to upchuck in her yard the wafer he swallowed for his first Communion (a holy rite, but also highly symbolic in Catholicism concerning belief (also, easily taken too literally in Catholicism). As Frankie grows, he has the door shut in his face twice by priests, although he finds comfort in the few of them that are truly sincere. One priest tells Frankie, after confessing to having stolen a lunch because he was hungry, that the priest himself should be washing Frankie's feet and to please say a prayer for him! (It struck me as soft.) The story, taken from The Bible, was touching, as was the episode where Frankie breaks down emotionally at the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, his patron saint. (I never made Confirmation, myself.)
Poor. Frankie's father wouldn't hold a job for longer than three weeks at a time, as though with no conscience whatsoever, no morality, no redemptive quality. Frankie was forced to be valiant, the Robin Hood his family needed to get by, by turning to his Angel of the Seventh Step for the answers he couldn't find on his own. Growing up, we learn the tale instead of the truth about Catholicism. The truth is that sometimes we have bad role models, teaching us with everything they do! Hopefully, we learn from it, rather than repeat their mistakes. (With any Irish luck, we live!)
The book ends...somehow I'm no longer telling (your welcome). The sequel to this wonderfully written narrative is 'Tis, a more tedious read (even though McCourts style of writing is vivid and alive). I strongly recommend reading Angela's Ashes with a box of tissues handy, because in between sobs youll laugh!
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