Angela's Ashes: Essay Q&A

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1. Describe Frank’s relationships with his family?

From childhood, Frank may have had a quiet or even slightly “off” personality, but his feelings towards his nuclear family were always warm. Frank’s alcoholic father makes life hard for the entire family, but as the eldest son Frank does his best to get along well with everyone. While he loves his parents and brothers, his relationships with his grandmother and aunt and uncle are understandably less friendly.

Frank loves his father despite the frequency with which he comes home drunk and singing and makes his sons promise to die for Ireland.  He especially cherishes the sober morning moments by the fire when his father is making tea and telling stories. However, his preferred parent is doubtless his saintly mother. Frank appreciates and looks up to Angela, who always manages to keep her children clothed and fed despite the lack of money. In fact, the book’s title is an indication of his deep love and respect for her goodness in the face of the severe challenges of sickness and poverty she faces valiantly in both New York and again in her hometown of Limerick. 

As a young child, Frank is jealous of his brother Malachy’s good looks and temperament, resenting being called “odd” while Malachy’s rosy cheeks and friendliness are constantly complimented during their childhood. Frank is substantially older than Michael and Alphie, and assumes a caretaker role for them at a young age, just as he did for the twins Eugene and Oliver before their premature deaths. The family’s troubles are such that Frank matures younger than do most of his peers.

Frank’s feelings of responsibility and love for his parents and brothers is not matched by tenderness towards his maternal relatives. Angela’s mother, sister and brother are not kind toward the McCourts, and there is no love lost between Frank and his grandmother, Aunt Aggie and Uncle Pat. He understands they are to be obeyed but can muster little more than tolerance for what might best be described as their cruelty toward the children, whether in the form of negligence or outright violence.

2. What role do stories assume in the novel?

As a young boy in Brooklyn, Frank is captivated by the story of the mythic Cuchulain, a hero of epic proportions also much admired by his father. Malachy keeps him entertained for hours on Classon Avenue by telling him of the Irish legends involving a man of tremendous strength and wit. When Frank overhears his brother Malachy sharing the tale with the neighbor Freddie Leibowitz, Frank flies into a jealous rage and lets his fists fly, hurting both his brother and his friend. He believes stories belong to just one person, and he identifies deeply with Cuchulain and clings to the story his father has given him as though it might be diminished by being told to others as well.

When the family moves to Limerick, Frank remains fascinated by Cuchulain, but as he ages he becomes less possessive of the hero and “his” tale. As a young adolescent, he is besieged by guilt when his friend Mikey tells him Cuchulain’s wife Emer was chosen for winning a pissing contest, and confesses, sincerely believing it a sin to have listened.  His father tells him it is unnecessary to confess, but Frank prefers to listen to the counsel of the Angel on the Seventh Step in this instance, though agrees with his father it is generally preferable to consult a real flesh and blood parent in such matters.

Since his father is rarely available to him in this way, Frank has developed a custom of sitting on the seventh step down from the family’s upstairs quarters, fondly referred to as “Italy,” believing the angel who delivers babies is available when spoken to from there.  This tendency is understandable as a childish wish to receive advice from a respected source, and over time Frank is less enthralled by the mythical Cuchulain who at one time represented all the potential of human strength and greatness in contrast to his father’s inadequacies.

When he is hospitalized with typhoid, Frank also finds refuge in words, this time in history and poetry books leant or read to him by his fellow patient Patricia Madigan. He reads about the English enemy voraciously despite all he has been taught, and that gives just cause for despising them. He is grateful when Sean goes so far as to memorize the “Highwayman” poem to share with him after Patricia’s death.

3. Discuss how Frank’s friendships help him develop his own sense of identity?

Frank’s family problems both draw him closer to his parents and brothers and force him to seek closeness with neighborhood children in both Brooklyn and Limerick. His friendship with Freddie Leibowitz is among his first, and the boys play at the park contentedly enough until Frank becomes violently possessive of the Cuchulain story his brother Malachy tells their neighbor. Their father explains to Frank that he must apologize, adding that being Jewish Freddie has plenty of stories of his own. Frank hasn’t heard of Samson, but the comment sparks further interest in one of his only non-Irish friends, even if he did have to share him with his more even-tempered brother.

Upon moving to Limerick, Frank befriends fellow Catholic boys on the Lane. He pals around with both boys his own age and slightly older, such as Mikey Malloy, whose dirty stories both intrigue and offend Frank. He is especially close with Paddy Clohessy whose father once danced with Frank’s mother, but is now dying of consumption. In church as well as school, Frank interacts with a range of boys from similar backgrounds. Through his relationships with other boys living in poverty, Frank learns more about his own station in life as well as theirs. While some boys in his class eat a proper lunch, others lack even a “shoe to his foot,” and by observing both closely Frank becomes satisfied with his own lot despite lacking enough to eat.

At age eleven, when he is seriously ill with typhoid, Frank befriends a female patient at the hospital. Although Patricia Mulligan dies soon after they begin speaking across the hall, Frank’s willingness to engage with her demonstrates his maturity at a fairly young age. As a telegram boy he befriends and then falls in love with Theresa Carmody, whose death of tuberculosis leaves a lifelong scar in Frank’s heart. His relationships outside the family, as in it, are tainted by sickness and poverty but are nevertheless a strong foundation for his own sense of identity.

4. How is religion portrayed in the novel?

Frank’s family is fairly religious, and Frank takes both confession and first communion extremely seriously. Although Frank and his immediate family do not judge others’ character by their religious beliefs, the Catholic community of Limerick tends to disparage outsiders. From the Jewish Leibowitzes in Brooklyn to the Buddhist Mr. Timoney, Frank recognizes the hypocrisy with which members of his own faith treat them. Most of Frank’s teachers are misguided in their interpretation of the Gospel and reveal only the most superficial understanding of the letter, and nearly none of the spirit, of Christian teachings. His own grandmother, for example, is concerned about whether she ought to clean his vomit with plain or holy water.

However, Angela never betrays her faith despite the church’s inability to meet her family’s needs. Nor does Malachy openly criticize the church despite its representatives repeatedly shutting the door in the faces of his sons, both literally and metaphorically. While his mention of such episodes demonstrate Frank’s awareness of the reason for his rejection as an altar boy, he separates his feelings towards the local church, where all the boys are nearly forced to attend Friday meetings, from his deep respect for Catholicism itself. 

Frank prays to both his private angel “of the seventh step” and confesses regularly, confiding in the priest what he believes to be his most egregious sins. While the priests rarely found his actions to be reprehensible, they nevertheless assigned him the requisite Hail Mary’s. The way the older Frank writes of their neat prescriptions for salvation reveals their inability to provide the boy with the guidance and support he so desperately needs. While the church is portrayed in a generally favorable light overall, it does not live up to its promise of helping the most needy in the case of the McCourts, who certainly could have benefited from more true Christian charity and kindness.

5. Discuss how the author’s writing style enhances the autobiography.

By writing in the first person and revealing the point of view he may have had as a young boy, Frank McCourt succeeds in enabling the reader to both identify with the narrator and to understand perhaps more than Frank himself did at the time. The use of the present tense makes the story come alive to an extent unusual even for an autobiography. While Frank grows and gains more insights into his own situation and his family’s difficulties over the course of the novel, the reader is consistently treated to a deeper understanding made possible by the author’s unique style, a sort of blend between oral storytelling and writing, often as though the child Frank were himself speaking aloud.

The narrator’s youthful expressions and manner of seeing the world are presented in such a way that the reader identifies with the young Frank McCourt and is able to recognize the world’s harshness towards him and his family. Even while Frank matter-of-factly describes his father’s alcoholic behavior and relates the deaths of his sister and brothers, the reader absorbs both the facts and their larger implications. As Frank grows up, his anecdotes reveal his mother’s strength and perseverance more and more. When she retrieves him from the Clohessys and barely punishes him for skipping school, it is evident to the reader that she understands her former dancing partner is dying and pities his son, even while Frank merely rejoices at having evaded more substantial punishment.

By referring to his parents as “Mom” and “Dad,” Frank effectively compartmentalizes Angela and Malachy, separating their characters as people from how they interact with Frank. While his mother appears all the more angelic for her superhuman efforts to keep the family from starvation, Frank’s father is depicted less flatteringly as a drunk without enough regard for his wife or children to seek the help necessary to change his behavior.  But the novel is less a criticism of one man’s weakness than a vivid portrait of a community beset with men “weak for the drink” whose children are victims in both the short and longer term of their fathers’ failings. 

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