Angela's Ashes: Metaphor Analysis
The River Shannon
The River Shannon is described as a river whose dampness kills, but it is less the river itself than the poverty haunting the inhabitants of its shores that causes the misfortune that besets the McCourt family and likely many of their neighbors. After Margaret’s death in Brooklyn, Angela and Malachy are seeking a safe haven for their family, but instead of raising their boys comfortably lose the twins within a year. While they outwardly blame the wet weather caused by Limerick’s river, there is no doubt that it is but a metaphor for the sickness and death due to poverty.
A pint of beer is supposedly all Malachy and his drinking chums are after in a pub, but inevitably Frank’s father arrives home late and singing, without any of his earnings to share with his hungry family. This reference to the drinking problem of many Irish fathers of the time is phrased as the alcoholic men themselves might have done, though it is the lack of being able to drink just a single pint that is the very essence of the problem.
Food is quite symbolic throughout the novel, for Frank associates a full stomach with a fulfilling life, and an empty one with misery. He fantasizes about being able to provide fish and chips more regularly to his brothers as well, and will go so far as to steal rather than beg to feed them. Frank associates the ability to provide food with dignity and self-respect, and when his mother begs priests for corned beef, feels as low as he ever has in his life to see her brought so low.
Eggs are mentioned frequently as a symbol of food generally, a luxury which for so many in the world is accessible, yet for the McCourts remains a special treat to be divided at least five ways for every family member to be able to taste the precious food. They are reserved for special occasions, and Malachy is the first to sacrifice his portion for his children. Frank associates eggs with the good life, and dreams of having them daily.
Ashes serve as not only half of the alliterative title, Angela’s Ashes, but a powerful image that haunts the entire book. The ashes in the fireplace represent the fledgling cinders rather than roaring flames that sustain the hungry McCourts, who are fortunate when they have enough coal to boil water for tea to perhaps be accompanied by some meager tea and bread crusts. Angela finds comfort in smoking with her friends by the fire, staring blankly into the ashes in her search for meaning in their misery and a way to sustain the family.
The English represent to the Irish all that is wrong in the world, and they blame their troubles on those who kept them oppressed for eight hundred years. The class structure is only one of the miserable inheritances from English domination, but it is the one that causes the most resentment by its victims. Malachy teaches his sons to die for Ireland, and most of Frank’s teachers speak and think similarly of the English enemy.