Angela's Ashes: Theme Analysis

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The Endurance of Family

Family is perhaps the central theme of Angela’s Ashes, for despite its limitations, Frank loves his family and is loyal to his parents and brothers no matter how far from them he travels.  He is especially aware of his mother’s strong influence throughout his childhood, and her fortitude as a human being as well as his parent. She overcomes the challenges of her husband’s alcoholism and the resulting poverty and illness without becoming bitter or angry.  Frank repays her with both his filial devotion and by following her advice to make something of himself.

Stories as Inspiration

Stories, whether about legendary Irish heroes spoken or sung of in verse, are an important part of Frank’s life. As a young child he is obsessed with Cuchulain, and later he finds comfort and joy in reading Gulliver’s Travels aloud to Mr. Timoney.  Patricia Mulligan gives him the gift of poetry before dying in the hospital, and it is the Highwayman poem that in large part enables his recovery from typhoid. The familiar tales bring Frank peace and perspective as he identifies with the protagonists who defeat all odds in finding their way in an unfair world.

Destructiveness of Alcohol

Alcohol is another recurring theme, for both the escape it offers from the harsh realities of the poor, and for over indulgence in it leading down a treacherous path.  Frank’s father Malachy is a hopeless alcoholic who cannot seem to learn his limits even if it means starving his family and being responsible albeit indirectly for the deaths of three of his own children. While other characters are also drawn to drink, Frank’s uncles and most neighbors are spared the final indignity of having spent the entire week’s wages on Friday and being unable to keep the job more than three weeks for missing the Saturday morning shift as a result.

Persistence of Poverty and Hunger

Poverty is a haunting motif in the book, for while there are contributing factors such as Malachy McCourt’s alcoholism, it is poverty itself that prevents the family from finding peace. Regardless of its direct and indirect causes, poverty subjects the boys to the humiliation of resoling their rubber boots and suffering without proper food for years on end. 

Hunger is another important and recurring theme in Angela’s Ashes, from the gnawing pain in the pit of the children’s stomachs in New York and Limerick to the spiritual void left by their all-but-absent father. While other poor children’s families can at least afford to feed them a proper Christmas dinner, the McCourts can manage only a pig’s head to offset their usual tea and bread. Besides the physical discomfort and disease caused by malnutrition, Frank craves the parental love other boys might take for granted, and seeks to fill the space left by his alcoholic father by feeding his soul as best he can.  He associates the ability to feed one’s family with high self-esteem and dignity, and yearns to provide for his mother and brothers as his father proved unable to do.

Restrictions Imposed by Social Class and Religion  

Social class is another overarching theme, for the Irish Catholics of Limerick as a community suffer similar limitations to the McCourts and are trapped by the station they are born into rather than being mobile citizens able to find work easily. Because of Malachy’s northern origins, he is unable to find a job in Limerick, and is driven to drink in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that keeps the family from emerging from poverty as some of their neighbors are able to do by working in England during the war.

Guilt Imposed by Catholicism

Guilt is a haunting backdrop throughout Frank’s childhood and adolescence, a feeling he attributes primarily to growing up Catholic. He is constantly worrying about a sin he fears he may have committed, more frequently than not more concerned about its consequences for other souls than his own. Whether agonizing about his first confession or debating the likelihood that his first love Theresa Carmody is bound for hell, Frank is overcome with guilt for having sexual thoughts and impulses. He is convinced, as are most of the local priests, that he is doomed if he does not reject these impure thoughts and actions, yet he is unable to prevent their recurrence.

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