Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Tone

By Frank McCourt


Humorous, Hopeful, Childlike

You'd think a memoir that has to do with poverty, death, and starvation would be really depressing. But the thing is, it's not, at least not usually. So what is it about McCourt's tone that makes such a bleak topic palatable, even hilarious? We think it's partly to do with Frankie's age. You know that show, Kids Say the Darndest Things? Well, we think that Frank would give all those kids a run for their money. For example, when Frank wonders, "why anyone would give money for his father's head" since he's got "thinning hair" and "collapsing teeth" he's taking the phrase "give money for his head" literally, since he doesn't realize that having a ransom on one's head is a figurative way of saying that someone wants Malachy Sr. dead so badly they're willing to pay for it (1.10).

Another great example:

The master says it's a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there's anyone in the world who would like us to live. (4.2)

This happens a lot in the book; Frankie's childlike observations and misunderstandings provide some comic relief from a dismal situation, because the reader knows what's really going on even though the child doesn't. Much of the humor comes from this disconnect between the experience of the child vs. what's actually happening. This creates a constant ironic sense of humor.

The childlike tone of much of the memoir comes from this same disconnect.

I'm nine years old and I have a pal, Mickey Spellacy, whose relations are dropping one by one of the galloping consumption. I envy Mickey because every time someone dies in his family he gets a week off from school […].

But this summer Mickey is worried. His sister, Brenda, is wasting away with the consumption and it's only August and if she dies before September he won't get his week off. (7.3-4)

Frank agrees to help Mickey pray for his sister to make it until school starts because he promises to invite him to the wake, where there will be lots of food and sweets. This kind of limited perspective of the young permeates the book and gives it a kind of hopeful innocence even in situations like Mickey's family tragedy. The sweets at the wake—how's that for a perfect metaphor?

The other thing about Angela's Ashes is that there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if the situation is downright sad or despairing, McCourt finds a way to see the good in it, however slight it might be. Family connections are a protection against the McCourt's desperate life and provide many of the hopeful and upbeat moments:

Soon we're all in bed and if there's an odd flea I don't mind because it's warm in the bed with the six of us and I love the glow of the fire the way it dances on the walls and ceiling […]. (2.239)

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