Study Guide

Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes

By Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. Frank's story is like an Irish version of The Little Engine that Could except with fleas, hungry children, death and disease, and no train. But the sentiment remains the same; both Frank and the Little Engine are underdogs who get to the end of the proverbial finish line after putting in loads of effort and somehow staying positive. We get to see Frank mature in the fifteen years covered by this memoir, but some aspects of his personality remain constant.

The Apple Falls Very Far From the Tree

We first meet Frank as a four year-old and even at that age he's thinking about helping his family:

I want to get up and tell her I'll be a man soon and I'll get a job in the place with the big gate and I'll come home every Friday night with money for eggs and toast and jam […]. (1.148)

Unlike his father, whose lack of ambition and heavy drinking are responsible for most of the family's misery, Frank's always thinking about providing for his family. He has a big role in taking care of his younger brothers when his mother's sick or unavailable.

We race the pram around the playground and the twins laugh and make goo-goo sounds till they get hungry and start to cry. There are two bottles in the pram filled with water and sugar and that keeps them quiet for a while till they're hungry again and they cry so hard I don't know what to do because they're so small and I wish I could give them all kinds of food so they'd laugh and make the baby sounds. (1.171)

He tries to comfort Eugene when his twin dies; he keeps his little brothers busy while Angela rests. Unlike his father, he always has Angela's well-being in mind. As he gets older, he's always on the lookout for work.

I watch Michael go up the lane with the sole of his shoe broken and clacking along the pavement. When I start that job at the post office I'll buy him shoes so I will. I'll give him an egg and take him to the Lyric cinema for the film and the sweets and then we'll go to Naughton's and eat fish and chips until our bellies are full and sticking out a mile. […] We'll have breakfast in a big bright kitchen with flowers dancing in a garden beyond, delicate cups and saucers, eggcups, eggs soft in the yolk and ready to melt the rich creamery butter, […] toast with butter on it and marmalade galore. (7.9)

Even though Frank loves his dad, he knows that there's just something wrong with a man who spends all his money on alcohol while his kids starve. Frank learns from an early age that Malachy Sr.'s alcoholism is the cause of the family's troubles and he recounts the chaotic nights when his dad would come home with "[t]he smell of drink on him" (1.250) and wake the boys up to sing songs for Ireland. So, we think it's safe to say that a large motivating factor for Frank is his desire not to end up like his deadbeat dad.

But how exactly does Frank do that? Well, aside from that not so nice incident when he drank too much and gets into a fight with Angela, Frank either abstains from drinking alcohol or drinks in moderation. And from the moment he has a job, he gives Angela money so that she can take care of the family. This takes its emotional toll on Frank, though. He feels worried and pressured much of the time—he has way too much responsibility than a young kid should have. And since he really can't save the family—he's just too young—he carries around a sense of failure and guilt about it. He's a prime example of what psychologists call the "parentified child". It's when a young child has responsibility for taking care of the things parents typically do, and provide emotional support to the parents and take on household responsibilities they're not prepared for. It ain't healthy.

On the (Irish) Waterfront

Frank's a contender and he's gonna be somebody. He's got Rocky Balboa's spirit and Indiana Jones' ingenuity. And it's a good thing he does since life has truly dealt Frank a bad hand.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare to the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. (1.3)

That's a lot for an adult to survive, let alone a kid. But survive he did because of his amazing resourcefulness and cleverness. Unfortunately, sometimes that means he has to break the law to get what he needs for his family. Like when his poor baby brothers are starving and he has to "borrow" some food from the grocers:

I make sure no one is looking, grab a bunch of bananas outside the Italian grocery shop and run down Myrtle Avenue, away from the playground, around the block and back to the other end where there's a hole in the fence. (1.171)

Frank knows that if he doesn't fight for his right to eat, no one will. His mother's defeated and his father's useless. Besides, it's not like he's resorted to a life of thievery; he's just doing it until he gets a job: 

I feel sorry for the rich people who will get up in the morning and go to the door and find their bread missing but I can't let myself starve to death. […] It's only a few weeks till I get my first wages in the post office and surely these rich people won't collapse with the hunger till then. (14.20)

As Frank gets older he dreams of going back to America and he does whatever's necessary to get there. At one point Frank's working two jobs and helping Angela with the bills. Talk about perseverance (which also happens to be a Theme: Perseverance). Frank learns early on that it's a hard knock life, but he somehow doesn't collapse with hopelessness. He's got true grit.

WWFD?

Forgiveness is also pretty central to Frank's character and more than likely the only reason why he's not a totally bitter person. So who does he forgive? Well, for starters, the person that does him (and his family) the most damage: his father. Throughout the memoir we hear lots about Malachy Sr.'s alcoholism and all the problems it causes, but Frank never talks about his dad in a judgmental way. He hears the adults in his life criticize and disparage his father all the time. He knows what's up. But as a child, he observes, but doesn't judge. He sees the good and the bad.

I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. (8.163)

So who else does Frank forgive? How about himself? Frank's feeling guilty about loads of things like:

Theresa and the green sofa, [his] terrible sins on Carrigogunnell, […] the tears in my Mam's eyes when I slapped her. (17.67)

But just as he's drowning in guilt and remorse after Theresa's death, he meets a kind priest who reminds him that God forgives and loves him, and that forgiving yourself is important because it means that you love yourself and only then can you love others. It turns out that Frank (and the Franciscan priest) may be on to something here. Recently there have been lots of studies on forgiveness and it turns out it's actually bad for your emotional health to hold on to grudges and good to forgive. So go on, forgive Martin for pulling your hair in the fifth grade.

The Budding Author

We think it's pretty obvious that Frank's got a penchant for the pen from an early age. After all, the boy practically lives with his nose buried in a book. He's always hearing songs and poems from his parents, especially his father, who's a gifted storyteller.

Before bed we sit around the fire and if we say, Dad, tell us a story, he makes up one about someone in the lane and the story will take us all over the world, up in the air, and under the sea and back to the lane. Everyone in the story is a different color and everything is upside down and backward. Sharks sit in trees and giant salmon sport with kangaroos on the moon. (8.165)

Frank falls in love with Shakespeare while in the hospital recovering from typhoid fever. He's a voracious reader in the hospital thanks to a girl working there who brings him books. He's always loved to read but this experience somehow really turns on a light. He doesn't have to worry about being hungry or having to pick up coal on the road. He can just stay in a clean bed and read.

5 Signs That, Like Frank McCourt, You're a Writer in the Making

1. You really like listening to your dad's stories. So much so that you think they actually belong to you:

That's my story. Dad can't tell that story to Malachy or any other children down the hall. (1.92)

2. You write such an amazing essay that you get bumped up a grade:

Mr. O'Dea shows him my composition and Mr. O'Halloran gives me the strange look, too. Did you write this composition?

I did, sir.

I'm taken out of the fifth class and put into Mr. O'Halloran sixth class […]. (8.154)

3. You spend so much time in the library the librarian writes your mom a note telling her how awesome you are:

The note says, Dear Mrs. McCourt, Just when you think Ireland is gone to the dogs altogether you find a boy sitting in the library so absorbed in the Lives of the Saints he doesn't realize the rain has stopped. (13.18)

4. You're obsessed with the words of William Shakespeare and you're only 10 years old.

[I]t's like having jewels in my mouth when I say [Shakespeare's] words. If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year. (8.89)

5. You don't mind being in the hospital with typhoid fever because there are books there.

I lie in bed and think of the hospital where the white sheets were changed every day and there wasn't a sign of a flea. There was a lavatory where you could sit and read your book till someone asked you if you were dead. There was a bath where you could sit in hot water as long as you liked and say,

I do believe
Induced by potent circumstances
That thou art mine enemy.
(8.125-127)

This is Frank's idea of heaven—a clean, bright place where you could read to your heart's content. For a boy whose life was so constricted by poverty and lack of opportunity, reading and stories are his escape into other worlds.

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