Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Coming of Age

By Frank McCourt

Coming of Age

It's dark on Atlantic Avenue and all the bars around the Long Island Railroad Station are bright and noisy. We go from bar to bar looking for Dad. Mam leaves us outside with the pram while she goes in or she sends me. There are crowds of noisy men and stale smells that remind me of Dad when he comes home with the smell of whiskey on him.

The man behind the bar says, Yeah, sonny, whaddya want? You're not supposeta be in here, y'know.

I'm looking for my father. Is my father here? (1.1.129-131)

Frank's introduced to the adult world at an early age due to his father's irresponsible behavior. Is it fair to say that Frank's childhood is cut short because of him?

My mother tells me all the time, Never, never leave that playground except to come home. But what am I to do with the twins bawling with the hunger in the pram? I tell Malachy I'll be back in a minute. 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. We push the pram to a dark corner and peel the banana for the twins. There are five bananas in the bunch and we feast on them in the dark corner. (1. 171)

This passage is another instance of Frank having to think like a grown up way before his time. From an early age, Frank learns responsibility and how to take care of his siblings. Since much of the time this involves petty thievery, it adds to the guilt Frank drags with him throughout his youth.

Dad says I'll understand when I grow up. He tells me that all the time now and I want to be big like him so that I can understand everything. It must be lovely to wake up in the morning and understand everything. I wish I could be like all the big people in the church, standing and kneeling and praying and understanding everything. (3.127)

Ah, yes, the misleading notion that life becomes clearer as we get older. If anything, life only becomes murkier. The search for "understanding" is never-ending; it's also part and parcel of being a grownup, living life without fully comprehending it. Have we mentioned that we miss being a kid?

Grandma says to Mam, Your brother Pat, bad leg an' all, was selling papers all over Limerick by the time he was eight and that Frank of yours is big and ugly enough to work.

But he's only nine and still in school.

School. 'Tis school that has him the way he is talkin' back and goin' around with the sour puss an' the odd manner like his father. (7.22)

Even Grandma's pushing Frank to grow up fast. Despite child labor laws and school attendance laws in effect at the time, lots of Limerick boys had to contribute economically to the family.

He knows the next day we'll be getting Confirmation money and if we promise to pay him a shilling each he'll let us climb up the rainspout behind his house this very night to look in the window and see his sisters' naked bodies when they take their weekly wash. I sign right away. (8.7)

This passage shows Frank's emerging sexuality. Whereas last year he wanted to use The Collection money to buy candy and go to the movies, this year he pays Quasimodo so that he can get a glimpse of a naked girl.

On the way home I see myself in the glass of a shop window all black from the coal, and I feel like a man, a man with a shilling in his pocket, a man who had a lemonade in a pub with two coal men and a lime man. I'm not a child anymore and I could easily leave Leamy's school forever […] and my mother wouldn't have to be a beggar at the Redemptorist priests' house. (11.84)

Eleven year-old Frank wants desperately to grow up fast so he can be the provider his Dad never was. He's proud to look like a coal man with money in his pocket.

I want the job. I want to bring home the shilling. I want to be a man.

You can be a man without bringing home the shilling. Go upstairs and rest your eyes or it's a blind man you'll be. (11.89-90)

Angela sees the pressure Frank's putting on himself and how it's affecting his health. Even though he's a big help to Mr. Hannon, Mrs. Hannon regrets giving Frank the job. She tells him that his job is to go to school.

Mrs. Hannon always calls me Frank now. Anyone that delivers hundredweights of coal is not a Frankie. (11.125)

A change of name is usually symbolically important in a story. It means the character has achieved something or transformed himself or herself into someone different. Kinda like how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. Or Snoop Dog becoming Snoop Lion. Or the Biblical Jacob becoming Israel.

It's hard to sleep when you know the next day you're fourteen and starting your first job as a man. (15.1)

We've all been there, the night before the big day, when getting some shut-eye seems impossible. And this is a big moment for Frank. It means he'll finally be able to make some money and start saving for America. How does Frank see his life changing when he becomes a man? What does working mean to him other than a way of making money?

The boys at the post office say I must be having a great time with the shilling tip and Theresa Carmody. I never tell them I stopped taking the shilling tip. I never tell them about the green sofa and the excitement. I never tell them of the pain that comes when she opens the door and I can see the weakness on her and all I want to do then is make tea for her and sit with my arms around her on the green sofa. (15.121)

Frank loses his virginity to Theresa, but she also awakens feelings of tenderness and protectiveness. This sexual experience is an important part of his coming-of-age, but it also brings up lots of other grown-up issues for him to grapple with: loss, guilt, and forgiveness.

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