Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Men and Masculinity

By Frank McCourt

Men and Masculinity

I crawl into bed with Malachy and the twins. I look out at Mam at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, drinking tea, and crying. 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 and she can sing again Anyone can see why I wanted your kiss. (1.148)

Even as a boy, Frank understands that a man's most important job is to provide for his family and protect his wife and children. At least, that's what a man is expected to do in 1930s Limerick. As a child, Frank feels helpless to change the family's circumstances. Kids living in poverty are at huge risk for leaving school like Frank to get a job and help support the family.

She hopes he might bring home something from the farm, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, but he'll never bring home anything because he'd never stoop so low as to ask a farmer for anything. Mam says 'tis all right for her to be begging at the St. Vincent de Paul Society for a docket for food but he can't stick a few spuds in his pocket. He says it's different for a man. You have to keep the dignity. Wear your collar and tie, keep up the appearance, and never ask for anything. (3.23)

Talk about double standards. Poor Angela has to go begging while Malachy Sr. refuses to bring food home for his starving children just because it means he'd have to ask a few strangers for charity. Is this dignity or just unreasonable manly pride? Does begging mean you'll be seen as less of a man?

Even the poorest of the poor don't go out on Christmas Day picking coal off the road. There's no use asking Dad to go because he will never stoop that low and even if he did he won't carry things through the streets. It's a rule he has. (3.55)

Rule or no rule, Frank and Malachy Jr. could really use their father's help. It seems like many of the "rules" Malachy Sr. has are convenient for only one person: Malachy Sr., and we're not entirely sure that's how a real man would act.

In fine weather men sit outside smoking their cigarettes if they have them, looking at the world and watching us play. Women stand with their arms folded, chatting. They don't sit because all they do is stay at home, take care of the children, clean the house and cook a bit and the men need chairs. The men sit because they're worn out from walking to the Labour Exchange every morning to sign for the dole, discussing the world's problems and wondering what to do with the rest of the day. (3.125)

Okay, we've tried to remain levelheaded here, but what really gets us about this passage, is the word all. " All women do is stay at home […]." As if taking care of kids, cooking, and cleaning are simple tasks. We'd like to see the men of Limerick try to do a woman's job day in and day out. Of course, McCourt was being very deliberate in using the word in that sentence. He knows all too well who's really doing the heavy lifting in the family.

Mam slaps me across the face and sends me flying across the kitchen. My heart is pounding and I want to cry but I can't because my father isn't there and I'm the man of the family. (7.130)

Tears are a big no-no because big boys don't cry, especially since Frank's gotta fill Malachy Sr.'s shoes. That seems like a lot of pressure to put on a boy.

Dad nods and puts his hand on mine again. He looks at me, steps away, stops, comes back, kisses me on the forehead for the first time in my life and I'm so happy I feel like floating out of the bed. (8.41)

We find it pretty surprising that this is the first (and only time) that Malachy Sr. kisses his son. An affectionate kiss shared between a father and son is an unusual gesture here. What is it about physical affection between two men that is so taboo? What does it have to do with the notion of masculinity?

Seamus says, 'Tis a grand thing to be eleven because any day now you'll be a man shaving and all ready to get out and get a job and drink your pint good as any man. (8.121)

This passage shows some of the rules that a boy must follow to achieve manhood. These ideas get pounded into Frank's head pretty consistently by the men in the story. Men work, men drink.

I feel sad over the bad thing but I can't back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father and if I were in America I could say, I love you, Dad, the way they do in the films, but you can't say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at. You're allowed to say you love God and babies and horses that win, but anything else is a softness in the head (8.167)

Frankie's a sensitive and emotional boy, but he can't show it. More rules about masculinity.

Dad says, The good Catholic woman must perform her wifely duties and submit to her husband or face eternal damnation.

Really? According to Malachy Sr., the Catholic Church states that Angela has to submit to Malachy Sr.'s sexual advances, otherwise she's going not only going against her husband but she's also going to hell. Now, we don't think that's actually part of Catholic dogma, but it sure suits Malachy Sr.'s needs, right? With five brothers they can't afford to feed, abstaining from having another child seems like the smart thing to do. But what's Angela to do if she's not only going against her husband's wishes but also the Catholic Church?

Dad says a factory is no place for a woman.

Mam says, Sitting on your arse by the fire is no place for a man. (9.12-13)

In this passage Angela really puts Malachy Sr. in his place. Angela has her pride, but she's not going to let it keep her from helping her family. Her husband rationalizes his laziness and does nothing. In the U.S., World War II upended a lot of traditional labor patterns, as women did go to work in factories to replace their husbands who went to war.

Eamon says, 'Tis what my father says about men who don't drink, they're not to be trusted. Peter says if you find a man that won't drink or smoke that's a man that's not even interested in girls and you'd want to keep your hand over the hole of your arse, that's what you'd want to be doing. (17.77)

According to Eamon, a man who doesn't follow the unspoken rules of masculinity is probably a homosexual. So what are the unspoken rules? For starters, you gotta drink and smoke. In 1930s Ireland, fear of being labeled a homosexual was probably a pretty powerful incentive to follow these simplistic rules about masculinity.

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