Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Perseverance

By Frank McCourt


They scream at me and tell me I'm filthy. I try to explain that Mam has the disease and I'm worn out trying to make ends meet, keeping the home fires burning, getting lemonade for Mam and bread for my brothers. (10.35)

This passage shows one of the many examples of Frank's precocious ability to cope. He's ready to step it up and isn't afraid of a challenge. Unfortunately, he's just eleven right now so he doesn't exactly have the means necessary to take care of a family but he exhausts himself going from house to house begging for coal, pushing the baby's pram and dragging his brothers along. All he gets for it is chewed out for looking dirty.

When the rain starts we cover ourselves with old coal bags and Mr. Hannon turns his pipe upside down in his mouth to keep the tobacco dry. He says the rain makes everything heavier but what's the use of complaining. You might as well complain about the sun in Africa. (11.72)

Mr. Hannon's strategy for dealing with misery is to be philosophical about it. He gets the "serenity to accept the things I cannot change" concept.

I don't want to empty his chamber pot but I dream of cycling miles on the road to Killaloe, fields and a sky far from this house, a swim in the Shannon, a night sleeping in a barn. I pull the table and chair to the wall. I climb up and under the bed there's the plain white chamber pot brimming with piss and s***. I lay it down gently at the edge of the loft […], bring it down, turn my face away, hold it while I step down to the table […], take the chamber pot to the lavatory, empty it, and get sick behind the lavatory until I get used to this job. (13.11)

This is a perfect example of how far Frankie will go to get what he wants. Seriously, he's emptying out Laman's chamber pot. But he keeps in mind the reason he's doing it—because Laman's promised to let him ride his bike if he does this disgusting job. He daydreams about the bike ride as a way of keeping himself motivated.

A few days later Mam tells me give my face and hands a good wash, we're going to the Christian Brothers. I tell her I don't want to go, I want to work, I want to be a man. She tells me stop the whining, I'm going to secondary school and we'll all manage somehow. I'm going to school if she has to scrub floors and she'll practice on my face. (13.41)

Angela's quite the fighter and Frankie had the good luck to inherit that spirit. Through much of the memoir, Frank experiences his mother's tenacity as just his bad luck to be prodded, scrubbed, dragged to school and dance lessons, and forced to look presentable. But we readers can see Angela's determination to keep her family together.

Her face tightens and she's angry. You are never to let anybody slam the door in your face again. Do you hear me?

She starts to cry by the fire, Oh, God, I didn't bring ye into the world to be a family of messenger boys. (13.53-54)

This passage shows Angela at her fiercest in the face of rejection and shaming. Her bright, ambitious son's been treated as a useless kid from the lanes. She can't do anything about it, but she makes sure Frank knows it's unacceptable.

I'll get money some day for a house or a flat with electric light and a lavatory and beds with sheets blankets pillows like the rest of the world. We'll have breakfast in a 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, a teapot with a cozy on it, toast with butter and marmalade galore. (14.9)

Frank's rich imagination is a huge help in seeing past his wretched life to a time when things might be different. This helps him keep on keepin' on.

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. If I starve I'll never have the strength for my telegram boy job at the post office, which means I'll have no money to put back all that bread and milk and no way of saving to go to America and if I can't go to America I might as well jump into the River Shannon. (14.20)

Here's another quality that helps Frank keep trying: foresight. He's able to see that certain actions will have certain results. He keeps all this in his head when deciding how to act. His father lacks this quality big-time. He's impulsive and doesn't consider the consequences of his behavior. He can feel bad in retrospect, but he can't sustain anything positive.

I write five more letters and she gives me money for stamps. On my way to the post office I think, Why should I squander money on stamps when I have two legs to deliver the letters myself in the dead of night? (16.60)

This is the kind of thinking that makes Frankie so different from the rest. He's willing to go the extra mile (literally) just so that he can make a few extra bucks. This isn't just being smart. Malachy Sr.'s intelligent, too, but he doesn't have the motivation.

You live in a lane and that means you have nowhere to go but up. Do you understand that, McCourt? (16.100)

Mr. McCaffrey tries to put a positive spin on a bad situation, i.e., things can't get any worse. Don't tell us you haven't said that to yourselves at some point to keep from completely sinking.

I'm seventeen, eighteen, going on nineteen, working away at Easons, writing threatening letters for Mrs. Finucane. (18.1)

Frank's up at the crack of dawn, working two jobs, taking care of his family, and saving up to go to America. He has a single-minded goal and he's not letting anyone stop him. Malachy Sr. is just the opposite—he doesn't seem to have any long-term goals to keep him going. He gives in to the whim of the moment and gets nowhere. Frank's vision for his life is his motivator.

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