The CharactersThe autobiography Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt tells the life of the McCourt family while living in poverty in Limmerick, Ireland during the 30’s and 40’s. Frank McCourt relates his difficult childhood to the reader up to the time he leaves for America at age nineteen. The book has many prevailing themes, but one of the most notable is the settings relationship to the family. The setting of the book ultimately influences the choices and lifestyle of the McCourt family in many ways.
Living in poverty and not being able to meet basic needs leads the characters to result to desperate measures such as stopping Frank McCourt’s education and taking a job to support the family. Frank is forced to take the job mostly because his father is an alcoholic and uses all the dole money and his wages to buy beer instead of feeding his family. Frank describes this pattern of drinking away the money by saying ” When Dad comes home with the drink smell there is no money and Mam screams at him till the Twins cry.”(42) This situation lasts until Mr.McCourt leaves to work in England and is never heard from again which forces Frank to take a job at fourteen years old. Frank takes on the role of the head of the family proudly and comments ” Its hard to sleep when you know you know the next day you’re fourteen and starting your first job as a man.” (p.309) Frank’s ability to provide financial stability leads to greater comfort and living conditions for the family.
The members of the McCourt family are also forced to beg and steal in order to help the family’s well being. Mrs.McCourt begs charities especially the St. Vincent de Paul Society for help with basic necessities for the family such as food, clothing, and furniture. Mrs.McCourt is even forced to beg for the family’s Christmas dinner. The butcher who she begs to tells her ” What you can have now missus, Is black pudding and tripe or a sheep’s head or a pig’s head.”(97) Mrs.McCourt reluctantly accept the pig’s head and is ridiculed walking home it. Also, the children are forced to pick up scraps of coal for the fire from a road on Christmas Day. Frank describes the children’s humiliation by saying, ” Even the poorest of the poor don’t go out Christmas Day picking coal off the road.” (99)
Unlike their mother the McCourt children would rather steal than beg for what they need. The children are subjected to constant humiliation for begging and receiving goods from charity. Frank and his brothers steal food and money when situations become desperate and their parents provide no support. Frank steals bananas from a store for his hungry baby brothers and describes the situation by saying ” I make sure no one is looking, grab a bunch of bananas and we feast on them in a dark corner” (p.32). Also, Frank and his brothers steal lemonade for their sick mother who begs them for lemonade after a miscarriage. Frank is motivated by his mother’s desperation for the lemonade, ” I try to find the music in my own head but all I hear is my mother moaning for lemonade.”(236) Stealing for Frank and his brothers was not their first choice of providing necessities but a last resort.
Living in poor housing also influences the thoughts and actions of the McCourt family in various ways. Most of the houses the family lives in throughout the book are shabby and unsanitary and promote the family’s unhealthiness. One of the houses the McCourt family lives in is characterized by the comment ” dad tells them the lavatory could kill us with every class of disease, that the kitchen floods in the winter and we have to stay upstairs to keep dry” (p.104) . Because the lavatory smells so bad and the first floor floods in the winter, the McCourt family moves up to the second floor which they refer to as Italy because it is warm and clean. The charity societies visit the Mc.Courts and realize how desperate the situation is for the family. One charity worker exclaims, ” That’s not Italy upstairs, that’s Calcutta.” This realization allows for more charity and personal humiliation to be received by the McCourts.
Houses the McCourts live in are also cold, damp and lice infected which leads to sickness and discomfort for the family. Lice bothers the children as described by Frank McCourt telling about his brother’s reaction when he first was bitten. ” Eugene went on crying and when Dad leaped from the bed we saw the fleas, leaping, jumping, fastened to our flesh.”(59) The children are constantly cold and uncomfortable because of drafty houses and using coats to keep warm because they had no real blankets. At one point in the story, the McCourts are forced to take wood from the wall to keep a fire going. Mrs.McCourt tells the children ” One more board from that wall, one more and not another one. She says that for two weeks till there’s nothing left but the beam frame.”(276) Eventually the landlord discovers the damage to the house and the McCourts are forced to move in with Mrs.McCourt’s cousin.
The McCourts find little hospitality in their extended family or the people of Limmerick, Ireland during the depression. Mrs.McCourt’s cousin resentfully allows the children and mother to live with him after being kicked out of their home, but insists that Angela do all his chores and wait on him at any time. The only time Mrs.McCourt’s family extends help is during times of great desperation and the assistance given is meager. An example of this is the children’s Aunt Aggie, who takes care of them for a short period of time when Mrs.McCourt develops pneumonia. She tells the children that she ” can’t stand the sight of them anymore”(242) and allows them to briefly stay with her until the mother gets better. Aunt Aggie allows them a little food and is constantly degrading the children by saying thing such as “Jesus above, can’t you do anything right?”(245)when the children ask questions.
Although Aunt Aggie’s assistance is given grudgingly, it is more than help given by Mr.McCourt’s side of the family. When the McCourt family arrives in Ireland and needs a place to get settled and live Grandpa McCourt tells the family ” God knows, we don’t have room for six more people”(50) and that they should move to Dublin. The Grandparents offer to ” loan the family the bus fare to Dublin” (50) but, never communicates with the McCourt family after they leave the house.
The People of Limmerick, Ireland, where the family mainly resides, have many strong prejudices against the poor. The family is constantly tormented because of shabby clothes or poor housing and having to ask charities for help. The store managers try to cheat the poor out of the full amount of food they are to be given. A friend tells Mrs.McCourt
“When you go to McGrath’s, keep an eye on her for she’ll cheat you on the weight. She’ll put stuff on a paper on the scale with the paper hanging down on her side behind the counter where she thinks you can’t see it.” (66)
Also, the religious of Limmerick discriminate against poor children as in the case when Frank McCourt tries to become an alter boy but is denied. Mrs.McCourt explains why he is denied by saying ” They don’t want boys from lanes on the alter. Oh, no they want the nice boys with hair oil and new shoes that have fathers with suits and ties and steady jobs”(149). The Mc.Court family is constantly aware of the discrimination it faces because of the poverty they live in.
The various settings of ” Angela’s Ashes” effect the characters’ actions and lifestyle in various ways. Living in poverty challenges the family to meet basic needs through begging and stealing as well as children getting jobs to help the situation. Also, the poor housing causes the family to be subjected to disease and coldness. The society the McCourts were part of causes the family to be aware of social prejudice and learn actions to take in order to protect their rights. The setting of the book influences the McCourt family’s actions and style of living.