“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.” (108)
When Frank sees the Baby Jesus in church and asks his father about him being in heaven, he is told no, Our Lord was thirty-three when he died, and is reminded that questions are not tolerated. His brother Malachy has been reprimanded frequently for asking the meanings of words like affliction, and although the boys are honest and respectful with their questions, adults have little patience for them and instead of answering usually tell them to go out and play and stop bothering them. This attitude results in Frank hoping fervently that when he grows up the mysteries will be solved and he will understand as apparently the grown-ups do. The irony is that the questions often remain unanswered out of ignorance and impatience for children’s natural curiosity.
“The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live. My brothers are dead and my sister is dead and I wonder if they died for Ireland or the Faith. Dad says they were too young to die for anything. Mam says it was disease and starvation and him never having a job. Dad says, Och, Angela, puts on his cap and goes for a long walk.” (113)
Frank is constantly told how grand it is to die for a cause, most frequently by his drunken father who comes home late and wakes his sons to march them around the house promising to die for Ireland. Thinking about his baby sister Margaret and his twin brothers Eugene and Oliver, all of whom died, Frank wonders whether anyone wants children to live. The difference in his parents’ answers to the question about why his siblings died is revealing, for his father has not assumed any responsibility for the poverty that has resulted in three of his children dying within a year.
“All right. Tell the priest if you like but the Angel on the Seventh Step said that only because you didn’t tell me first. Isn’t it better to be able to tell your father your troubles rather than an angel who is a light and a voice in your head?” (125)
Frank has been troubled over the word “piss” and the story of Emer, wife of the legendary Cuchulain, and believes hearing it has put him in a state of sin and unworthy of his First Communion. Anxious about what to do, he consults with an angel he believes speaks to him from the seventh step down from “Italy” in the family apartment and understands the response to be “Fear not” and that he can tell the priest without worrying about any drastic consequences. Frank’s father tells him that he has not sinned and need not trouble the priest, and with these words asks his son to confirm that it is preferable to talk to his father directly about these concerns, to which Frank readily agrees “’Tis, Dad.” Sadly it is not always the case that his father is available to his sons, for his drinking problem is so serious that their dominant impression of him is that of a drunkard stumbling home in song.
“I’m seven, eight, nine going on ten and still Dad has no work. He drinks his tea in the morning, signs for the dole at the Labour Exchange, reads the papers at the Carnegie Library, goes for his long walks far into the country. If he gets a job at the Limerick Cement Company or Rank’s Flour Mills he loses it in the third week. He loses it because he goes to the pubs on the third Friday of the job, drinks all his wages and misses the half day of work on Saturday morning.” (145)
Even before he is ten, Frank recognizes his father’s pattern of abusing alcohol and its devastating consequences both for his employment and the family’s survival. His description of the routine and the knowledge that even if his father is hired he will drink away the money faster than he earned it illustrates his conscientiousness at a very young age. Like his mother, Frank realizes there is no hope for his father to be “like other men,” drinking a pint or two without overindulging.
Recounting an imaginary conversation between his father and another man fond of drink, Frank even at his young age understands his father knows no limits. He is physically and psychologically unable to stop after a single pint, and after overindulging will subject his sons to the same songs and request to pledge to die for Ireland, which they do from the time they can stand and talk, even in the middle of the night.
“My heart is banging away in my chest and I don’t know what to do because I know I’m raging inside like my mother by the fire and all I can think of doing is running in and giving him a good kick in the leg and running out again but I don’t because we have the mornings by the fire when he tells me about Cuchulain and DeValera and Roosevelt and if he’s there drunk and buying pints with the baby’s money he has that look in his eyes Eugene had when he searched for Oliver and I might as well go home and tell my mother a lie that I never saw him couldn’t find him.” (185)
Frank doesn’t actually need to say a word. He knows as well as any adult that anyone who could drink away the new baby’s money is gone “beyond the beyonds” as his mother says, and that it is as pointless to find him at this stage of his drunkenness, as it is to share the predictable bad news with his mother. Frank’s thoughts turn to violence as he is angry with his father selfishly putting the rest of the family through the tortures of hunger, but he also knows he cannot kick the man who at times is indeed fatherly to him: by the fire first thing in the morning when the world is theirs and magical and peopled by legendary heroes and world leaders only a father can adequately tell about.
“I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.” (210)
Even as a young boy, Frank is able to separate his father the man from Malachy the alcoholic. He cherishes their fireside chats over tea each morning, and fondly reminisces about the tales of Cuchulain and other Irish legends he appreciates thanks to his father’s storytelling. Frank is a true Catholic, and despite the church’s repeated rejections of him and of his family, he sincerely believes in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and makes a flattering comparison between this three-part Christian God and his only two-thirds redeemable parent. As a child Frank forgives his father’s serious flaws and prefers to try to understand or even pity him. It is only later, when his father wastes on drink the money wired for his new baby brother, that Frank expresses anger towards Malachy for his irresponsible behavior.
“Malachy tells Aunt Aggie one day he’s hungry and cold he have a piece of bread. She hits him with a rolled-up Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart and there are tears on his eyelashes. He doesn’t come home from school the next day and he’s still gone at bedtime. Aunt Aggie says, Well, I suppose he ran away. Good riddance. If he was hungry he’d be here. Let him find comfort in a ditch.” (248)
When their mother catches pneumonia, the boys temporarily live with Aunt Aggie until their father responds to the letter they write him asking for money for food and diapers. Aggie is not pleased to have the responsibility of caring for the three boys and the baby, and makes her distaste clear. Her physical violence further embitters Malachy, who leaves and camps out at the family residence, where Frank finds him the following day when their father appears. Two days later their mother is able to come home from the hospital, and their father is off again to England although the telegrams continue not to appear for the boys’ father drinks away his earnings abroad just as he did at home.
“I wish the boys at Leamy’s could see me now, the way I drive the horse and handle the bags, the way I do everything while Mr. Hannon rests his legs. I wish they could see me pushing the handcart to South’s pub and having my lemonade with Mr. Hannon and Uncle Pa and me all black and Bill Galvin all white. I’d like to show the world the tips Mr. Hannon lets me keep, four shillings, and the shilling he gives me for the morning’s work, five shillings altogether.” (265)
Frank is proud to be hired at age eleven to assist the neighbor, Mr. Hannon, whose bad legs no longer permit him to make coal deliveries. Frank’s mother agrees since they can use the money, though doubts the wisdom of her decision when she sees the negative effect on Frank’s eyes. He begs to keep the job, and is pleased when the boys stop calling him names and instead envy him being employed so young. He continues helping until Mr. Hannon’s legs are so bad he must be hospitalized. Mrs. Hannon calls Frank in to tell him the news and remind him his job is school. Although it lacks the glamour of staining his skin and generating income, let alone tips, Frank understands and tries to hide the tears that sting his eyes when she tells him he’s been like a son to Mr. Hannon.
“Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can’t understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again.” (325)
When he delivers a telegram to the Carmody residence, Frank meets the teenage Theresa, a victim of tuberculosis eager to lose her virginity before her early death. Although at first he doesn’t understand what is happening, the two not only have sexual intercourse on the green sofa, but also fall in love. Frank feels tenderly for Theresa and stops taking the shilling tip because he is at the house for pleasure more than work. When Theresa no longer answers the door, he knows she is in the sanatorium. When she dies he follows the funeral to the graveyard, though lacking any formal, public relationship with Theresa and her family he stays out of sight, suffering in silence and solitude the loss of his first love.
1. Describe Frank’s relationships with his family?
From childhood, Frank may have had a quiet or even slightly “off” personality, but his feelings towards his nuclear family were always warm. Frank’s alcoholic father makes life hard for the entire family, but as the eldest son Frank does his best to get along well with everyone. While he loves his parents and brothers, his relationships with his grandmother and aunt and uncle are understandably less friendly.
Frank loves his father despite the frequency with which he comes home drunk and singing and makes his sons promise to die for Ireland. He especially cherishes the sober morning moments by the fire when his father is making tea and telling stories. However, his preferred parent is doubtless his saintly mother. Frank appreciates and looks up to Angela, who always manages to keep her children clothed and fed despite the lack of money. In fact, the book’s title is an indication of his deep love and respect for her goodness in the face of the severe challenges of sickness and poverty she faces valiantly in both New York and again in her hometown of Limerick.
As a young child, Frank is jealous of his brother Malachy’s good looks and temperament, resenting being called “odd” while Malachy’s rosy cheeks and friendliness are constantly complimented during their childhood. Frank is substantially older than Michael and Alphie, and assumes a caretaker role for them at a young age, just as he did for the twins Eugene and Oliver before their premature deaths. The family’s troubles are such that Frank matures younger than do most of his peers.
Frank’s feelings of responsibility and love for his parents and brothers is not matched by tenderness towards his maternal relatives. Angela’s mother, sister and brother are not kind toward the McCourts, and there is no love lost between Frank and his grandmother, Aunt Aggie and Uncle Pat. He understands they are to be obeyed but can muster little more than tolerance for what might best be described as their cruelty toward the children, whether in the form of negligence or outright violence.
2. What role do stories assume in the novel?
As a young boy in Brooklyn, Frank is captivated by the story of the mythic Cuchulain, a hero of epic proportions also much admired by his father. Malachy keeps him entertained for hours on Classon Avenue by telling him of the Irish legends involving a man of tremendous strength and wit. When Frank overhears his brother Malachy sharing the tale with the neighbor Freddie Leibowitz, Frank flies into a jealous rage and lets his fists fly, hurting both his brother and his friend. He believes stories belong to just one person, and he identifies deeply with Cuchulain and clings to the story his father has given him as though it might be diminished by being told to others as well.
When the family moves to Limerick, Frank remains fascinated by Cuchulain, but as he ages he becomes less possessive of the hero and “his” tale. As a young adolescent, he is besieged by guilt when his friend Mikey tells him Cuchulain’s wife Emer was chosen for winning a pissing contest, and confesses, sincerely believing it a sin to have listened. His father tells him it is unnecessary to confess, but Frank prefers to listen to the counsel of the Angel on the Seventh Step in this instance, though agrees with his father it is generally preferable to consult a real flesh and blood parent in such matters.
Since his father is rarely available to him in this way, Frank has developed a custom of sitting on the seventh step down from the family’s upstairs quarters, fondly referred to as “Italy,” believing the angel who delivers babies is available when spoken to from there. This tendency is understandable as a childish wish to receive advice from a respected source, and over time Frank is less enthralled by the mythical Cuchulain who at one time represented all the potential of human strength and greatness in contrast to his father’s inadequacies.
When he is hospitalized with typhoid, Frank also finds refuge in words, this time in history and poetry books leant or read to him by his fellow patient Patricia Madigan. He reads about the English enemy voraciously despite all he has been taught, and that gives just cause for despising them. He is grateful when Sean goes so far as to memorize the “Highwayman” poem to share with him after Patricia’s death.
3. Discuss how Frank’s friendships help him develop his own sense of identity?
Frank’s family problems both draw him closer to his parents and brothers and force him to seek closeness with neighborhood children in both Brooklyn and Limerick. His friendship with Freddie Leibowitz is among his first, and the boys play at the park contentedly enough until Frank becomes violently possessive of the Cuchulain story his brother Malachy tells their neighbor. Their father explains to Frank that he must apologize, adding that being Jewish Freddie has plenty of stories of his own. Frank hasn’t heard of Samson, but the comment sparks further interest in one of his only non-Irish friends, even if he did have to share him with his more even-tempered brother.
Upon moving to Limerick, Frank befriends fellow Catholic boys on the Lane. He pals around with both boys his own age and slightly older, such as Mikey Malloy, whose dirty stories both intrigue and offend Frank. He is especially close with Paddy Clohessy whose father once danced with Frank’s mother, but is now dying of consumption. In church as well as school, Frank interacts with a range of boys from similar backgrounds. Through his relationships with other boys living in poverty, Frank learns more about his own station in life as well as theirs. While some boys in his class eat a proper lunch, others lack even a “shoe to his foot,” and by observing both closely Frank becomes satisfied with his own lot despite lacking enough to eat.
At age eleven, when he is seriously ill with typhoid, Frank befriends a female patient at the hospital. Although Patricia Mulligan dies soon after they begin speaking across the hall, Frank’s willingness to engage with her demonstrates his maturity at a fairly young age. As a telegram boy he befriends and then falls in love with Theresa Carmody, whose death of tuberculosis leaves a lifelong scar in Frank’s heart. His relationships outside the family, as in it, are tainted by sickness and poverty but are nevertheless a strong foundation for his own sense of identity.
4. How is religion portrayed in the novel?
Frank’s family is fairly religious, and Frank takes both confession and first communion extremely seriously. Although Frank and his immediate family do not judge others’ character by their religious beliefs, the Catholic community of Limerick tends to disparage outsiders. From the Jewish Leibowitzes in Brooklyn to the Buddhist Mr. Timoney, Frank recognizes the hypocrisy with which members of his own faith treat them. Most of Frank’s teachers are misguided in their interpretation of the Gospel and reveal only the most superficial understanding of the letter, and nearly none of the spirit, of Christian teachings. His own grandmother, for example, is concerned about whether she ought to clean his vomit with plain or holy water.
However, Angela never betrays her faith despite the church’s inability to meet her family’s needs. Nor does Malachy openly criticize the church despite its representatives repeatedly shutting the door in the faces of his sons, both literally and metaphorically. While his mention of such episodes demonstrate Frank’s awareness of the reason for his rejection as an altar boy, he separates his feelings towards the local church, where all the boys are nearly forced to attend Friday meetings, from his deep respect for Catholicism itself.
Frank prays to both his private angel “of the seventh step” and confesses regularly, confiding in the priest what he believes to be his most egregious sins. While the priests rarely found his actions to be reprehensible, they nevertheless assigned him the requisite Hail Mary’s. The way the older Frank writes of their neat prescriptions for salvation reveals their inability to provide the boy with the guidance and support he so desperately needs. While the church is portrayed in a generally favorable light overall, it does not live up to its promise of helping the most needy in the case of the McCourts, who certainly could have benefited from more true Christian charity and kindness.
5. Discuss how the author’s writing style enhances the autobiography.
By writing in the first person and revealing the point of view he may have had as a young boy, Frank McCourt succeeds in enabling the reader to both identify with the narrator and to understand perhaps more than Frank himself did at the time. The use of the present tense makes the story come alive to an extent unusual even for an autobiography. While Frank grows and gains more insights into his own situation and his family’s difficulties over the course of the novel, the reader is consistently treated to a deeper understanding made possible by the author’s unique style, a sort of blend between oral storytelling and writing, often as though the child Frank were himself speaking aloud.
The narrator’s youthful expressions and manner of seeing the world are presented in such a way that the reader identifies with the young Frank McCourt and is able to recognize the world’s harshness towards him and his family. Even while Frank matter-of-factly describes his father’s alcoholic behavior and relates the deaths of his sister and brothers, the reader absorbs both the facts and their larger implications. As Frank grows up, his anecdotes reveal his mother’s strength and perseverance more and more. When she retrieves him from the Clohessys and barely punishes him for skipping school, it is evident to the reader that she understands her former dancing partner is dying and pities his son, even while Frank merely rejoices at having evaded more substantial punishment.
By referring to his parents as “Mom” and “Dad,” Frank effectively compartmentalizes Angela and Malachy, separating their characters as people from how they interact with Frank. While his mother appears all the more angelic for her superhuman efforts to keep the family from starvation, Frank’s father is depicted less flatteringly as a drunk without enough regard for his wife or children to seek the help necessary to change his behavior. But the novel is less a criticism of one man’s weakness than a vivid portrait of a community beset with men “weak for the drink” whose children are victims in both the short and longer term of their fathers’ failings.