Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

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Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." Thus begins the highly celebrated memoir by the name of Angela's Ashes, written by Frank McCourt. In this book Frank McCourt writes about his childhood, how his parents meet in New York and then decide to return to Ireland. He describes what it is like to be at the bottom of that city's tough social hierarchy, giving vivid descriptions of how class imposes severe limitations and restrictions. It is this topic, this theme, to which I will be giving the most attention.
Angela's Ashes is an autobiographical work of fiction, leading the reader to make the assumption that one is reading about things that have actually taken place. Thus it is rather pointless to be making comparisons between the actual story and the life of Frank McCourt.
As has been mentioned, the McCourt family moved from New York to Ireland. This happened while Frank himself had only reached the age of four. Though the McCourts had hoped to achieve a better way of living by returning to their native country, this did not happen. As a matter of fact, life became even more difficult. Frank's father Malachy is shunned by other Irish Catholics, due to the fact that he was not born in the south of Ireland, but was born in the northern counties. Also considering that Malachy, not long after having set foot on Irish soil, returns to his old habit of drowning his misery in alcohol, one might doubt as to whether this family has any chance whatsoever at creating a better life.
As Frank grows older he is met by the Irish society's distain for the lower classes. People are not willing to give Frank the same opportunity as more socially favoured children. Not having gained the obligatory introduction to Irish Catholism, due to his having lived his first four years in the States, does not help matters. As a result, Frank's attempts at climbing the social ladder are thwarted time and time again. Even though Frank shows promise at school, showing a quick mind and naturally reaching for more demanding literature, he is denied the opportunity to become an altar boy.

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He is denied the chance of obtaining the higher education he hungers for.
It is important to understand how deeply rooted the class system in Great Britain including Ireland, was in the beginning of the 20th century. In modern Europe it is difficult to identify the classes that, during the first half of the century, were extremely socially significant. It is also difficult to comprehend the extreme poverty of the Depression years. There was no unemployment insurance, no health insurance and there were no safety nets for the poor. They were left to their own devices. Their source of protection from abject poverty and starvation was primarily the church. Otherwise the poor were left at the mercy of friends and family, and on a daily basis had to swallow their pride. With regard to getting out of this vicious cycle of poverty and starvation, again it was the church that had the primary responsibility for and control over education. As has been noted Frank's attempts at becoming a part of the social and religious system that could take him out of poverty were disrupted by that same system.
Frank's struggle for acceptance and participation in the higher social groups is essential for an analytical understanding of Angela's Ashes. This trait, the will to continue even though it all seems futile, characterises Frank. He is always trying to make the best out of a situation, with the gleaming light of hope, the return to the Unites States, as the treasure at the end of the road. Frank is apparently determined to prove that he is worth people's respect and succeeds by getting himself away from Ireland and over to the land of hopes and dreams. It is important to note that Frank sees America as an idealistic country where class distinction is a thing of the past. In reality, class distinctions existed there as well, if not as profoundly and with such historical foundation as in Old Europe. Frank's vision of America becomes even more apparent at the end of the book: "I'm on deck the dawn we sail into New York. I'm sure I'm in a film, that it will end and lights will come up in the Lyric Cinema [...] Rich Americans in top hats white ties and tails must be going home to bed with the gorgeous women with white teeth. The rest are going to work in warm comfortable offices and no one has a care in the world." With this observation Frank reveals the image he has kept so close to his heart all this time. He sees America as a classless society, ready to reward him for his talents and ambitions rather than upbringing.
Angela's Ashes is a story about a boy who made a leap for a better way of living. But the message that comes across in the end one has the impression that it is all left up to faith. Thousands of Irish died from starvation and sickness in Ireland, and thousands of Irish didn't enhance their lifestyle in the country of countless possibilities. When Frank arrived at the end of the book in New York in search of an idealistic dream he shared with so many other immigrants, one is left to wonder, what made his dream any more realistic than others?
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