Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (1996)

Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996), tells the story of his survival of abject poverty in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s to eventually emerge as a school teacher and commercially successful author in the United States.  The memoir consists of chronologically assembled anecdotes that articulate the themes in his life that he wished to convey. 

Notably he sought to convey a story of personal triumph over adversity, a theme from which many of his readers would be expected to derive inspiration.  Frank McCourt survived life-threatening poverty, and the negative dimensions of Irish culture regarding its brand of nationalism, love of alcohol, and its sectarian prejudice.  He also noted the negative dimensions of Irish Catholicism, with its superstition, suppression of sexuality, and hypocrisy.  In this context, his memoir can also be seen to show him overcoming negative expressions of authority, which is presented as too often being unjustly arbitrary and cruel. 

Angela’s Ashes can also be read as conveying the psychological qualities that enable individuals to triumph over adversity, such as resilience, optimism, humour, not blaming others for your misfortunes, determination, thrift, a love of knowledge or education, a willingness to perform demeaning jobs to escape poverty, a willingness to take risks (such as emigration) to change one’s circumstances and chances, and a willingness to seize opportunities.  In addition, the author also depicted himself as having a sharp mind, perceptiveness and a talent for storytelling. 

Conversely, Angela’s Ashes can also be read as conveying the conditions and qualities that can condemn people to perpetual poverty.  The predicament of the McCourt family is due to a combination of external and internal factors.  The external factors include: the limited employment prospects resulting from a depressed, under-developed economy; a sectarian prejudice that further reduces the father’s employment prospects; inadequate social welfare services; unhealthy weather conditions and an unhealthy urban environment; and poor quality housing.  The internal factors include: the father’s feeding of his alcoholism that consumes most of the family’s income; the parents’ taste for cigarettes despite the need for food; the father’s pride in refusing to blend in by learning the local accent; the father’s pride in rejecting manual work that he regarded as beneath him, which reduced his employment prospects; the father’s blaming the family’s situation on the external causes of poverty rather than taking personal responsibility for his actions that contributed to the situation, which is evident in his blaming the dampness for the deaths of his children when it was also due to his financial neglect.

Angela’s Ashes can also be read as a portrait of an Irish-Catholic sub-culture experienced by the poor in the town of Limerick in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s. Readers can learn about the struggle to survive of the poor who lived in ‘the lanes’ compared to the far less precarious existence of the middle class who lived in streets.   

Angela’s Ashes also presents a portrait of family life.  It is rich in anecdotes conveying the joys, frustrations and miseries of family life with which many readers could identify.  This is partly facilitated by McCourt’s light-hearted tone.  Also of note is McCourt’s non-judgmental attitude, especially when dealing with his alcoholic father.  Meanwhile, the title, Angela’s Ashes, refers to the chronic suffering of McCourt’s mother due to her predicament. The ashes represent destitution, waste, sorrow, emptiness, regret and emotional pain.  The memoir is, in part, a tribute to her from a loving and grateful son. 

In addition, the memoir also presents a celebration of the ‘American dream’, which is the notion that anyone with ability and determination can be successful, especially financially.  This message is woven through the narrative that features McCourt’s quest to make it to the United States, the land of opportunity.

Angela’s Ashes is also a coming-of-age story, in that it chronicles a child’s biological growth from infancy to manhood while also exploring this person’s attainment of wisdom through reflection upon his formative experiences.  A dimension of McCourt’s coming-of-age story is that he survived while two of his brothers and his sister did not.  McCourt came of age and achieved manhood party through hard work and by using his income to provide for himself and others.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Angela’s Ashes meaning, Angela’s Ashes themes, Angela’s Ashes analysis, Angela’s Ashes notes