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Frank McCourt’s autobiographical novel Angela’s Ashes recounts the author’s impoverished life in Limerick, Ireland, until he left returned to America at the age of nineteen. While it is a growing-up story, it is mostly a story of Frank’s fight against poverty. He writes:
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.
The McCourts went to America but come back to Limerick at a most inauspicious time, a time when the country has little to offer its people. They receive public assistance, but it is not adequate to raise them out of their abject poverty. Many things contribute to the family’s poverty, including Frank’s father’s alcoholism, and the ramifications shape Frank’s life.
One indication of their severe poverty is how they lived. Eleven families must share one foul-smelling bathroom, which is closest to the McCourt’s apartment. They also suffer from typical poverty plagues: flies, rats, fleas, and lice. The sights, smells, and signs of poverty and neglect permeate the story just as they permeated Frank’s life. These conditions, combined with malnutrition and diseases associated with deprivation, were responsible for the deaths of at least two of Frank’s younger siblings.
Poverty also keeps Frank from the educational and other opportunities he deserved, opportunities which he was imminently qualified for but was denied purely because he was a pauper dressed in rags. Each McCourt has one set of clothes and one pair of shoes, constantly in need of repair (which they do with bicycle tires). He and his brother were constantly humiliated by this visible poverty.
Hunger is both literal and figurative presence in this story and in Frank’s life. The family is literally hungry all the time, and what they do eat is meager and unsatisfying. Even eggs are a luxury for them. While other poor families are at least able to do something special for Christmas dinner, the best the McCourts can manage is some old potatoes and a boiled pig’s head. Despite that, Frank’s mother (Angela) was always willing to share with others. Frank writes:
You never know when you might come home and find Mam sitting by the fire chatting with a woman and a child, strangers. Always a woman and child. Mam finds them wandering the streets and if they ask, Could you spare a few pennies, miss? her heart breaks. She never has money so she invites them home for tea and a bit of fried bread and if it's a bad night she'll let them sleep by the fire on a pile of rags in the corner. The bread she gives them always means less for us and if we complain she says there are always people worse off and we can surely spare a little from what we have.
Frank would rather starve or steal (and he does both) than beg, though his mother is reduced to begging at one point. “There’s nothing worse in the world,” he muses, “than to owe and be beholden to anyone.”
Because of this kind of desperate poverty, Frank connects feeling full with being successful. Just as he craves food, he yearns for a life that will allow him to eat what he wants until he feels full. Even more, he feels the need to provide food in order to feel successful. This is what drives him and eventually motivates him to go back to America.
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