Frank McCourt writes this book for several reasons. First, he writes that, in considering his childhood, "I wonder how I survived at all" (page 11). He writes that his poor Irish Catholic childhood brought with it unending misery, including his alcoholic father and his "pious defeated mother" (page 11). In part, he examines the strength and love of storytelling that he developed from a childhood in which he endured a great deal of suffering.
In addition, the book can be read as a kind of paean to his mother, Angela, who survives, despite the deaths of three of her children, her husband's alcoholism, and her grinding poverty. In spite of it all, she is hopeful at times; for example, when her husband gets a job at the cement factory in Limerick, she hopes against hope that he will bring home his wages and that they will be able to have a "lovely tea" (page 109). Her husband, however, loses his job, and the family returns to being on the dole, but Angela has the strength to endure suffering, and this book is a tribute to her strength.
Finally, McCourt also wants to explain his family's return to the United States. While his parents were married in New York, they decided to return to Ireland when he was four. Eventually, as a young man, McCourt returns to the land of his birth, feeling that America is the land of promise and Ireland a lost land. It's an interesting story of immigration and of the promise of the American Dream.
This novel is a "coming-of-age" story about Frank McCourt's childhood. One of the most revealing quotations from the novel is,
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was of course, a miserable childhood. . . . Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
McCourt details this miserable childhood in frank, humorous, and honest terms. He does not feel sorry for himself, even though he could. His purpose is to let the reader understand the era that he grew up in and see that "this too shall pass" and you can win in life no matter what your early years may be like. His three main themes in this memoir are poverty, the destructive effects of alcohol, and religion; specifically Catholicism.