McCourts Angelas AshesHe is just another poor Irish boy. His story is of poverty, emotional struggles, and growing up. Have we not read about that already? Everyone thinks their childhood is unique, but do we not all have basically the same experiences? Frank McCourt experiences events similar to other children, but that fact is forgotten once the reader begins Angelas Ashes. Actual reality becomes less important than this little boys perception of reality, upon which the focus is set and remains there throughout the book. McCourt is not telling the story of what happened, but rather of how the events related to his own development. He draws the reader into himself by writing in the first person and using a personal tone which always reflects his outlook. In the first chapter, he inconspicuously establishes himself as the onlycharacter in his memoir, causing the reader not to follow him through his childhood, but to become him as a child.
People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version(1), McCourt writes as he begins to describe the world in which he grows up. For he creates a separate world for himself, where people he knows wander in and out whenever they can hold his attention. McCourts world serves as a coping mechanism as well as an expression of his creativity. He surrounds himself with the depressing truth about his home and family, but brings in each morsel of truth with his own explanation, often humorous, thus exposing himself only to his interpretation of reality. McCourts task is to contain his world in the four hundred sixty pages of the book and to have the reader immersed by the end of the first chapter. The opening pages provide a foundation for McCourt, himself, and for his perception, enabling the reader to follow his stream-of-consciousness sentences throughout the book. He gives a flash preview of the books content on the first page, giving the reader an idea of what he is getting into. McCourt then abruptly interrupts himself (which becomes common throughout the book) as though he has forgotten to mention some pertinent fact, and then proceeds to introduce his parents. Although he is now writing from his parents point of view, the reader is quite aware that this is still McCourts interpretation of their story. After briefly establishing both his mother and fathers basic background, he begins his first story of the book. McCourt wisely chooses the story of his parents first meeting, their marriage, and his birth, which all occur in a surprisingly short span of time. This first story allows the reader to get accustomed to McCourts style of story telling and also plunges the reader into the lives and personalities of his parents. In building a foundation for them,he creates the two individuals who are the foundation of his early years. His language includes very little actual description, but he implies hundreds of little details which the reader can sense, but must read on to further understand. Once McCourt is born, he shifts the perspective immediately to his point of view. He begins with his first memory as a toddler, conveying his thoughts through simple, short sentences. As he progresses through his childhood, he uses grammar and vocabulary corresponding to his level of knowledge at his current age in the book. By the end of the first chapter, the reader succumbs to dwelling in McCourts world as though it were his/her own memory.
In the beginning of the book, McCourts interpretation of reality is established as well as his attitude about his familys financial and emotional struggles. He conveys to the reader his knowledge that he is poor through bits of his parents arguments. McCourt accepts the fact that they have hardly enough money to feed the family and that he can do nothing to change the situation. However, he does not deny that he keeps hoping for better times. McCourt realizes early on that his father is responsible for supporting the family, and he feels ashamed that his beloved Dad can hardly keep a job. He wants to have food for himself, but most of all, he wants to have money so that his mother, Angela, will be happy. The following quotation expresses McCourts desire to obtain money, which he directly connects with Angelas happiness: I want to get up and tell her Angela Ill be a man soon and Ill get a job in the place with the big gate and Ill come home every Friday night with money for eggs and toast and jam and she Angela can sing Anyone Can See Why I Wanted Your Kiss. (30). McCourt usually attributes Angelas unhappiness to financial difficulties or his fathers drinking. Throughout the book, this assumption leads him to often blame his troubles on his fathers constant unemployment or his fathers alcoholism. However, when McCourts baby sister, Margaret, dies, he experiences a helplessness which haunts him again several times throughout the novel. His feeling of depressed confusion always follows the tragic events in the rest of the book. It is clear in the beginning, as it is throughout his memoir, that his familys lack of money and lack of emotional stability are the two main causes of his insecurity and even vulnerability.
In the first chapter, McCourt conveys his acceptance of his unfortunate circumstances, but with humor and creative interpretation, he also expresses an exaltation of the things he is gaining through his experiences. He understands that his parents are only human, and his love cannot change them in his eyes, but he loves them nonetheless. McCourt pokes fun at the shortcomings of others and presents the people in his book as he sees them, mocking the conservative objectivity of other authors. McCourts opinions of people in the novel are expressed through his chosen wording of their common interactions. He uses repetition of certain idiosyncratic phrases, revealing a persons entire character in one paragraph. McCourts outlook is mostly humorous or sarcastic, especially when he is contrasting two people in one of their conversations. That technique is demonstrated in this quotation from a conversation between his mother, Angela, and one of her great breasted aunts:
If I was you, said Philomena, Id make sure theres no more children. He Angelas
husband dont have a job, so he dont, an never will the way he drinks. So…no
more children, Angela. Are you listenin to me?
A year later another child was born. (19)
His intuition and honesty about himself and his circumstances break down the mystique of his strength without diminishing its importance. McCourts main way of coping is obviously to take himself and his life less seriously, translating into his final goal of not giving a fiddlers fart about what others think. Starting with his early years at the beginning of the novel, an important part of McCourts emotional development is his learning how to laugh at himself and at the world even in the most miserable situation. Yet he does this without crossing the invisible line where silliness ends and seriousness begins. McCourt avoids excessive joking in order to keep a certain reverence about the sadness he endured, as well as to make his humor more effective, using it only where he judges some levity to be necessary. The amusing tone in McCourts writing makes the events of the book less harsh, similarly to how McCourts sense of humor relieves much of the misery in his life.
Frank McCourt is successful in keeping his book interesting from the first page to the last. His consistent singular perception keeps the reader focused not only on him but inside him. McCourt establishes his familys poverty and emotional instability, which proceed to plague him throughout the book. His continuing reaction to these circumstances is revealed early on in his childhood development. However, McCourt learns to cope with his sensitivity about these subjects using his own honest humor, thus becoming a self-made optimist. This quotation at the end of the first chapter of Angelas Ashes signifies McCourts hope for change as well as foreshadowing that the worst is yet to come:
The ship pulled away from the dock. Mam said, Thats the Statue of Liberty and
thats Ellis Island where all the immigrants came in. Then she leaned over the side
and vomited and the wind from the Atlantic blew it all over us and other happy
people admiring the view. Passengers cursed and ran, seagulls came from all over
the harbor and Mam hung limp and pale on the ships rail.(53)
Although his conclusion of the first chapter does not follow the true form of a happy ending, it is really the happiest ending of all: a beginning.