Angela’s Ashes

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Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Irish Social Tensions Theme Icon
Poverty, Survival, and Morality Theme Icon
Catholicism, Sexuality, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Angela’s Ashes, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape Theme Icon

For the characters in Angela’s Ashes, life is—to use McCourt’s own word—miserable. The characters are often too poor to feed themselves, their children and loved ones die of horrible diseases, and there’s a general sense that their lives will never get any better. Why don’t the people of Limerick collapse in despair? How do they find happiness in their miserable lives?

The single most common way that people in Angela’s Ashes cope with sadness is drinking. Almost all the men in the book, and some of the women, too, frequent the pubs of Limerick late at night, spending their wages on pints of beer. Alcohol is an important way to cope with misery because it allows the drinker to retreat into nostalgia or sentimentality and forget about the present. Drinking at a pub, we see again and again, is a way to escape into the past, where things seems simpler and better. Even Malachy Sr., who’s often thrown out of the pubs where he drinks, likes to come home drunk and force his children to swear that they’d die for Ireland—a patriotic, even nostalgic gesture that distracts Malachy Sr. from the harsh reality that he’s currently unemployed and half-starved. The problem with drinking away one’s sorrows, of course, is that it’s a vicious cycle. Drinking doesn’t just relieve sadness; it creates new sadness, since drinking heavily means spending most of one’s money, and therefore remaining poor. Alcohol is also a depressant, meaning that Malachy Sr.’s drinking may make him feel happy in the short term, but ultimately it only makes him more depressed and more likely to drink again.

Another common way for the people of Limerick to relieve their suffering is escapism, particularly through religion and the idea of heaven. Catholicism teaches that those who lead good, pious lives will be rewarded in heaven forever. There are many times when a character in the book loses a loved one, and the character’s only relief is the belief that the loved one is “in a better place now.” If there’s a flaw in this way of coping with tragedy, it’s that religion encourages people to accept their misery instead of trying to get rid of it or better their situations. In general, the characters in Angela’s Ashes turn to various forms of “escapism” to cope with tragedy: instead of trying to fight tragedy, they try to forget about it. Even Frank adopts his own form of escapism by going to watch movies at the cinema when he’s had a troubling experience.

Although Frank indulges in his own forms of escapism, he also refuses to accept the state of constant misery in his own life and instead works to change things. The movies Frank sees at the cinema are almost always from America, an early sign that Frank aspires to travel to the United States one day, and—more abstractly—that Frank wants to improve his situation instead of quietly accepting it as inevitable. Through hope, ambition, and hard work, Frank manages to save enough money to pay for a ticket to America, where (as the last word of the book suggests), he’s happier. As the book draws to a close, we realize that Frank has refused to drown his sorrows in religion, alcohol, or escapism (as most everyone in Limerick does)—instead he’s faced his misery head-on, and fought it off.

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Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape appears in each chapter of Angela’s Ashes. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape Quotes in Angela’s Ashes

Below you will find the important quotes in Angela’s Ashes related to the theme of Misery, Drunkenness, and Escape.
Chapter 1 Quotes

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Frank offers a quick "preview" of the story he's about to tell us: a tour of his miserable childhood growing up in a poor Catholic family in Ireland. He lists some of the characters who made his life so miserable, such as teachers, priests, and alcoholic family members (and soon enough, he'll name and further characterize them).

Frank's tone here lies somewhere between regret and boastfulness. He's clearly saddened by many of the things he experienced as a young boy, and has been deeply affected by his painful childhood. And yet Frank is also curiously proud of his Irish Catholic upbringing: in a strange display of machismo, he contrasts his own childhood with other people's, arguing that he's been through more pain and sadness than anyone he knows (and, perhaps, is tougher and stronger as a result). The quotation is also slightly humorous, despite the misery it describes (something typical of McCourt's style). Frank has been through a lot, but now that he's a fully-grown author, he looks back on his past with a hint of amusement. 


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The minute she losses one child there is another one on the way. We don't know how she does it. She's married four years, five children and another on the way. That shows you what can happen when you marry someone from the North for they have no control over themselves up there a bunch of Protestands that they are. He goes out for work every day but we know he spends all his time in the saloons and gets a few dollars for sweeping floors and lifting barrels and spends the money right back on the drink. It's terrible, Aunt Margaret, and we all think Angela and the children would be better off in her native land. We don't have the money to buy the tickets ourselves for times is hard but you might be able to see your way. Hopping this finds you in fine form as it leaves us thank God and His Blessed Mother.

Related Characters: Delia Fortune (speaker), Philomena Flynn (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. , Angela Sheehan McCourt, Margaret Sheehan
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Angela's cousins, Delia and Philomena, write a letter to Angela's mother, Margaret, who lives in Ireland. They use the letter as an opportunity to air their grievances with regard to Angela's husband, Malachy Sr. Malachy Sr. is a drunken, lazy man—but even worse (in Delia and Philomena's eyes), he's from Northern Ireland, the part of the country that's usually associated with British culture and Protestantism—everything that Angela's Catholic family despises.

The quotation is important because it also establishes a hierarchy of loyalty—family comes even before religion and nationality. In spite of Delia and Philomena's hatred for Malachy Sr., they know that Angela is bound to stay married to him forever (due to her strong Catholic convictions), so Malachy is family now. As a result, Delia and Philomena feel a sense of duty to take care of Malachy Sr. and his children (including Frank), and ask Margaret for her help in bringing the family to Ireland. Delia and Philomena seem not to have much affection for Angela or Malachy; rather, they're acting out of a strong sense of obligation to "blood."

Chapter 2 Quotes

Grandma whispers to Aunt Aggie, Who'll put the child in the coffin? and Aunt Aggie whispers, I won't. That's the job for the mother.
Uncle Pat hears them. I'll put the child in the coffin, he says. He limps to the bed and places his arms around Mam's shoulders. She looks up at him and her face is drenched. He says, I'll put the child in the coffin, Angela.

Related Characters: Margaret Sheehan (speaker), Aunt Aggie (speaker), Patrick Sheehan / Uncle Pat (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt, Oliver McCourt
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

After the death of her child Oliver (Frank's little brother), Angela and the rest of the family attends the funeral. Angela, it's agreed, has a responsibility: bury her child in a coffin. Angela finds herself unable to perform this task, however, as she's too miserable. And yet Angela at least recognizes that she has a duty to place Oliver in the coffin. Her grief and misery contrasts markedly with her husband Malachy Sr.'s drunkenness during the even. Whereas Malachy Sr. escapes or represses his grief with drinking, Angela faces her feelings head-on, painful though this is.

The quotation also demonstrates the power of family in Ireland. When a family member is too weak or sad to perform a duty, it's the responsibility of someone else in the family (here, Uncle Pat) to carry it out. Not for the last time in the novel, another Sheehan will give aid and comfort to Angela and her children.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Dad stands for a minute, swaying, and puts the penny back in his pocket. He turns toward Mam and she says, You're not sleeping in this bed tonight. He makes his way downstairs with the candle, sleeps on a chair, misses work in the morning, loses the job at the cement factory, and we're back on the dole again.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr.
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Malachy Sr. tries to turn a new leaf by getting a job at a cement factory. He attempts to drink less, but fails miserably: he comes back to his home late at night, extremely drunk. Angela's behavior toward her husband shows that she knows full-well the harm he's doing to his family: because he's blowing through so much money on alcohol, his children are literally starving. And yet Angela is powerless to do much about her husband's drinking problem. She can be angry with him, but she can't stop him from spending the money he earns on beer.

At this early point in the novel, we're still getting a feel for the pattern of Malachy's drinking: every so often, he resolves to stop drinking, gets a job, then starts drinking again and loses his job. Because the novel is told from a child's point of view, McCourt doesn't offer any judgment for his father's behavior. Interestingly, the absence of any big statement about Malachy Sr.'s selfishness makes Malachy's behavior seem even more despicable.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Dad holds my hand going through the streets and people look at us because of the way we're saying Latin back and forth. He knocks at the sacristy door and tells Stephen Carey, This is my son, Frank, who knows the Latin and is ready to be an altar boy.
Stephen Carey looks at him, then me. He says, We don't have room for him, and closes the door.
Dad is still holding my hand and squeezes till it hurts and I want to cry out.
He says nothing on the way home. He takes off his cap, sits by the fire and lights a Woodbine. Mam is smoking, too. Well, she says, is he going to be an altar boy?
There's no room for him.

Related Characters: Malachy McCourt Sr. (speaker), Stephen Carey (speaker), Frank McCourt
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Malachy Sr. takes Frank to one of the local Catholic schools—one of the best schools in the area—and tries to obtain a place for Frank. By this time, Frank has shown aptitude as a writer and a thinker; he'd probably make an excellent student. And yet Frank is turned away from the school without any explanation beyond "We don't have room."

While McCourt never explicitly says so, it's strongly implied that Frank is turned away because of his father's unpopularity. Malachy is well-known to be a North Irishman; in spite of his proven commitment to the IRA, Irish independence, and Catholicism, nothing he does can change the fact that he's an outsider. As a result, Malachy is treated like a second-class citizen, and his children, by extension, aren't offered a good education. Malachy is a lazy, loutish man, but it's possible to feel some sympathy for him: even if Malachy were a responsible father, he'd still be treated like an enemy (and it's also probable that this treatment contributes to the alcoholic behavior that makes him a bad father).

Chapter 7 Quotes

I'm hungry but I'm afraid to go home till I find my father.
He's not in Naughton's fish and chip shop but there's a drunken man asleep at a table in the corner and his fish and chips are on the floor in their Limerick Leader wrapping and if I don't get them the cat will so I shove them under my jersey and I'm out the door and up the street to sit on the steps at the railway station eat my fish and chips watch the drunken soldiers pass by with the girls that giggle thank the drunken man in my mind for drowning the fish and chips in vinegar and smothering them in salt and then remember that if I die tonight I'm in a state of sin for stealing and I could go straight to hell stuffed with fish and chips but it's Saturday and if the priests are still in the confession boxes I can clear my soul after my feed.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr.
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Frank steals some food from a passed out drunken man, and then struggles with his Catholic sense of guilt. The scene suggests that Frank adopts something like a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude toward sinning: he doesn't make a point of sinning, but when his need is great enough, he'll sin, reasoning that he can always repent later on.

In general, the quotation dramatizes the way that Irish youths must learn to navigate their ways through poverty and religion. As a boy who never has enough food, Frank is often put in a position where he has to sin to save his own life: there are times when he has to steal food or risk starving to death. But by this point, Frank is a practicing Catholic—he has plenty of doubts about the religion, but he still goes to confession and attends church on Sundays. Frank has the strong sense that he's doing something wrong by eating the food in this scene—according to the Catholic rules he's been taught, he could be risking going to hell forever. And yet because his hunger is more pressing than his faith in this particular moment, he takes the risk.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I'm up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won't wake up the rest of the family. Mikey Molloy stole Cuchulain, the Angel on the Seventh Step is gone someplace else, but my father in the morning is still mine. He gets the Irish Press early and tells me about the world, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. He says this war is none of our business because the English are up to their tricks again. He tells me about the great Roosevelt in Washington and the great De Valera in Dublin. In the morning we have the world to ourselves and he never tells me I should die for Ireland.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. , Angela Sheehan McCourt, Mikey Molloy
Page Number: 208-09
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complex passage, Frank tries to come to terms with his father: a man who's both a good, loving father, and an unbelievably neglectful alcoholic. Frank can't deny that his father is endangering his (Frank's) own health by spending so much money on alcohol instead of food. Yet he also admires his father for his intelligence, his talent for storytelling, and his kindness towards Frank in these private morning sessions.

So how can Frank love and hate someone at the same time? The paradox of loving and hating simultaneously lies at the heart of Frank's childhood. Again and again, he's put in a situation where he both loves and fears something, whether it's God, his father, his education, or his family. As a young man, Frank tends to move back and forth between love and hatred for his father, and it's only much later (as an adult, when he's writing this novel) that Frank looks back at his family and accepts that his father was both despicable and admirable at the same time.

Chapter 12 Quotes

He's not coming, Mam. He doesn't care about us. He's just drunk over there in England.
Don't talk about your father like that.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr.
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Frank finally speaks his mind about his father. Although Frank has previously admired his father and loved him despite his flaws, it becomes increasingly clear to Frank that Malachy is an alcoholic, lazy fool who's probably abandoned his children to starve. Frank's behavior indicates that he's coming of age very quickly, and as he grows up, Frank is forced to think more and more about how to support himself and his brothers. As he looks for work and begins making money, Frank begins to despise his father for not doing the same thing.

Angela's response to Frank—"don't talk about your father like that"—suggests that in spite of her own anger with Malachy, she doesn't want her children to grow up resentful and miserable because of Malachy's actions. Undoubtedly, Angela has thought of far worse things to say about her husband, but she has enough self-control—and perhaps a desperate kind of naïveté regarding the family unit—to keep them to herself. Instead of complaining to her friends and family, she continues to stand by Malachy. Angela exhibits a calm, even heroic devotion to her family, Malachy included.

The Irish army is looking for boys who are musical and would like to train in the Army School of Music. They accept my brother, Malachy, and he goes off to Dublin to be a soldier and play the trumpet.
Now I have only two brothers at home and Mam says her family is disappearing before her very eyes.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt (speaker), Malachy McCourt Jr.
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation establishes the tragedy of Angela's life. As she raises her children into adulthood, she's forced to watch as they leave the town of Limerick to find work elsewhere. Here Malachy Jr. goes to Dublin, prompting Angela to mourn the "disappearance" of her family.

While's it clear enough that Angela's complaints aren't exactly reasonable—the family's life in Limerick is miserable, and any kind of escape is probably a good thing—it's easy to sympathize with what she's saying. Angela has worked phenomenally hard to take care of her children--going to charities, begging in the streets, encouraging her husband to work harder, etc. After her husband, Malachy Sr., abandons her to move to London, Angela continues to devote herself to her children. So when her children move away, Angela is understandably shaken. She can't help but compare her children to Malachy Sr.—she can't help but fear that she'll never see them again.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I can hear Mam crying when she blows into the globe of the paraffin oil lamp and everything goes dark. After what happened she'll surely want to get into her own bed and I'm ready to go to the small one against the wall. Instead, there's the sound of her climbing the chair, the table, the chair, crying up into the loft and telling Laman Griffin, He's only a boy, tormented with his eyes, and when Laman says, He's a little shit and I want him out of the house, she cries and begs till there's whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.
In awhile they're snoring in the loft and my brothers are asleep around me.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt (speaker), Gerard “Laman” Griffin (speaker)
Page Number: 294-95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Frank hears the sound of his mother sleeping in the same bed at Laman Griffin, discussing Frank's future. As Frank listens, we the readers become aware that Angela and Laman are having sex—the implication being that Angela is pleasuring her cousin in order to protect Frank; i.e, to ensure that Laman will continue to give Frank food and shelter. Frank himself, as a boy growing quickly more mature, also seems to recognize the implications of what he hears.

The quotation shows how other people in Limerick—not just Frank—struggle to reconcile their Christian faith with their real-world needs and desires. Angela is still married to Malachy Sr., meaning that she's forbidden from having sex with anyone else. And yet because of her desire to provide for Frank, her child (and also her own desire to survive), she has sex with Laman. For all her Catholic faith, Angela's priority is always her family's survival. In this way, Angela and Frank are kindred spirits: as we've seen, Frank almost always favors his own literal needs over the spiritual requirements of his religion. Angela will do anything to protect her children—even endanger her own soul.

Chapter 14 Quotes

I can't tell her about Mam and Laman Griffin and the excitement in the loft. I tell her I was thinking of staying here a while because of the great distance from Laman Griffin's house to the post office and as soon as I get on my feet we'll surely find a decent place and we'll all move on, my mother and brothers and all.
Well, she says, that's more than your father would do.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Aunt Aggie (speaker), Malachy McCourt Sr. , Gerard “Laman” Griffin
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank chooses to leave Laman Griffin's house, because he can't stand arguing with Laman, and can't stand the idea that his mother is sleeping with him. Instead, Frank goes to stay with his Aunt Aggie, a woman whom he dislikes greatly. Frank gives Aggie a half-truth: he claims that he's moving to be closer to work. To Frank's surprise, Aggie praises Frank for his determination and drive.

It's important to keep in mind that the compliment Aggie gives Frank ("that's more than your father would do") isn't actually much of a compliment, considering what Aggie thinks of Frank's father, Malachy Sr. Aggie seems not to expect much of Frank, because he's the son of a lazy, drunken Northerner—so she's impressed that he's making any effort at all to provide money for his family. And yet even if Aggie's compliment isn't all that kind, it reminds us that Frank is growing into a responsible young man. Instead of escaping into drink, like many in his community, he turns to hard work to support himself and offer help to his mother and siblings.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can't understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Theresa Carmody
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Theresa—the girl to whom Frank loses his virginity—has died suddenly of tuberculosis. Because Frank had sex with Theresa shortly before her death, he believes that he's condemned Theresa to an eternity spent in hell. Theresa's death represents the first time in the memoir that Frank believes his sinful actions have harmed another person. (He's stolen and masturbated, but in these cases his actions are shown to hurt no one else.)

As misplaced as Frank's guilt might seem to some readers, it's a mark of Frank's growing maturity that he's realizing that his actions have consequences for other people. As Frank explains, he's been surrounded by death for his entire life—but it's not until this moment that he feels truly responsible for another person's pain. The guilt and anxiety that Frank feels for Theresa's damnation outweighs anything he ever felt for Oliver or Eugene, his deceased brothers (although a large part of his sadness probably also comes from the outsized emotions of young love). Frank is growing into a thoughtful, mature young man, but the burden of his maturity is to feel guilty for harming others.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Frieda tells the priest I had a bit of a dizziness after going to the bathroom, that's what happens when you travel and you're drinking a strange beer like Rheingold, which she believes they don't have in Ireland. I can see the priest doesn't believe her and I can't stop the way the heat is coming and going in my face. He already wrote down my mother's name and address and now I'm afraid he'll write and say your fine son spent his first night in America in a bedroom in Poughkeepsie romping with a woman whose husband was away shooting deer for a bit of relaxation after doing his bit for America in the war and isn't this a fine way to treat the men who fought for their country.

Related Characters: Frank McCourt (speaker), Frieda (speaker), Angela Sheehan McCourt, Tim Boyle
Related Symbols: America
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Frank sets sail from Limerick for America. When he arrives in America, he's greeted by a Catholic priest, Tim Boyle. Despite Boyle's warnings, Frank is immediately seduced by and has sex with a woman named Frieda, whose husband, Boyle tells us, is away hunting deer. In essence, Boyle represents everything that Frank has been trying to escape: Catholic guilt, family obligation, patriotism (the reference to "doing his bit" reminds us of the IRA officials who still grumble about the sacrifices they made for their country), etc.

In spite of Boyle's presence, however, Frank seems remarkably relaxed. Although Frank looks back on his time in Ireland with affection and even nostalgia, he also chooses to leave his country behind in favor of a new place. By the same token, he makes the conscious choice not to listen to the authority figures who bossed him around as a child. Thus, after years of being made to feel guilty for his sexuality, here he decides to embrace sexuality without regret. Frank's new sense of freedom and power is emphasized by the contrast with Tim Boyle. Although some of the other priests in the memoir are intimidating, larger-than-life figures who fill the young Frank with terror, Boyle only seems petty and incompetent, and one gets the sense that Frank is tuning him out. Frank isn't frightened of priests, or the rules of Catholicism, anymore. He's ready to begin a new life in America—a life that will one day result in his becoming a famous writer.