Angela’s Ashes


Frank McCourt

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Angela’s Ashes Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Frank McCourt's Angela’s Ashes. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt was born to an impoverished Irish family living in New York City in the Great Depression. He and his family then moved back to Ireland when McCourt was nine, and he lived there for the next ten years—his first novel, Angela’s Ashes, details his early life in both America and Ireland. Several of his siblings died at an early age, and Frank was forced to work hard as a young boy to support those who remained alive. At the age of nineteen, McCourt moved back to New York, and in 1951, he volunteered to fight in the Korean War. He was able to attend New York University on the GI Bill, and graduated with an undergraduate degree in English. Afterwards, he began a long career teaching in New York public schools. In 1996, he succeeded in publishing the memoir he’d been working on for years, Angela’s Ashes. The book was a surprise bestseller, and won McCourt the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. Afterwards, McCourt published two other memoirs, ‘Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005). He died of cancer in 2009.
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Historical Context of Angela’s Ashes

The most important historical event to understand while reading Angela’s Ashes is the conflict between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, and between Ireland and England. For centuries, Ireland had been politically, economically, and culturally subordinate to England: England was a site of trade with the rest of Europe, the home of the monarchy, etc. Beginning with the reign of Henry VIII in the 1500s, England became a Protestant nation, while Ireland remained predominately Catholic. The divide between England and Ireland became significantly greater during the 19th century, when England became a major imperial power and Ireland continued to suffer from enormous poverty. A milestone in Irish-English relations then occurred in 1916, at a time when England was engaged in World War I (Ireland was neutral during this conflict). Taking advantage of England’s weakened state, Catholic nationalists in Ireland staged the famous Easter Rising, as a result of which Ireland declared itself an independent republic. But the new Irish Republic faced a challenge: while the majority of Ireland supported independence, a minority of Irish people, mostly Protestant and based mostly in the North, supported continued relations with England. The tension between the Protestant North and the Republic in the South persists to the present day. At the time when Angela’s Ashes is set, Northern Irish men couldn’t find work in the South, and vice versa. Other important historical events in the memoir include the Great Depression. In 1929, the economies of most Western countries experienced a crisis. Due to a variety of factors, including aggressive investing, reckless banking practices, and excessive borrowing, the stock market crashed, leaving the average person with little to no savings or disposable income. With businesses going broke, work was scarce. In Europe, where the unemployment rate was often higher than 30 percent, many people chose to immigrate to the United States, where work was scarce but still easier to come by. Ironically, the McCourt family chooses to move back to Ireland from the United States in the midst of the Great Depression.

Other Books Related to Angela’s Ashes

In interview, McCourt has stated that James Joyce’s 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was an important influence on Angela’s Ashes. Like McCourt’s memoir, Joyce’s novel details the coming-of-age of a young, poor Irish boy in semi-autobiographical detail. (McCourt’s decision to print the dialogue in his novel without quotation marks is an explicit homage to Portrait.) Another important work of literature in Angela’s Ashes, mentioned explicitly at several points, is the “Saga of Cuchulain.” Cuchulain is a legendary Irish hero, renowned for his feats of strength and bravery. Although for many centuries there was a strong oral tradition centered around Cuchulain’s legend, there was a notable revival of interest in Cuchulain stories beginning in the early 20th century. Lady Gregory, the Irish poet and writer, devoted many years to compiling stories into the collection Cuchulain of Muirthemne, one of the most popular Irish books of the time (it would have been familiar even to the McCourts). Finally, McCourt mentions Jonathan Swift’s infamous short essay, “A Modest Proposal,” written in 1729. In this satirical work, Swift sarcastically suggests that England force the Irish to eat their own children, thereby getting rid of the famine and overpopulation problems. Despite the savageness of Swift’s satire, many readers of the essay thought that Swift was being serious!
Key Facts about Angela’s Ashes
  • Full Title:Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir
  • Where Written:New York City, USA
  • When Published:September 5, 1996
  • Literary Period:“Miserabilism,” the immigrant memoir
  • Genre: Memoir, coming-of-age story
  • Setting:Brooklyn, New York / Limerick, Ireland
  • Climax:Frank’s decision to walk out of the post office exam
  • Antagonist:Lamar Griffin, poverty, alcoholism
  • Point of View:First person

Extra Credit for Angela’s Ashes

From dropout to honorary professor: Frank McCourt’s academic career was a strange thing. As a 13-year-old, he was forced to drop out of school to support his family, meaning that he couldn’t pursue the secondary education that most Americans take for granted. Years later, however, McCourt had more degrees than he could count. On the strength of Angela’s Ashes, he was granted honorary degrees from the University of Western Ontario, New York University, and at least a dozen other schools.

A Limerick Hero: After Frank McCourt’s death in 2009, his brother Malachy arranged for the building of a Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick, Ireland. The Museum, which officially opened in 2011, contains McCourt’s papers, some of his old schoolbooks and photographs, and a recreation of the McCourt home as it stood in the 1940s. Not a bad way to remember your brother.