As the chapter begins, Frank is almost nineteen years old. He’s still working for Mr. McCaffrey and Mrs. Finucane, and thinks that he only needs a few more pounds before he has enough money to travel to America.
We open this chapter toward the ending of Frank’s long struggle to raise enough cash to travel to America. We can imagine, however, the sacrifices he’s had to make to achieve this end, and unlike many of the young men in Limerick, he hasn’t blown all his money on alcohol.
The Friday before his nineteenth birthday, Mrs. Finucane, who’s been employing Frank for almost two years now, calls Frank to her house to celebrate with a glass of sherry. When Frank arrives, he’s surprised to see that his old employer is dead, her purse fallen on the floor. Frank opens Mrs. Finucane’s purse, finds seventeen pounds inside, and takes them for himself. He also finds a key to a trunk, which contains one hundred pounds. He takes forty pounds for himself. Frank then notices Mrs. Finucane’s ledger, which claims that Aunt Aggie owes her nine pounds. Frank leaves the house and throws the ledger into the river, sparing his aunt from the trouble of paying her dues.
This is Frank’s biggest crime, financially speaking (40 pounds is the largest chunk of money we’ve heard of in the entire book), and yet it’s also Frank’s least serious crime—he’s stealing from a woman who’s already dead, meaning that he can’t possibly be hurting her. McCourt is careful to note that he spares Aunt Aggie from some of her debts as well, meaning that Frank also accomplishes some positive good through his crime. Frank may be willing to steal, but he’s not amoral—he’s built his own moral code, according to which theft isn’t necessarily bad, and it even has a kind of dignity in it (at least it’s better than begging).
Frank uses his new money to arrange travel to America. He finds a travel agency that can take him to America by boat for fifty-five pounds. Frank tells Angela and his brothers that he’s due to leave Ireland in a few weeks. Angela cries and says that they’ll have to have a party for Frank before he leaves. In the old days, Frank thinks, the Irish threw parties for people who were going off to America. The parties were called American Wakes, because it was understood that the people going off to America would never be seen again.
McCourt establishes how important Frank’s trip to America is—it’s not a “trip” at all, but the beginning of an entirely new life for him. To be sure, Frank is “laying to rest” one side of his personality: he’s rejecting his strict Catholic upbringing, and the general mood of hopelessness that’s long loomed over him. And yet the term “wake” is accurate in a different sense—Frank will be “resurrected” as a new man in a new country.
Frank continues working during his last weeks in town. He takes walks through Limerick, trying to take mental photographs of the city in case he never returns. He begins having second thoughts about his journey—perhaps it would be better for him to wait until Malachy Jr. can come to America with him. But whenever Frank has doubts about his choice, he’s able to reassure himself that he’s doing the right thing.
In this important moment of uncertainty, Frank struggles between his loyalty to his family and his desire to be free and independent. Throughout his life, Frank has worked hard to help other people, mostly in his family. It’s a mark of Frank’s newfound maturity that he chooses to go off on his own for once—yet this decision could also be seen as selfish, and McCourt leaves Malachy Jr.’s fate unclear.
Angela throws a party for Frank, saving up shillings from her work for Mr. Sliney. At the party, Frank’s family attends, and sings him loud, boisterous songs. Halfway through the party, Aunt Aggie remembers that there’s a lunar eclipse that night. Pa Keating says this is a good sign for Frank’s journey, but Aggie insists that it’s actually an unlucky sign.
The lunar eclipse is neither good nor bad, of course—it just is. By portraying the eclipse as an indeterminate event (good for some people, bad for others), McCourt is both suggesting the uncertainty of Frank’s future and offering another reminder of the superstition and small-mindedness of Limerick. Yet this party is also Frank’s “last hurrah” with his family—the people he has gone through so much with. He is leaving, and they are staying the same.
The next morning, Frank is on a boat bound for America. As he sits in his room, he wonders what would have happened if he’d taken his post office examination and stayed in Ireland. He could have made enough money to pay for his brothers to buy shoes and go to school. But it’s too late now: he doesn’t know when he’ll see his family again.
Frank’s desire to go off to America on his own could be interpreted as heartless—he could be said to be rejecting his family after years of being taken care of. But it’s also true that Frank is brave for wanting to leave Ireland. He refuses to accept misery and tragedy as the norm in his life, and he wants to start over on his own.
After days of travel, Frank’s boat arrives in New York City. There’s a delay with the ship’s landing, and as a result, Frank is forced to spend a night in Poughkeepsie before sailing back to New York City. When he sets foot in Poughkeepsie, Frank is greeted by a local priest named Tim Boyle. Boyle invites Frank to a party for Irish immigrants. At the party, which Boyle claims is full of “bad women,” Frank drinks strong beer and meets a woman named Frieda. Frieda—an American whose husband, Boyle reports, is away on his weekly hunting trip—takes Frank to the bathroom and then the bedroom, where she has sex with him, while the other women at the party pair off with other men from the voyage. Frieda asks Frank if he’d consider settling in Poughkeepsie instead of New York, but Frank says he wouldn’t.
The clearest sign that Frank has turned his back on his old community’s ways comes in this scene, in which Frank has sex with Frieda. Frieda is a somewhat mysterious character: Boyle says that her husband is off on a hunting trip, but we have no idea why (or if she’s even telling the truth). Clearly she has a reputation for being sinful—hence Boyle’s explanation that she and her friends are “bad women.” (Given how the women single-mindedly go about having sex with the men at the bar, it’s possible that some might be prostitutes). Frieda stands for everything that priests taught Frank to hate: she’s seductive, and represents free sexuality. Thus, it’s telling that Frank listens to Frieda, not the priest. Frank has been raised a strict Catholic, but here he symbolically rejects the guilt and repression of his upbringing and embraces the “freedom” of his new life. Boyle, by contrast, looks like a clueless fool—out of touch with the real world.
Late at night, Frank and the other immigrants return to their boat and sail from Poughkeepsie back down to New York City. On the boat, one of the officers asks Frank, “Isn’t this a great country altogether?”
America, it could be said, is a great country because it allows people to behave as Frank is behaving: to turn their back on their old countries’ ways and start fresh. Of course, at this point it’s unclear if Frank’s newfound freedom will be beneficial to him. We don’t know if Frank will be able to find success and happiness in America—or if, as is often the case, the immigrant’s idealized version of America is just an unrealistic dream.