Angela’s Ashes is the bleak, humorous and very compelling memoir of the author’s childhood in Limerick, Ireland, during the Great Depression. The book is, at the same time, a historical account, a work of fiction and an autobiography. First and foremost however, Angela’s Ashes is a personal narrative that evokes the struggles of an individual growing up in adverse and dire conditions. The narrative focuses directly on the author’s childhood and adolescence, a time when the individual is much more prone to vulnerability and powerlessness.
The story is so appealing to the reader precisely because it is filtered through the eyes of a child who is directly exposed to the abuse of social, economical and political forces that surpass his comprehension. Thus, the narrative functions as a deconstruction of the innocent and paradisiacal childhood. The child experiences the most abject forms of physical misery, hunger and illness as well as the permanent feeling of guilt and depression of being a burden to his own mother.
The mother-son relationship described in the book is one of the most effective threads of the narrative, as it represents the way in which “amor matris” can be modified and received differently under the strain of very hard social circumstances. The most obvious form of abuse for the helpless child hero is the social and political context he is entrapped in. In 1935, Frank’s family flees Brooklyn because of the general poverty and deterioration that had spread in the United States during the Great Depression.
After this inverse emigration to their homeland however, the family discovers an even grimmer and more disheartening poverty. In this context, the figure of a careless and drunken father and that of a defeated and abject mother are very potent realities for the child. Both of the parents are extremely powerful influences for the child and both of them function as ambivalent figures. Malachy, the father, who is supposed to offer support and stability to the poverty stricken family, is unreliable because of his inability to hold any job and because of his alcohol addiction.
The fact that he completely deserts the family after leaving for England to find work is an addition to the negative influence he exerts. Frank and his brothers have to suffer because the father fails to offer them even minimal protection from the dire social realities of the day. At the same time however, he is also the one who tells his children the first folktales of Irish heroes, procuring them a slight comfort amidst the dire conditions of life and feeding their imagination and their hopes.
The mother figure is also ambivalent. Frank both loves her and loathes her at the same time. He is moved by her devotion to her children and by her motherly love but he is also repulsed at times when he sees the contemptible and humiliating condition she brings herself to in order to save her family from starvation. Frank encounters his mother accidentally when she is begging in the streets to get the remains of the priests’ dinner and is shocked by her condition.
Later on, when the family has to find shelter with a cousin named Laman Griffin, the child is again appalled when he discovers the sexual nature of the relationship that his mother has with Laman. These absurd and horrendous compromises that the mother has to make in order to be able to sustain her family inspire Frank with a permanent feeling of guilt at being he himself one of the objects of her sacrifice. The mother-son relationship is therefore marked by this need of an exaggerated proof of devotion and motherly love on the part of the mother.
Angela is therefore a perfect instance of a mother’s powerful love for her children, and Frank McCourt points this out in his narrative in various ways. Given the circumstances of the family however, their relationship is more complex than that. The child is discomfited by the guilt of feeling as a burden to his mother, instead of being comforted by the warmth of a mother’s protective care. In the context of his tragic childhood, Frank feels even more poignantly the influence of his parents’ failures and qualities, at the same time.