The Ashes of Catholicism
Angela’s Ashes is an absorbing memoir by Frank McCourt, a book that details his early childhood in Brooklyn, New York. However, it tends to focus more on his life in Limerick, Ireland through various anecdotes concerning the author’s young life. McCourt presents the novel as a sort of coming of age story during his childhood. As McCourt himself recounts, “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was of course, a miserable childhood. . . . Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” (McCourt 11). In Angela’s Ashes, the Catholic Church plays a major role for Frank by influencing his actions, his fears, and his way of life. As becomes clear from a reader’s standpoint, Frank’s actions had been heavily influenced by the Catholic Church.
As a young man (pre-communion), Frankie found that his influences fell within what he had been taught, through confirmation specifically. However ready he may have been, he had last-minute jitters pre and post communion. As referenced in Duffy’s article on Frank McCourt and religiosity, “That book’s hilarious and irreverent chapter on Mr. McCourt’s preparation for, and eventual ill-fated reception of, First Communion set down for all history what it was like to sit before an old Irish “master,” named Mr. Benson in this case, and have very pre-Vatican II lessons pummeled (literally) into your pre-teenage brain” (Duffy 1). Whilst in America, the reach of the Church had vast differences, as the separation of Church and State had been written within the constitution. To long-time inhabitants of Ireland, the idea that Catholicism wasn’t mandatory appalled them. “There is a picture on the wall by the range of a man with long brown hair and sad eyes. He is pointing to his chest where there is a big heart with flames coming out of it. Mam tell us, That’s the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and I want to know why the man’s heart is on fire and why doesn’t He throw water on it?” (McCourt 57). This statement startled Grandma, “Don’t these children know anything about their religion? Mam tells her it’s different in America. Grandma says the Sacred Heart is everywhere and there’s no excuse for that kind of ignorance” (McCourt 57). Religion, as it had been taught to Frank, seemed authoritarian and rigid, filled thoroughly with “thou shalt not”.
While reading, one gets the impression that the learner within Frank sees traditional religion as demeaning and burdensome. He’d been taught in the ways of strict ruler-to-wrist Catholicism, “You’re not to be asking questions. There are too many people wandering the world and asking questions and that’s what has us in the state we’re in and if I find any boy in this class asking questions I won’t be responsible for what happens” (McCourt 118).Teachings of the church permeated these boy’s actions as well as influenced what their fears in daily life. Specifically for Frank, he frequented the confessional booth, to such an extent and for such minor infractions and afflictions that the father laughed at him. One of these occasions preceded Frank’s thoughts, “every time I pass the graveyard I feel the sin growing in me like an abscess and if I don’t go to confession soon I’ll be nothing but an abscess riding around on bicycle with people pointing and telling each other, there he is, Frankie McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell” (McCourt 329). In his experiences, his most afflicting one lied with Theresa Carmody (both literally and figuratively) where he was sure he’d set her path to hell by having sex with her. It ate at his consciousness, making his soul and morals unsteady, begging him to go to confession so God wouldn’t hate him.
A major proponent of the fears instilled in Frankie could be the teachings of the priests: for example, the lesson on masturbation. The priests blamed the weeping of the Virgin Mary on “the horror [of] Limerick boys defiling themselves, polluting themselves, interfering with themselves, abusing themselves, soiling their young bodies” (McCourt 292). The threats upon their actions had been said to inspire the devil to take them to hell, and that every time the boys “interfere with [themselves]” that they step closer and closer to hell (McCourt 292). Frank felt tormented with possibilities, many alternate visions of how hell may be, ”Doom. That’s the favorite word of every priest in Limerick” (McCourt 299) to try a few, fiery and painful with devils chasing and bearing pitchforks. Though these views seemed unlikely and ultimately pointless, they were a driving force in Frank’s Actions as a young man (McCourt 299). Frank’s life became impacted largely by the forceful nature of the Catholic religion. For example, a common idea expressed often in the days of confirmation, “You’re here to learn the catechism and do what you’re told” however this was unlike what Frank had been used to, because to have religion taught in this way had previously been heard of (McCourt 118). Different from who it should have been, the Church played the authoritarian father figure in young Frankie’s life.
When the church’s representatives taught about adultery, they tried to make the students feel bad, saying, “The Virgin Mary turns her face away and weeps” at the sight of adultery. Adultery is defined as “impure thoughts and actions” so that the students feel guilty whenever these thoughts occur. An example of this guilt that Frank feels could be after the death of Theresa Carmody, Frank feels that his actions sent Theresa to hell, and Frank tries desperately to save her soul. He attends four masses, prays at every statue, fasts, and uses rosaries in begging God to have mercy on the soul of Theresa Carmody. This guilt can be seen even clearer in Frank’s plea, “How can a priest give absolution to someone like me?” The authoritarian role of religion imposed guilt on Frank, causing him to feel doomed to hell. With all these afflictions tearing at his soul, one priest appeased him, “He tells me God forgives me and I must forgive myself, that God loves me and I must love myself for only when you love God in yourself can you love all God’s creatures” (McCourt 292). Against what he’d been used to, the church hadn’t always been a safe haven for him. Three times in his life a father denied him access to the sanctuary, and this had a profound effect on his well-being. When his father takes him to be an altar boy, Frankie gets turned away thanks to the financial state of his family. “Delia says something has to be done about Angela and those children for they are a disgrace, so they are, enough to make you ashamed to be related. A letter has to be written to Angela’s mother” (McCourt 45). Later, when Frank attempts to apply to secondary school, the door gets slammed in his face due to his appearance. Regardless of his relatively high intelligence, he gets denied any of the luxuries of a better life, thanks to how little money he had.
Frank’s life had been impacted largely by the forceful nature of the Catholic religion. Religion, understood as personified, served as a father figure and a leader in Frank’s childhood. Even though certain negative factors upset him, Frank found other aspects of faith that provided a certain safe haven and hope.
Duffy, Peter. “The Faith of Frank McCourt.” Catholic Education Resource Center. Wall Street Journal, 24 July 2009. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir. London: Touchstone, 1996. Print.
Pellum, Tony. “Religion and “Angela’s Ashes”.” Religion and “Angela’s Ashes”. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
“It’s Not Hard to Make Decisions When You Know What Your Values Are”
Roy Disney explains that “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” This is an important theme for the characters of Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and of Frank McCourt from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The two things in life that are supposed to supply stability (parents and the church) have failed, which is why Stephen and Frank discover that only through their own self-reliance will they ever be able to experience true freedom from the forces that have bound them.Stephen’s parents let him down by not emotionally supporting him while Frank’s parents do not physically support him. Right before Stephen leaves to go to the university, his father shouts out to his siblings, “Is your lazy bitch of a brother gone out yet?” (135). Stephen’s father shows a lack of respect for his son by calling him lazy and goes on to imply that he is not very masculine. His father belittles him in front of his family and does not even apologize for his harsh words. Stephen’s mother also disappoints him as “he had watched the faith which was fading down in his soul aging and strengthening in her eyes” (126). Stephen sees his mother choosing religion over him. His mother decides to trust the Catholic Church rather than her own son, which shows that her support is not toward Stephen. Through his parents’ lack of emotional support, Stephen must look inside himself for strength.Frank’s parents support him emotionally, but they do not adequately provide the support he needs physically. Angela “hopes [Malachy] might bring home something from the farm, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, but he’ll never bring home anything because he’d never stoop so low as to ask a farmer for anything” (95). Frank’s father lets his pride take control of his life, even though it means his family will starve. Frank rarely gets enough food to fulfill his appetite because he father is too proud to beg for food. When Angela wants to move because of the diseases the lavatory may spread, Malachy explains, “We can’t move again. Where will we get a house for six shillings a week?” (92). Frank is unable to live in a clean home because his family cannot afford it. His family constantly moves due to their financial situation, and each home is more dilapidated than the previous. Despite the emotional support that is provided to Frank by his parents, they have great difficulty feeding and housing him.Similar to his parents, the Catholic Church also fails Stephen by wrongly accusing him of lying about his broken glasses and fails Frank by refusing him the opportunity to be an altar boy. After Stephen states that he has been excused from schoolwork, Father Dolan says, “Out here, Dadalus. Lazy little schemer” (37). An important figure in his church doubts his honesty and verbally demeans Stephen in front of his classmates. Then Father Dolan physically punishes Stephen even when he tells the Father the truth. Stephen goes to the rector and when the rector takes Father Dolan’s side, Stephen tries to explain to the rector, “But I told him I broke them, sir, and he pandied me” (43). Even the rector does not believe Stephen and half-heartedly tells him that he will have a talk with Father Dolan regarding the situation. Stephen gives the church one more chance to prove itself to him, but the church falls short and ends up disregarding Stephen’s complaints.Frank is wronged by the church as he is turned down the chance to be an altar boy and to continue school. Under the advice of a teacher, Frank and his father go to the church, but “Stephen Carey looks at him, then me. He says, We don’t have room for him, and closes the door” (149). When the church closes it’s doors to Frank, it makes clear that the church does not embrace people of all social classes. Even though Frank spends tireless hours memorizing Latin and reading the bible, the church officials are unable to see through his tattered clothing and dirty face. Frank goes to the church with his mother to see about continuing his education, but they turn him down yet another time. As they leave, his mother says, “That’s the second time a door was slammed in your face by the Church” (289). Frank gives the church a second chance to redeem itself to him, and once again it fails to accept him. It is only through the church that Frank has the opportunity to extend his education and they refuse to even let him speak on his own behalf. A church is generally a place to go in time of need, but for Stephen and Frank, it neglects to provide basic comfort and reassurance.Since their lives have been altered from the betrayal by their parents and the Catholic Church, Stephen and Frank must quickly mature and become individuals. While walking beside his father in a strange town, Stephen announces, “I am Stephen Dedalus” (70). Stephen’s father is slowly losing his own identity, and because of this, Stephen must declare his name as a way to declare his own individuality. He is no longer just his father’s son, but he is his own person with independent feelings, memories, and thoughts. After a friend questions his beliefs, Stephen asserts, “I said that I had lost the faith… but not that I had lost self-respect” (188). He understands the importance of being true to himself, especially since he has lost respect for the church and his parents. Even though he has given up hope for the rest of the world, he has not given up on himself, and that enables him to grow from his trying experiences. Stephen must rely on his own beliefs and his own sense of right and wrong, which permits him to grow apart from the ties of society.Frank also has been deceived by his family and religion and he decides to channel his frustrations into becoming a better person through his experiences. When Angela tells Frank that he is not allowed to work anymore due to health conditions, Frank exclaims, “I want the job. I want to bring home the shilling. I want to be a man” (261). Frank understands responsibility at a young age and still wants to support his family even though they have let him down. He is tired of being walked over because of his lack of money, so he works very hard to attempt to rise above poverty. Frank is also strong-willed when it comes to injustice. Frank runs away from Laman Griffin’s house because he was unfairly beat, and he tells his brother, “I’m never going back” (298). It breaks his heart when his mother chooses Laman over him, and that makes him realize that he has the option of leaving the entire situation behind him. Since his ties to his family have loosened greatly, Frank is able to separate himself from them and improve the quality of his life. Frank gains a strong work ethic and the ability to be self-reliant from the collapse of his family and his loss of faith in his religion.Stephen and Frank realize that they must break away from the constraints that their family, church, and Ireland have put on them. No matter how hard he tries to be a part of Ireland, Stephen remarks, “Ireland is the sow that eats her farrow” (157). He recognizes that he has been unable to be the artist that he would like to be because Ireland destroys everything creative. He cannot artistically flourish in a place that does not tolerate independent thoughts and ideas. Stephen goes on to state that, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church” (191). Stephen decides that he does not need to continue to expose himself to the very things that have consistently disappointed him throughout the years. He does not have a place at home in Ireland, or even in his church, so he finally allows himself to completely abandon everything that has tied him down.Frank identifies his family, church, and Ireland as the things preventing him from living his life the way he would like to live it. At an early age, Frank ponders, “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live” (113). Frank’s purpose in life is all up to his religion and his country and neither of them want the same thing. Frank is suffocating with the expectations thrust upon him from the church, his nation, and even his family. However, Frank soon breaks away from his family and even claims, “If my whole family dropped from the hunger I wouldn’t touch this money in the post office” (333). The only ticket out of his miserable life is to save up money and move to America. Frank is finally able to put his own welfare above the expectations of his society. It is through the suppression of his individuality that forces Frank to disconnect himself from the bonds of his society.Stephen and Frank are able to gain the courage and strength to leave Ireland and their former lives behind them due to the lack of dependability provided by their parents and the Catholic Church. From the adversity that they must overcome in their lives, Stephen and Frank are both able to achieve true freedom from the limitations that have held them down for so long.