Poverty and Struggling for Survival in Angela’s Ashes and The Street
Angela’s Ashes and The Street both deal with the theme of struggling for survival. McCourt’s Irish slum and Petry’s Harlem are separated by a vast ocean, yet their struggles are simular. McCourt and Petry both use characters, events, and settings to develop the theme of living in poverty in their stories.
In the excerpt from The Street, Petry’s primary character is the wind. The wind is normally not a character. In The Street, however, the wind is an evil antagonist. The wind is the neighborhood bully. The wind goes around inflicting harm on everyone it encounters on 116th Street.
The wind, “set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street… It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street” (Petry).
In ancient times, people were always struggling against nature for survival. But the story does not take place in ancient times. The story takes place in one of the largest and most technologically advanced cities on the face of the planet. For a person to view something as simple as the wind as such a violent and brutal enemy really says a lot about just how poor the person must be. In Angela’s Ashes, McCourt’s use of characterization is completely different, but just as powerful. Clearly Alphie is his youngest brother because he, “makes us laugh the way he smears the sugar all over his face and grins at us with his fat sticky cheeks,” (McCourt). Clearly his mother is sick and dying mother because she, “sits by the fire, shivering, and we know something is wrong when she makes no move for a cigarette,” and then, “stays in bed, still shivering,” (McCourt). Although she is not even physically present, it is clear that his grandmother is an old, bitter zealot because, “she yells at us all the time because Dad is from the North and he never sends money home from England where he is working in a munitions factory… we could starve to death for all he cares. That would teach Mam a lesson for marrying a man from the North with sallow skin, an odd manner and a look of the Presbyterian about him,” (McCourt).
Those miserable descriptions are in total contrast to all of the other, “families sitting there digging in all smiling the mother crisp and clean in her apron everyone washed” (McCourt).
The events in both the stories also play a huge role in developing the theme of survival. In The Street, the events are completely ordinary and simple. The way that the wind, “blew her eyelashes away from her eyes so that her eyeballs were bathed in a rush of coldness and she had to blink in order to read the words on the sign swaying back and forth over her head. Each time she thought she had the sign in focus, the wind pushed it away from her so that she wasn’t certain whether it said three rooms or two rooms” (Petry).
This simple act of trying to make it down a street to see if there is an apartment that she can rent is the equivalent of an arthritic old person trying to stand up and stumble across the room with the aid of their walker in a desperate race to make it to the bathroom before they urinate on themselves. This is a clearly indicates just how bad the circumstances of Lutie’s life are. In McCourt’s excerpt there are a lot more events, and they are just as graphic and significant. The hopeless depicted by, “The bed creaks all night with her twistings and turnings and she keeps us awake with her moaning for water” (McCourt). Even as he goes out in search of food for his starving brothers, the author is haunted by, “my mother moaning for lemonade,” (McCourt).
This drives the author to steal some from behind South’s pub. Events like washing, “down the food with cold tea because we have no fire to heat it,’ and mixing lemonade, “with water to stretch it,” paint a clear picture of just how miserable the family is (McCourt).
In Petry’s excerpt the setting is critically important. If it were not for the setting the wind could not have been such a vicious enemy. Petry’s descriptions of the wind’s actions show the reader just how poor and neglected that part of town is.
“It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the sidewalk and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins. It wrapped newspaper around their feet entangling them until the people cursed deep in their throats, stamped their feet, kicked at the paper. The wind blew it back again and again until they were forced to stoop and dislodge the paper with their hands,” (Petry).
Clearly the streets have not been paved in years thus they are full of grit. To make it worse, the people who live there do not care where they throw their trash so there is litter everywhere that the wind uses to assault everyone walking along that street. In Angela’s Ashes the author does not give any clear, direct descriptions of the place where he lives, but his indirect descriptions leave no doubt that it was a poor and wretched place. This cold, harsh place then stand in stark contrast to the other homes that the author describes, “how cozy it is in their kitchens with fires glowing or ranges black and hot everything bright in the electric light,” (McCourt).
Characters, events, and settings are important parts of any good story. When a writer is trying to show just how hard a person’s is having to struggle to survive these aspects determine whether the writer will be highly successful or an epic failure at successfully communicating the characters plight that they are struggling to overcome.
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