Angela's Ashes Review

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  • Topic: Frank McCourt, Malachy McCourt, Angela's Ashes
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The Predicament of Individuality in Angela’s Ashes

From: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies  | Date: September 22, 2002  | Author: Levy, Eric P.

Since publication in 1996, Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt, has already elicited substantial critical response. Brief notice of three such evaluations will indicate the range of reception. Peter Lenz approaches the memoir in terms of relevant motifs in the Irish literary tradition, with particular emphasis on 'the macabre, the grotesque, the tragicomical, [and]...the theme of the exile'. (1) He also investigates the 'resemblance' of narrative technique in McCourt's memoir 'to the Irish Oral Tradition and to how the seanchai, the oral story-teller, tried to drag the listener in to make him part of the story'. (2) In contrast, George O'Brien focuses, not on similarities between Angela's Ashes and preceding tradition, but on the ways in which the memoir exposes defects in the culture which it concerns. Paying particular attention to 'the twin powers of utterance and finality', O'Brien goes beyond a mere inventory of deficiencies to clarify their cumulative impact: 'From the sustained manner in which every area of Irish social life is revealed to be inadequate, repressive, discriminatory, and essentially inhumane, there emerges an exhaustive view of a humiliating collective failure.' (3) His reading examines both the damage caused by dysfunctions and the rehabilitation achieved by 'the work of recuperation.' (4) In a contrary approach, Fred Robinson emphasizes not the negative features in the culture of Limerick, the Irish setting of most of the memoir, but the positive ones, especially the 'commercial and industrial culture of change'. (5) According to Robinson, Angela's Ashes pits two cultural attitudes against each other. One concerns a conviction of 'doom', and derives from 'colonialism, poverty, insularity, and the Roman Catholic church'. (6) The other concerns 'a culture of the modem, of the way out', whereby Limerick is imbued 'with the idea and fact of passage'.7 In this reading, Frank's emigration is 'culturally coded', and his escape is ironically assisted by values in the very culture which confines him. (8) The present study will probe the predicament of individuality in Angela's Ashes, a moving memoir and recollecting of personal experience in childhood.9 But that particular experience, unique to the author who recalls it, is described in terms of universals or abstract general ideas which apply equally to all individuals in the same category. For example, the particular 'miserable childhood' recounted is presented as an example of a general type: 'the miserable Irish Catholic childhood' (p. 11). In fact, throughout the work, personal experience is expressed in terms of universals or general types -- m terms, that is, of repeatability and constant nature, in the series of individuals to which they apply. Thus, the singularity of personal experience is rendered in terms of generality, as in this representative formula: 'the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years' (p. 11). Indeed, one implication of the combustion image suggested by the title concerns the reduction of individuality to commonality -- or, more precisely, to traits and factors that pertain indifferently to all relevant individuals. In this context, to be an individual is to be determined by the same conditions which everyone must endure. Of course, the proximate cause of this reduction of individuality to commonality is the relentless influence of poverty, exposing everyone it touches to the same experience of misery. As Mr McCaffrey of Eason's Ltd tells Frank McCourt, who has endured this poverty for the first sixteen years of his life: 'You live in a lane and that means you have...
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