“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” From the very first lines in his bestselling novel, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt sets himself apart from all those around him. Throughout the novel, the author gives an insight into his upbringing, and how it affected his outlook on life and his overall sense of belonging in his world. The author explores the concept of belonging in terms of our families, our language, our religion, our home, and ultimately the society in which we live. In an interview later in life, McCourt would state “I am actually a New Yorker. It’s what I’m passionate about. If I go back to Ireland, I feel I don’t belong there.”
McCourt’s novel begins in New York. Frank is three years old, and he lives in a small, run-down apartment with his two year old brother Malachy, his baby brothers Oliver and Eugene, and his parents, Angela and Malachy. At the beginning of the novel, they are a happy family who share evenings in front of the fireplace telling stories of adventure and bravery. A year passes, and Margaret, Frank’s new baby sister is born, however she dies soon after her birth. This event shatters Frank’s parents – Angela resigns herself to a life of misery, and Malachy turns to the drink for comfort.
With his parents in mourning, Frank is left to care for his brothers, with kindly neighbours lending a helping hand along the way. It is through this that we are introduced to the number of people from different cultures that live near the McCourts. The reader is introduced to characters such as Mrs Leibowitz, a kindly Jewish lady from down the hall, and the Italian man who runs the supermarket and gives Frank food from time to time. The cultural differences between many of the people who live close to the McCourts are set aside as they come together for a common cause.
Language barriers are also introduced and overcome by the Author, as Frank and Malachy learn “Chewish words”, such as “challah”, and listen to stories about David and Goliath, and Sampson. Through this, the idea of religious views as both a barrier (differing religions) and a unifying body (the shared idea amongst many religions, particularly Jewish and Catholic, of an Almighty Creator) is brought about. The idea of language as a barrier to our sense of belonging is significant, as if we struggle to understand those around us (or, we speak a different language), we struggle too to connect with these people. Similarly, religion can both unite and segregate us within our society, in that if we have different beliefs, values and ethics, we struggle to relate to those around us.
As the money that the family has begins to dry up completely, they decide that it is best that they move back to Limerick, Angela’s hometown. Upon arriving back in Ireland, Angela exclaims that “God knows ‘tis a lovely thing to be back among our own.”, however this feeling of connection to her home country and it’s people is short-lived, as the people of Limerick look down their noses at the “yanks”.
In Alan Parker’s film adaptation of the book, the striking contrast between America and Ireland is most notable. Scenes which show the family’s home in New York are bright and colourful, however as soon as the family arrives in Ireland, the colour scheme becomes significantly reduced. These scenes consist mostly of greys, and the weather is often rainy or cloudy. This contrast is symbolic of the change in Frank’s life that comes with his migration. Frank does not want to move to Limerick, nor does he understand why they must move: “I don’t know why we had to move”. At this point in the novel, Frank feels no connection to Limerick, and has had his connections with New York cut off, so he is essentially stranded, with...
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