AP Language and Literature: Angela’s Ashes rhetorical devices


One of the reasons why Frank McCourt’s autobiographical novel Angela’s Ashes was able to gain an immense popularity with the reading audiences is that it features a number of wisely deployed rhetorical devises, which in turn increase the extent of novel’s emotional appeal. In this paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of an earlier suggestion at length, while focusing on McCourt’s utilization of metaphors, hyperboles and rhetorical questions.


The foremost purpose of deployment of metaphors in the work of literature is to emphasize the emotional intensity of characters’ experiences. In its turn, this is meant to increase an overall plausibility of the plot. For example, while exposing readers to his childhood memories, McCourt states: “The Limerick moon was so bright I could see bits of it shimmering in the water and I wanted to scoop up moon bits but how could I with the fleas leaping on my legs” (34). It is understood, of course, that the narrator could never literally ‘scoop up moon bits’. Nevertheless, by articulating such his desire, he was able to provide readers with the insight into his soul as an utterly romantic individual.

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In the light of such a revelation, on narrator’s part, plot’s consequential developments make perfectly good sense, as it was namely McCourt’s endowment with the sense of romantic idealism, which prompted him to address life’s challenges in a way he did, and not in some other way. In its turn, this explains why, despite the fact that throughout his childhood years, novel’s main character never ceased being exposed to an extreme poverty; he nevertheless managed to retain his sense of optimism. Another reason why metaphors are being commonly deployed in literary texts is that they enhance an authenticity of the background setting and provide credibility to secondary characters’ act. The legitimacy of this suggestion can be well illustrated in regards to the novel’s scene in which narrator reflects upon his fear that there was something wrong with both of his parents: “Dad frightens me with his och, och, och, and Mam frightens me with her small bird sounds and I don’t know what to do” (44). By being exposed to narrator’s referral to his mother’s coughing in terms of ‘small bird sounds’, readers are able to gain an additional clue as to the essence of McCourt’s childhood hardships. Apparently, it was not only his exposure to the constant shortage of food, which used to undermine the sense of McCourt’s self-worth, but also his realization that he was incapable of helping his impoverished parents and siblings.

Throughout novel’s entirety, McCourt also uses hyperboles as rhetorical devices that provide an additional depth to the conversations that take place between the characters. For example, while referring to Angela’s habit of following her husband to the Labor Exchange, so that he would not have an opportunity to squander the received welfare-money on drinking, Malachy’s (Frank’s father) friends state: “If all the women start acting like Mam the horses will stop running and Guinness will go broke” (46). It is needless to mention, of course, that such a remark, on the part of Malachy’s friends, cannot be referred to as utterly rational. Nevertheless, given the fact that just about all drunken men tend to exaggerate things, this remark makes a perfectly good sense in readers’ eyes.

It helps them to gain a better understanding of what it felt like being the unemployed representative of Ireland’s working class, prior to the outbreak of WW2. This, of course, increases plot’s authenticity rather significantly, because by being provided with an opportunity to assess characters’ experiences through their the lenses of contemporary code of ethics, readers naturally grow to think of these characters as three-dimensional human beings.

Life’s problems through the lences of one’s

Another good example of author’s masterful deployment of hyperbolic exaggeration can be found in the scene where the character of Pa Keating expounds on his wartime exploits. Even though that initially, this character did not want his stories to be taken literally, as he went on elaborating on how much gas he had in its bowels, he ended up believing that what he was telling about did in fact take place in reality. After all, according to Pa Keating: “There was so much gas in his system now he could supply light to a small town for a year” (50). Even though that there are clearly defined humorous undertones to this particular Keating’s remark, the fact that despite living in poverty, this character is being shown as someone naturally inclined to exaggerate things for the sake of other people’s amusement, emphasizes the overall seriousness of novel’s humanistic themes and motifs. What also contributes to McCourt novel’s literary richness is the fact that the author never skipped an opportunity to expose many of novel’s characters as being quite capable of coming up with rhetorical questions, which in turn emphasizes these characters’ realistic attitudes towards life and their quick-mindedness – hence, making them more appealing to the reading audiences.

For example, while trying to hurt young Angela on the account of her ‘uselessness’, her mother says: “You’re pure useless. Why don’t you go to America where there’s room for all sorts of uselessness? I’ll give you the fare” (4). Apparently, it never occurred to Angela’s mother that her daughter did not think of this question as being purely rhetorical. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise why the earlier mentioned rhetorical question appears to be essentially symbolical, as it underlines story’s foremost theme of how the experiences of ‘social useless’, on the part of novel’s characters, were gradually depriving them of their humanity. In the scene, where drunken Malachy (Sr.) comes back home at starts encouraging children to consider joining IRA by the time they grow up, Angela comes up with the rhetorical question, in order to try endowing her husband with the sense of shame, on the account of his irresponsible behavior: “Can’t you leave them alone? she says… Isn’t it enough that you come home without a penny in your pocket without making fools of the children on top of it?” (11). Such Angela’s attempt suffers an utter fiasco, of course – Malachy never stopped drinking. Thus, in this particular scene, McCourt’s utilization of the rhetorical question was meant to stress out the full tragedy of his mother having no other choice but to be coping with her drunkard-husband, which in turn represents story’s another important theme.

On many occasions, some rhetorical questions, uttered by novel’s characters, appear to have an element of allusion (reference to famous historical/religious figures) to them. For example, while being exposed to the sight of Angela’s birth, Nurse O’Halloran exclaims: “Jesus, Mary and holy St. Joseph, if you (Angela’s mother) don’t hurry with this child it won’t be born till the New Year and what good is that to me with me new dress?” (3). In its turn, this strengthens an unmistakably Irish authenticity of how novel’s characters reflect upon the surrounding environment. By being provided with the insight into an early twentieth century’s ‘irishness’, readers are able to gain a better understanding of this novel’s actual plot.


As it was illustrated throughout this paper’s analytical part, there are good reasons to think that McCourt novel’s popularity can indeed be referred to as having been predetermined by author’s acute understanding of what accounts for the contextual appropriateness of rhetorical devices’ deployment. This is the actual reason why literary critics have traditionally been pointing out to this particular McCourt’s novel as such that emanates a strong spirit of genuineness. By being provided with an opportunity to read about McCourt’s childhood experiences, people do in fact get the taste of what it felt like being a small boy, coping with the realities of an impoverished Irish living, throughout the course of thirties. I believe that this conclusion is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis.


McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.


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