Table of Contents
- METALANGUAGE AND TECHNIQUES
- ANALYSIS FOR THE THEMES
- ANALYSIS OF THE CHARACTERS
- ANALYSIS OF THE QUOTES
- Essay 1 : Discuss the role of art and poetry in The Golden Age.
- Essay 2 : How does The Golden Age explore the idea of change?
- Essay 3 : How much control over their lives do the characters in The Golden Age possess?
- Essay 4 : The Golden Age suggests that nothing can replace the loss of one’s home. Discuss.
- Essay 5 : ’In The Golden Age, the past is never far away from any of the characters.’ Discuss.
- Essay 6 : ’In migrating to Australia, the Golds gain more than they lose. Discuss.’
- Essay 7: ’The Golden Age uses a range of literary techniques to convey its themes of belonging and identity.’ Discuss.
- Essay 8 : How important is love and connection in The Golden Age?
- Essay 9 : “In recovery he felt a hunger to know why he was alive.” ‘In The Golden Age, recovery means much more than survival.’ Discuss.
The Golden Age is a prize-winning novel by Joan London, first published in 2014. It is set in 1954, in the Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home in Perth. The novel follows Frank Gold, a thirteen-year-old Hungarian immigrant who has bee struck down by polio and is now recovering at the Golden Age. The novel charts his physical recovery, and his emotional and intellectual coming-of-age; he falls in love with fellow-patient Elsa Briggs and develops a passion for poetry.
London creates a sensitive portrait of her adolescent characters and depicts their gradual withdrawal from their parents and increasing independence – a process symbolically mirrored in their physical recovery. The story is told from Frank’s perspective, but also from Elsa’s, Frank’s parents Meyer and Ida, and a nurse at the Golden Age, Olive Penny. All of the central characters are embarking on their own journeys. Meyer and Ida lost everything to the Second World War and must attempt to find their place in their new country. Olive Penny is estranged from her daughter and largely shunned by her family; she lives a forbidden life of casual sexual encounters. All of these characters find themselves in the same city, on the far west of Australia – an Australia which in 1954 is itself struggling to find its own identity.
In 1954, Australia is a deeply conservative country which sees itself as fundamentally British. Since Federation, the White Australian Policy (the Immigration Restriction Act 1901) has been in place, making it almost impossible for non-whites to enter the country permanently. Even central and eastern Europeans like the Golds are exotic by the standards of the time. The ‘New Australians’ from post-war Europe are essentially the first wave of immigrants in the 20th Century to begin diversifying the Australian population. The Golds are very much outsiders.
London’s tale of two young people who fall in love and are forced apart is about the personal journeys of those characters, the maturation of Australia, but also, crucially, about the power of poetry. Frank’s “vocation” is tied to his love for Elsa and becomes “his way in,” his method for understanding himself and his place in the world. Frank’s poetry also embodies the changes soon to sweep Australia and the world. His style is modern, and Sullivan, the ill-fated patient who introduces Frank to poetry, speaks of exciting things happening in America – presumably referring to the outrageous Beat poets, and other mid-century groups. The 1960s will see immense and world-changing Civil Rights movements, anti-war movements, the birth of popular culture, student revolts, and a sexual revolution. The next two decades are characterised by significant challenges to social and political norms and a new emphasis on the individual. Youth culture, be it embodied in stoned hippies, rioting students, rock and roll and eventually punk culture, will be predicated on rebellion. In 1954, Frank Gold is, in his own, quiet way, a precursor to these seismic shifts, rubbing up against teachers in disputes about what poetry is meant to be, and focussing on verse as that which can liberate the self.
London writes in a highly evocative style, and goes to great lengths to capture Perth in the 1950s. The novel also includes flash-backs to the Golds’ experiences in Budapest, and leaps forward in the final chapter to when Frank is an old, acclaimed poet living in New York. Ultimately, it is a novel which affirms the nature of love, and the power of art.
METALANGUAGE AND TECHNIQUES
The Golden Age is a highly stylised and poetic novel – which should be unsurprising, given its keen interest in the nature and purpose of poetry. It is written in what is known in literary studies as “free indirect discourse.” This is a form of third-person narration (he, she, they) which slips in and out of the perspectives of its characters. So when we read The Golden Age, even though the narrative voice positions their subject at a distance, saying “he” or “she,” it still presents the thoughts of that character, without necessarily saying “he thought” or “he said.” Essentially, the narration is in the third person, but it is a third person flavoured with the worldview of the person it describes. For example, when the narrative voice describes Meyer’s reflections on loss, it frequently dispenses with phrases like “he thought this,” and instead melds Meyer’s thoughts with the narrative voice: “He, Ida and Frank had left behind all their family and friends, those who had survived. But the dead came with you.” This style has many advantages. One is that it infuses the narrative with rich and evocative poetic description based on character perspectives. For example, the prose is laden with images of light whenever Frank, and to a lesser extent Myer, drive the narrative forward. The narrative description of Elsa as “the light which swirled around” Frank is another excellent example of imagery appearing in the text which is dependent on the narrative perspective being employed. Many of the metaphors and similes in the text are also good examples – such as Myer’s characterisation of Australians as a “lost tribe” or his description of Ida as “a bird who refused to sing.”
The Golden Age, although largely chronological, has a non-linear narrative structure. This means that the events in the novel do no occur in a strictly correct order. Rather, the novel is characterised by its use of flash-backs, effectively weaving characters’ memories and reflections into the storyline of the novel. This helps build the sense of a world lived in part through memory. This structure, combined with the free indirect discourse narration, makes The Golden Age a self-consciously modernist novel. The Modernist movement, which arguably reached its peak in the 1920s but can be traced long before and after then, was characterised by writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf using free-indirect discourse and displaying a keen interest in the nature of memory – a central theme in The Golden Age. The Golden Age is of course partially about these dramatic changes in literature, and Sullivan Backhouse stresses to Frank Gold that modern poetry is radically different to the poetry of Byron. Modernist literature is also highly allusive, characterised by at times oblique references to many other works. We see this in The Golden Age. Allusions are made to various important modernist and mid-century poets, such as Sassoon and what is possibly the Beat generation (referred to by Sullivan as the “exciting” developments in the United States). The defining work of Modernist poetry, The Waste Land, by T.S Eliot, is directly referenced. This extra layer of interpretative meaning brought to the novel by its allusions reflects its central contention, which is that art and a love of beauty is essential to navigating loss, change and suffering.
ANALYSIS FOR THE THEMES
Poetry and Art
The Golden Age is in some respects a meditation on the role of art, and especially poetry, in life – particularly in regards to love, healing and survival. It is Sullivan Backhouse, an older boy being treated in an iron lung, who introduces Frank to poetry; or rather, who introduces him to the potential of poetry. Frank has already been exposed to his parents’ fondness for Hungarian poetry, but he always found something “theatrical, deliberate” in their reading, and he particularly disliked his mother’s “holy tone.” Sullivan, by contrast, introduces him to modern poetry, which could be written in “simple, everyday language.” Frank alights on poetry as his “vocation” and begins writing lines of free verse down in an old prescription pad. The use of a prescription pad to write poetry symbolises the healing potential of the act; indeed, after his separation from Elsa, Frank becomes convinced that “poetry had to save him.” Poetry becomes a sophisticated way of interpreting and responding to calamity. “Coming to terms with death,” Sullivan remarks, “is a necessary element in any great poem.”
Frank’s relationship with poetry is closely connected to his relationship with Elsa. He thinks of her as a poetic muse; he conceives her as the symbolic “light which swirled around him.” He finds that he struggles to even write poetry if she is not present, and years later, when he is an established poet, Frank still believes that all his poems in some way have been “messages” to Elsa. This poetic relationship with Elsa is potentially disadvantageous to their genuine, human connection, however. One of his first impressions of her, for example, depicts her as a piece of art: “She looked like a drawing done with a fine lead pencil.” Later, he finds that in his imagination she has stopped being a real person and become a sort of “radiant warrior” – in other words, a poetic creation. In this sense, their separation, and the fact that she is allowed to remain a largely poetic construction over the course of his life, is probably the key to her enduring influence on his poetry.
Poetry also plays an important contextual role in The Golden Age. Frank and Sullivan emphasise that modern poetry should be free-form and experimental. Sullivan looks to the great war poets for inspiration – this is no coincidence, as the First World War is often seen as the defining event in the creation of 20th Century modernist literature. Later in the novel, Frank is shown to be reading The Waste Land by T.S Eliot (1922), which is arguably the defining text of modernism. It is long, fragmented, disorienting, and full of allusions and mysterious references. Poetry in The Golden Age is essentially depicted as a force for change. Sullivan points to “exciting things” happening in the United States, referring to mid-century poets and, potentially, to the notorious and ground-breaking Beat Generation. This is perhaps why Ida can connect to her new country through music, but does not seem to embrace her new lifestyle to the same extent as Frank or Meyer – she has her music, but her music is old, written by long-dead men who lived on the continent she has fled.
The Golden Age depicts the practicalities of survival; whether it be through the food parcels Ida sends through to her husband as he starves in a labour camp, or the safehouse where she deposits Frank in the hope that the Nazis won’t find him, or in the survival of children with polio, a recovery characterised in a practical sense by exercises, iron lungs and splints. However, the novel is more concerned with the emotional traits necessary for survival – and its emotional toll.
In war-torn Budapest, the survival of both Meyer and Frank depend on Ida. It is through her old piano teacher that she finds shelter for Frank whilst she scavenges for food to send her husband. Survival under such conditions requires some astonishingly difficult calculations – for example, she is quite aware that in the event of a bombing raid, Julia’s house would probably not survive, but she would prefer that fate for her son than for the Nazis to find him. She reflects: “That was the choice she’d made. Its awfulness made her dizzy for a moment.” Ida must draw on her “little fighting core of survival.” This siege-mentality, so necessary amidst the devastation of Europe, is translated into resentment and bitterness in Australia. Although Ida and Meyer had drawn on their own, significant inner resources to survive, they are acutely aware of the sheer chance of the matter – that it is only by “frail threads of chance or luck” that Meyer had stayed alive after most of his family and all of Ida’s were killed, that it is only luck which stopped a shell landing on Julia’s house. For Ida, their survival barely looks like a blessing upon arrival in Australia; particularly when her son, who had “survived cellars, ceilings, bombing, near starvation,” is struck down by polio. For much of the novel, this sense of resentment paralyses Ida: “Now she was a bird who refused to sing.”
Like survival in warfare, survival against polio is to a large extent a matter of chance. Sullivan Backhouse, for example, despite being healthy, athletic and strong-willed, is killed by the disease, whilst many seemingly more vulnerable children survive. Also like warfare, however, there are individual traits and qualities which improve chances of survival, or at least of recovery. For the recovering children, one of the most dangerous elements of their condition is the sense of helplessness it creates. The patients must learn to will themselves well: “in the end, their success or failure in overcoming polio was up to them.” The novel explores the individual impetuses behind each child’s recovery. Young Ann Lee, for example, recalls being unable to give water to desperately thirsty brumbies on her drought-stricken property, and resolves never to be so helpless again. The older children often land on slightly more profound resolutions. Frank’s brush with mortality has him searching for a reason for living: “In recovery he felt a hunger to know why he was alive.” His effort to survive and to carve out a purpose is part of the new-found sense of individuality burning within him; he determines to become “his own reason for living.”
Europe and Australia
The Golds have a complex relationship with Europe. Compared with the seemingly barren city they have arrived in, they can at times not help but be nostalgic. They reflect on long holidays on Lake Belaton, their city of “archways, courtyards, boulevards, cafes and concerts, twinkling bridges,” and Frank finds it astonishing that most people his age do not know the word “nostalgia.” Yet at the same time the Golds must accept that this city which they had loved so much had also proven treacherous. Budapest turned into a “hunting ground,” and suddenly the young Jewish family found themselves unable to trust the very people they had been living alongside for decades. They lose their homes, in this sense, twice – in the literal sense that they must leave Hungary, but also in the sense that the city they thought they knew has proven to be an illusion. This painful history informs the Golds’ reaction to insular, conservative 1950s Australia. Meyer watches the Australians prepare to celebrate the royal visit with bemusement; he considers them a “tiny lost tribe” stranded from the “motherland.” But he is also alarmed by the way the Australians cling to old nationalistic attachments to Britain and their status in the Empire: “Didn’t they understand what had happened to the old countries of Europe?” The air of belonging and civility which Australians attach to Britain, was Meyer understands, a fiction. The people of Perth see themselves as the inheritors of a northern European civilisation – a civilisation which Meyer is painfully aware can break down at any minute.
It thus becomes essential for Ida and Meyer to find a way to belong in Australia. For the first decade of their time in Perth Meyer finds it difficult to relate to this “city with no past.” Worse, the Golds are unable to entirely escape the sort of prejudice which nearly led to their extermination in Europe. Nance, Elsa’s grandmother, expresses disgust at her having “that migrant boy hanging around her,” and Rodney Bennet is surprised that Ida expects to be treated as well as her talent warrants, not like some desperate immigrant happy for whatever scraps the locals throw her. Bennet assumes that any migrant, “especially members of her race,” would be happy to play for anything. Australia is found by the Golds, overwhelmingly, to be dull, insular, conservative and backwards, culturally and intellectually.
However, these binaries are broken down by the end of the novel. Both Ida and Meyer eventually find their place in the new country. For Meyer, it is his attraction to Olive Penny which eventually shifts his perspective on Perth, and allows him to see its “mythic” potential. Ida is almost overwhelmed by the gratitude of her Australian audience for a performance which she suspects would have been considered an embarrassment in Perth, and realises that Australia is the place “in which her music must grow.” Australia itself is on the cusp of change; in a few years it will experience the cultural assault of the 1960s – and the enthusiasm for the royal visit depicted in The Golden Age won’t hold a candle to what happens when the Beatles visit in the next decade. However, Frank still feels compelled to move to New York to pursue his poetry. Whilst this is no doubt partly for personal reasons, it is also the case that up until the present day a great many Australian artists, thinkers and musicians have long felt compelled to move to Britain or America in order to thrive. In that sense, perhaps contemporary Australia is not too far removed from the Australia depicted by London.
Love is central to The Golden Age, although it comes in several forms. Most obviously is the fledgling relationship between Elsa and Frank. Frank falls for Elsa immediately; and she is immediately associated with light: “Her face, in profile, was outlined by light.” Elsa takes a little longer to warm to Frank, but not too long. The two adolescents soon begin to depend on one another emotionally: “Being together made them stronger.” Characteristically, Elsa’s observations about their relationship are slightly less gushing than the young poet’s. Frank describes love variously as “a promise made to all human beings” and “the big thing, maybe the best thing, that happened in lives.” Elsa, whilst taken by this boy she describes as being like no other boy she has ever met, is still slightly reserved. In her view that Frank acted like he had just “elected” her into a “two-person club,” there is perhaps a tacit recognition that his need for her is less as a human being, and more as a concept which he employs for his own, artistic requirements. Certainly he always perceives her in connection to light imagery, and, as discussed above, she soon becomes a more symbolic than literal figure: a “radiant warrior.” Nonetheless, their love is understood to be real, and powerful. Sister Olive Penny recognises it, and argues that having spent much of her career caring for children, knows that they “can surprise you by how much they feel and understand.” The importance of love in the lives of characters in The Golden Age is closely connected to memory. For Frank, “polio is like love… Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.”
The persistence of love and memory is even more pertinent for Frank’s parents. They lost the city they loved, the lives they loved and the families they loved to the Second World War. Their experiences in Australia mirror Frank’s late-life reflections on the nature of love. Even after both Ida and Meyer, through their music and appreciation of beauty respectively, learn to love their new country, Meyer still has flashbacks to his life in Budapest, yearning for Australia to forgo “these terrible tea-parties” and embrace a more European lifestyle (as any brief stroll through Melbourne’s inner city will demonstrate, many Australians did well and truly embrace the life Meyer longs for). More poignantly, he is reminded by Elsa’s parents of the rape and murder of his little sister. Despite Meyer’s attraction to Olive Penny, he never acts on it; both players understand the consequences would be disastrous, and Meyer recognises that he is actually exhausted beyond mere “intimacy,” and that the life he has with Ida, whom he loves in his own deep and lasting way, must be his priority. Although the relationship between Ida and Meyer is frequently strained, the final description of them dying within weeks of each other and then being buried together creates an impression of lasting love.
One form of love which is tested in The Golden Age is that between parents and children. Both Elsa and Frank feel increasingly distant from their parents over the course of the novel. Elsa finds her parents looking “smaller,” even “shrunken” from grief, and Frank finds his mother cloying. This is owing to their natural transition into adulthood, alongside the enforced independence which comes from being removed from home and having to recover from polio. However, Frank and Meyer still get on well, and after the concert Frank and Ida exchange glances which demonstrate that “all is forgiven.” Ida recognises the grief her son undergoes upon separation from Elsie and she promptly organises a meeting between the two families. Frank himself will come to understand the depth of love between parent and child through his brief time caring for the young Edie.
All of the major themes in The Golden Age are intimately connected, and one idea in particular which binds them together is the concept of loss. All of the characters in the novel have encountered one form of loss or another. An obvious example are the Golds, who, as discussed above, have lost their former European lives, and most of their extended family. This loss follows the Golds into their new lives, inescapably; “The dead came with you,” Meyer reflects. Ida and Meyer must learn to navigate their future, even with the past dogging their footsteps.
There are other forms of loss in The Golden Age, however. All of the children in the convalescence hospital have lost their physical capability. They also lose their childhood. This is emphasised through the sharp contrasts London draws between Elsa’s highly athletic, physical childhood and her current state, of being barely capable of walking. Elsa and Frank, however, are losing their childhood in another sense: they are moving from childhood to adolescence. The Golden Age can in this sense be read as a coming-of-age novel. Elsa feels the distance growing between herself and her parents, who appear, with every visit, to be weaker and more diminished – as if they are “shrunken” from the grief they have suffered. By contrast, her physical development is an upward trajectory, growing from strength to strength. Similarly, Frank begins to feel a cloying sense of restriction as a result of his parents’ emotional dependence on his own recovery, and he vows with something approaching resentment to be “his own reason for living.” In this sense, the loss of childhood is essentially positive; at times distressing and confusing, but ultimately necessary for Frank’s and Elsa’s development.
A similar process is evident in the character of Olive Penny. She lost her husband, and was forced to move, with her young daughter, into her mother-in-law’s house. Her mother-in-law resented her, however, and on dying left them with no provisions. After seeing her daughter married off, Olive was left with virtually no family, no place. However, like the children she cares for, this loss actually provides her with an opportunity for personal development. Olive takes her lack of family obligations as a blessing and lives an unusually independent and fulfilling life for an Australian woman of the 1950s – she is employed in work she finds meaningful, is self-sufficient and, most scandalously, has an active and fulfilling sex life. In one sense, then, Olive Penny is an example of the end-product of the process that the children and the Golds are undergoing; someone who has lost one way of life but embraced and affirmed another.
ANALYSIS OF THE CHARACTERS
Ferenc (Frank) Gold
Although the novel moves between a number of characters’ perspectives, The Golden Age is overwhelmingly a tale about its central characters, Frank. Born in Hungary and miraculously surviving both Nazi occupation and Soviet “liberation” (which was frequently equally murderous) as a young child, Frank adapted quickly to his new country, learning English fast and thriving at school, before polio saw him crippled and hospitalised. He is described by Elsa, the girl whom he falls in love with, as a “funny boy – sharp, watchful, purposeful, not like a boy at all really, or any boy she’d ever known.”
Frank is on the cusp of adulthood, a crisis in identity which is made all the more prominent by its association with physical growth and recovery as he gradually learns to walk again. He is characterised by a fierce sense of independence. He is disturbed by how much his parents depend emotionally on his recovery, and defiantly “refuse[s] to be their only light.” He determined to find his own “reason for living,” and that reason is poetry – an art revealed to him by Sullivan Backhouse. Frank’s sense of self, loneliness, and love of Elsa all become tied up with his ability to interpret the world through poetry. The Golden Age charts his development as a poet, his separation from Elsa, and his eventual emergence as a successful poet living in New York. He carries the memories of his time at the Golden Age, and particularly of the “beauty” which he found there, all his life.
If Frank’s early childhood was defined by fear and trauma, Elsa’s by contrast was defined by “freedom,” of long bike rides, summer holidays and trips to the beach. Elsa, like Frank, is one of the older children at the Golden Age, and is introduced comforting a sick infant. Her thought process at this moment is the first indication that she, like Frank, is outgrowing her family and the sense of security they provide: “Without your mother, you had to think. It was like letting go of a hand, jumping off the high board, walking by yourself to school.” Frank identifies this steely resolution in her – he terms it her “pride” – and her son Jack describes her as notoriously strong-willed when he meets Frank at the end of the novel. There is a tension between Elsa’s parents, and this is reflected in her growing sense of detachment from them; she sees them “shrunken” by their grief for her, even as she recovers. She also bears a resentment for her sister, who failed to recognise Elsa’s polio onset.
Most of the description of Elsa in The Golden Age come from Frank, and is consequently more poetic than literal – he describes her mostly in terms of light, and as a “radiant warrior.” She is, however, definitely tall and blonde. With her active childhood and memories of summer spent at the beach, she, along with Olive Penny, represent a sort of quintessentially Australian vision of girl- and womanhood. Her fierce sense of independence is possibly reflected in what we learn of her later life. She becomes a doctor and marries, and Frank flees to New York. Although she seems to retain fond memories of Frank, she has firmly closed that chapter of her life and moved on, a fact evidenced by the fact that she does not answer his letters.
Meyer suffered deeply during the war, losing all his family but for two brothers, and barely surviving internment in a labour camp. Even after the war has finished, his father and sister are brutally killed by Russian soldiers who believe they had some connection to the Nazi regime. He arrives in Australia with little to no interest in the new country, which seems to him to be the “end of the world.” It his only through his connection with Olive Penny, and then his acquirement of a job as a deliveryman, that he realises he can indeed learn to love Australia.
It is obvious, reading from Meyer’s perspective, where his son Frank gets his penchant for poetry. Meyer, like his son, frequently thinks in poetic phrases. He describes the Australians of the 50s as a “lost tribe” in awe of its British heritage, and frequently thinks in metaphors – personifying cities, or describing characters like Olive in terms of light. The character of Meyer is an intensely reflective one, frequently musing on the nature of memory and the relationship between past and present. His relationship with Ida is a complex one; it is full of tension and exhaustion for much of the novel, but there are signs that it may be reigniting towards the end, as both characters find their feet in their new country.
Ida Gold is a proud and, for much of the novel, distinctly resentful woman. She was a promising pianist on the make in Budapest before the war. As a Jew, she quickly became a target for the Nazi regime. She was tipped off mid-performance in a café and managed to escape; the next few years were essentially spent on the run, as her husband was taken from her and she was compelled to hide her son during the shelling of Budapest. It is because of Ida that Frank and Meyer – for she smuggles food parcels to him whilst he is captive – are able to survive. It costs her every ounce of strength, but her remarkable courage and determination eventually sees them all through. In Australia, she feels she is robbed yet again – she loses her family but manages to get to Australia with her husband and son, settle down, even have her son win a prestigious scholarship, and then have him struck down by polio. She stops playing the piano – or, as Meyer describes it, becomes “a bird who refused to sing.” For all her remarkable ability to save her husband and son from the war, she cannot protect Frank against the ravages of polio.
Ida’s relationship with Frank is strained, yet understanding. He prefers his father’s company to his mother’s, and finds her archness and evident disdain for Australia trying. However, when he is sick with loss after his separation from Elsa it is Ida who instinctively sees what must be done to heal her son, and reunites the children. It is largely through her music that she eventually finds a niche in Australia, the country in which she and Meyer eventually spend all their lives. Whilst Meyer “came to love” Australia, Ida’s attitude is left ambiguous.
Sister Olive Penny
Olive Penny is an unconventional woman for her time and place. Her husband was killed in the war, and her adult daughter has her own life. Olive is thus independent, with few binding connections to other people. She is the nurse in charge of the Golden Age, and in her late thirties/early forties. She finds nursing suits her – she develops an instinctive “professionalism” for it. She is “adored’ by all the children except, interestingly, for Frank. She is unconventional in professional independence but also in her sexual freedom – a freedom “like a man’s.”
Olive Penny finds herself sharing a mutual attraction with Meyer Gold. He sees a “light” inside her, and along with Elsa she embodies the traditional image of Australian health and naturalness, fit and rosy. Although Frank is less in thrall to her than the other children are, she is able to perceive that the feelings between him and Elsa are very real, and she warns Meyer that it would be very damaging to the health of both children to keep them forcibly separated. This is a good indication of her generosity of spirit, in that it is Frank and Elsa’s illicit escapade which, in part, sees her lose her job at the Golden Age.
Sullivan is an eighteen-year-old Frank encounters at the IBD. Sullivan is encased in an iron lung, and eventually succumbs to the polio which has already robbed him of his youth. After a successful secondary education, he intended to study English at university and potentially become a poet. His role in the text is to introduce Frank to poetry, and in particular provide a few important maxims for understanding the novel, one of which is that “coming to terms with death is a necessary element in any great poem.” He also serves to temper the sweeter elements of the novel. Rather than relying on clichés about determination being the only factor necessary for survival, Sullivan’s death allows London to concede that life is fundamentally unfair, and that sometimes people die for no good or just reason at all.
ANALYSIS OF THE QUOTES
• He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. (2)
Frank’s evocative description the Golden Age captures his sense of isolation, geographically but particularly in terms of age, compared to his “little maimed” companions. It is a mindset echoed by his father, Meyer, who envisages Australia as a lost tribe on an island.
• …they looked smaller to her, aged by the terror they had suffered, old, shrunken, ill-at-ease. (11)
Elsa’s perspective on her parents is a reflection of her growing maturity. The line dichotomises hers and her parents’ experience of polio; for Elsa it is one characterised by growing strength and self-discovery, whist for her parents the ordeal is characterised by horror, stress and the sense that their daughter is undergoing a formative experience away from them.
• Coming to terms with death is a necessary element in any great poem, Sullivan once said. (19)
Through poetry Frank must come to terms with the death of Sullivan, and Frank and Elsa must come to terms with their loss of innocence and separation from each other.
• I refuse to be their only light. (27)
Frank initially wants to be his own light, and his own “reason for living,” rather than his parents’. However, the text shows that while this feeling is important to growing up, it is ultimately naïve, and that people do need others to live for, as Frank himself learns through his relationship with Elsa, who becomes the “light which swirled around him.”
• Deep in her sad, tight heart, she searched for that little fighting core of survival, of self-love, which she’s always had, and must not now lose. (40-41)
The siege mentality built around the “little fighting core of survival” in Ida is essential to surviving war-torn Hungary. In Australia however it takes Ida much of the novel to leave that mentality, which translates into pride, disdain, and a gnawing sense of isolation.
• He felt it as the weak spot, the broken part, the gap that had let the polio in. (51)
Frank feels the horror of the war as a lingering “gap” or open wound which allows harm to reach him. This sense of incompleteness is found in several moments in the novel, between Frank and Elsa, for example, and Meyer and Olive Penny. It symbolises the fact that people need other people in order to be whole.
• She’d had to get used to, and now she loved, this freedom of choice. Like a man’s. (67)
Olive Penny’s love of a “man’s” freedom positions her as a symbol of a changing Australia in which women will, gradually, achieve greater freedom.
• People kept away from the families of polio victims. (82)
Elsa identifies the alienation at the heart of The Golden Age. For Frank and the Golds, the isolating effects of polio are a reflection of their own cultural alienation.
• Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife. (86)
Meyer, like his son, interprets the world through symbol and metaphor. His understanding of cities as lovers informs his later appreciation of Perth derived from his flirtation with Olive Penny.
• For him this was a city with no past. (89).
Meyer identifies the lack of familiar people in Perth as a stark contrast between that city and Budapest, illustrating the importance of human relationships in creaeting a sense of home or belonging.
• There was a call between them, clear as a bird’s. (97)
The instant connection felt between Olive and Meyer follows his description of Perth suddenly developing a sense of mystery, depth and complexity, starkly illustrating the relationship between people and place in Meyer’s mind.
• Frank knew Elsa’s pride and determination, but her family knew only pity. (112)
Frank’s distaste at Elsa’s family’s inability to see further than her disease reflects his own growing sense of personal identity, brought about in no small part by the ordeal of polio. In The Golden Age, it is a lesson that all characters must learn – that suffering is not the be all and end all but rather an opportunity for growth and rebirth.
• The children who celebrated Christmas at the Golden Age seemed much happier than those who returned at bedtime, exhausted, silent, distant and alone. (116)
Frank views his time at the Golden Age not as a separation or isolation from the real world but as an opportunity to nurture and develop his own internal world. While the children exposed to the outside world come back “exhausted” and “alone,” those who choose to find happiness in difficult circumstances are much “happier.”
• She was his homing point, the place he returned to. (119)
Frank’s view of Elsa as “the place he returned to” is evidenced at the end of the novel also, when as an old man he still finds himself returning to Elsa and the Golden Age as poetic subjects.
• This funny boy – sharp, watchful, personal, not like a boy really, or any boy she’d ever known. (136)
Frank is described by Elsa as unique, and set apart from the other boys she’d known, reflecting his complex history and intellectual brilliance which marks him as a poet.
• There was a light inside her. (141)
Like his son, Meyer associates connection and warmth with light. Just as Frank finds his thoughts gathering around the “light” of Elsa, so too does Meyer find a sense of purpose and belonging through his connection to Olive.
• A tiny lost tribe on the coast of a huge island, faithfully waiting for a ship from the motherland. (149)
Meyer identifies a certain lack of maturity in Australia, seeing it not as a fully-fledged nation-state but rather as a “tiny lost tribe” on a “huge island.” The country, like the characters of The Golden Age, must find a new identity.
• What had been temporary had become settled. What seemed like the end of the world had become the centre. (152)
Meyer finds himself connecting to the city of Perth. What this requires is an entire reorientation of his mind, in which his past in Europe becomes the periphery to his new “centre,” Australia.
• This was her audience. The emigres, the petit bourgeois, the nouveau riche. (168)
Perhaps the closes Ida gets to the intense feeling of connection to Australia which Meyer develops is after her performance, when her initial disdain for the people congratulating her for her performance changes into an acceptance that “She must do her very best” for them.
• Poetry was his way into the world. Poetry had to save him. (197)
Frank’s intense isolation after his separation from Elsa can only be alleviated by poetry, “his way into the world.” Elsa from this point in his life can only exist to him through memory and poetry.
• Elsa was not a girl exactly. More like a spirit, a sort of radiant warrior. (202)
As soon as Frank cannot physically be with Elsa, he sees her more and more as a poetic being, a divine figure of the imagination who will guide his poetry. In this sense their separation was inevitable because Frank never really saw her as an ordinary, flawed human.
• It flashed through his mind that whatever this force was, it would never release him, it would take all of him. He would always be alone. (231)
Frank sees that the poetic nature of his relationship with Elsa means that upon separation he will not be able to have the same connection with anyone else without destroying the purity of his artistic vision.