The Golden Age

by

Joan London

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The Golden Age: 14. Margaret in Her Garden Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Margaret spends the morning before her visit to the hospital doing chores in the stiflingly hot house. As an excuse to go outside, she waters the lawn. The task reminds her of a job she used to have at a post-office in the desert south of Perth. When she walked outside her office, she felt the overwhelming solitude of her position, but she “did not feel alone.” While Elsa was in the Isolation Ward, Margaret spent the nights pacing the grass and feeling like “she was lying on the heart of a great animal.” Being among the vast workings of nature comforts her.
For Margaret, being in nature allows her to enjoy solitude without feeling alone. Even in times of crisis, like the onset of Elsa’s polio, this solitude has comforted her more than being among her own family. Her craving for solitude likens her to Meyer, who’s ill at ease in his new society; however, it also contrasts with his anxieties about becoming too isolated. 
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Margaret sees her neighbor Raymond’s truck in the next driveway, which reminds her that he’s delivering his produce to the markets in Perth, not far from the Golden Age. Bravely, she walks over and asks for a lift to the hospital. She’s desperate to see Elsa because Jack, her husband, has just told her he can’t drive her to the hospital that Sunday. Instead, he has to fix Nance’s fence.
Although Margaret is normally shy and deferential, Elsa’s polio has made her bold in ways she could never have imagined before. Just as the disease forces Elsa to develop new wisdom and fortitude, it makes her mother into a more daring and independent woman.
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On the ride into Perth, Margaret feels shy being alone in the car with Raymond. Before Elsa got polio, she wasn’t so bold and wouldn’t have asked for a lift. Now, she’s learned to demand what she needs and to shoulder past the fear and contempt that polio inspires in the community. Margaret remembers that, when Elsa was in the Isolation Ward, their pastor refused to come to the hospital to bless her. She’s proud of Elsa for getting better without his help.
Margaret credits Elsa’s recovery to her daughter’s inner strength, while Elsa believes she pulled through out of worry for her mother. Mother and daughter have both lost some of their religious conviction during Elsa’s stint in the Isolation Ward, but they’ve become more confident in their own strength and capacities.
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Reading in bed, Elsa recognizes Margaret’s footsteps before she sees her mother. Although she knows she should be happy to see her, surprise makes her unsettled and she questions her mother about how she got there, who is taking care of the baby, and what Jack will say. Elsa feels as though she’s looking at her over-eager mother from a long distance, and she’s a little peeved that her mother has interrupted her favorite part of the day, when she’s used to being alone in the ward and reading.
Just like her mother, Elsa looks forward to parts of the day when she can be solitary and at peace. Although this is a habit they share, it ironically makes Elsa feel more distant from her mother. This is especially true since Elsa has been separated from her family for a long time; as a result of polio, she’s become more accustomed to some solitude and independence, and it’s frustrating to return abruptly to her old role as a daughter.
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Margaret stops talking and Elsa relaxes a little. Her connection to her mother doesn’t rest on language; Margaret is like a “mother animal” and always knows what’s wrong and what to do without talking about it. Meanwhile, Margaret feels that Elsa is maturing rapidly in the hospital and growing away from her. She’s sad that she can’t do anything to help her daughter recuperate.
By comparing Elsa and Margaret’s bond to that of two animals, the novel emphasizes its primal, incontrovertible strength. However, such a bond has its limits; while Margaret recognizes immediately that Elsa is growing mature and independent as a result of polio, her parental intuition doesn’t give her the tools to close the distance she sees growing between her and her daughter.
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Related Quotes
As the nurses return to the ward from their tea, Margaret collects her things quickly, afraid of getting in trouble despite Elsa’s brusque assurances that they won’t mind. As she leaves, Elsa reflects that her mother has to get used to the hard truth that only she, Elsa, can “deal with what had happened to her.” Still, she remembers that when she woke up in the Isolation Ward, her first thought was that her worry for her mother had kept her alive.
Elsa is torn between her intense love for her mother and her growing understanding that battling polio is an independent, solitary task. This tension manifests itself in a certain tactlessness towards Margaret and her anxious habits, although normally Elsa is very tender with her mother.
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As she walks to the train station, Margaret worries about facing Jack. She knows he’ll be deaf to her excuses and call her crazy, an accusation that always makes her cry.
Polio has strained Margaret’s bond with Elsa, but this bond still much more intimate than her marital relationship. Even though it frustrates her, Elsa understands and respects Margaret’s devotion and capacity as a mother; Jack views these qualities as evidence of instability.
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Margaret loves all her children equally, but she has a special connection to Elsa; they have “grown up together,” Elsa as a child and Margaret as a parent. Margaret remembers visiting her father in a nursing home to announce her marriage to Jack. Her father had said he hoped her husband wasn’t bad tempered; even though she knew that’s exactly what Jack was, and even though her father had always been bad-tempered himself, Margaret was pregnant with Elsa and too “deliriously cheerful” to be angry or worried. Elsa’s birth made everything right in Margaret’s life. Now, her sudden illness feels like a curse in a fairy tale.
Margaret’s fulfillment as a mother is much greater than that which she’s derived from relationships with the men in her life. While London imbues Margaret with almost preternatural abilities as a mother, it’s important to note that she’s not endorsing a conservative view of femininity. On the contrary, she identifies motherhood as a source of strength that allows women to defy men.
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At the Golden Age, Frank sneaks out and whispers to Elsa through the door of the girls’ ward. He remarks that Elsa looks nothing like her mother, but Elsa doesn’t want to talk about Margaret. Still, Frank is delighted that Elsa casually says she’ll see him the next day. To him, this is proof that “they belonged to no one but themselves.”
Elsa’s friendship helps Frank achieve the balance between isolation and solitude that so many characters struggle to find. Elsa makes him forget about the other people by whom they’re constantly surrounded; on the other hand, her presence keeps him from feeling lonely.
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