The Golden Age

by

Joan London

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The Golden Age: 20. The Queen Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Queen is scheduled to visit Perth in March, but her visit might be cancelled because of the rising number of polio cases. The children at the Golden Age feel vaguely guilty, as if they’re responsible for the trouble. Eventually, the visit isn’t cancelled after all, but the Queen and Duke aren’t allowed to touch or eat anything in the city and will sleep on their ship.
Even though they’re necessary, the precautions make the children feel like pariahs. It’s a reminder of how understandably terrified of polio the community is; it’s also a reminder of how hard it will be for those stricken by the disease to reintegrate into the community.
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The children take a field trip to see the city decorated and transformed in the Queen’s honor. Everyone starts to pay more attention to the large photograph of the Queen and Duke that hangs in the hospital. She’s familiar to them because her face is everywhere, but at the same time she’s too beautiful and glamorous to seem real.
The Queen’s mingled familiarity and glamour is reminiscent of Elsa’s earlier sense that her real mother is accompanied by flawlessly angelic one. However, it’s the flawed, corporeal mother who cares for and protects Elsa; in this sense the analogy is a reminder that no matter how much they glorify her, the Queen has no real effect on the children’s lives.
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Everyone starts to improve themselves, as if in the Queen’s honor. Fabio stops wetting the bed, and Frank and Elsa walk everywhere instead of using their wheelchairs. Meanwhile, Meyer is skeptical of the obsession with the royals, especially coming from citizens of a peripheral colony. He’s permanently disillusioned with monarchism.
It’s understandable that the visit, and all the pomp and tradition it entails, seems ridiculous to Meyer. He’s just witnessed firsthand how inadequate these old rituals are to prevent war and barbarity.
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Susan Bennett keeps a scrapbook of the royal visit. She’s especially excited because her parents, high-ranking public servants, are going to a garden party with the Queen. When they come to visit, Susan’s parents, Rodney and Tikka, are glamorous and well-groomed, although Elsa notes that Susan’s bathing suit is even shabbier than her own. Rodney and Tikka are very excited about the upcoming party and tell Susan loudly that they thought they wouldn’t be invited, having a daughter with polio. They tell her they’ll drop by after the party and Susan waits up past her bedtime, but they don’t come until later in the week. Susan is disappointed with them.
Elsa’s quiet observation says a lot about the Bennetts’ parenting style, as well as the values of those who are too obsessed with the royal visit. Frank wants his parents to become more Australian so he can feel more at home, but the behavior of Susan’s parents—integrated and successful within Australian society, and obviously ashamed of their daughter’s condition—shows that such a single-minded focus on fitting in is good for no one, especially not children.
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The children go into the city to watch the Queen’s parade through the city; all they see is her gloved arm waving mechanically, and the Duke’s white smile. Even Frank is excited by the pageantry.
Frank’s childish delight shows how different he is from his parents, able to enjoy the excitement of European royalty without being reminded of its failure during the war.
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Meanwhile, Ida is practicing frantically for the concert she’s agreed to give at the Golden Age, as well as having a new dress made by an immigrant friend. Meyer is happy to hear her playing again, and reports to Frank that she’s very nervous, not having performed since they were living in a refugee camp in Vienna. Since his new job is flexible, Meyer visits Frank all the time now. Tanned and healthy, he looks increasingly Australian and nothing like his son. Frank thinks he looks different, and Meyer says the past seems farther away. He’s finally settling into Australian life, rather than seeing it as a temporary arrangement.
Both Ida and Meyer are a little happier and more active than they were at the beginning of the novel. However, it’s notable that Ida achieves this by retrieving (to some extent) the art and diligence that defined her pre-war life. On the other hand, Meyer completely sheds his urbane businessman persona. He’s taking on Australian attributes and beginning to superficially fit in, even though he doesn’t quite feel emotionally at home.
Themes
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To everyone’s excitement, one of the bouquets presented to the Queen is sent, second-hand, to the Golden Age. The Queen returns to England uninfected, although a number of Perth residents contract polio in the next weeks, possibly from standing in crowds to see her. Meanwhile, the Jewish scientist Jonah Salk is gaining attention for the polio vaccination he’s developing. A year later, the vaccination will be ready for use, and summer polio epidemics will be eradicated.
The novel usually focuses on specific events, but for a moment it zooms out to consider the polio epidemic as a whole. While it’s obviously good that a vaccine is in the works, it makes all the children’s suffering seem meaningless and avoidable, a fluke of history. The inability to rationalize the disease is similar to Meyer and Ida’s inability to find sense in their ordeal during the Holocaust.
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