The Golden Age

by

Joan London

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The Golden Age: 26. The Third Country Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elsa feels a change is coming over her, mostly in regard to her feelings for Frank. He’s become so familiar that his face is like a “mirror,” and she’s always longing to be with him. Frank says that this is love; to Elsa’s surprise, he’s not shy about love but wants to talk about it all the time. Elsa and Frank do their rehabilitation exercises together and seem to be progressing more rapidly than before.
Being with Frank introduces Elsa to an emotiveness which, in her reserved and often terse family, she’s never experienced. It’s notable that their wonder and happiness contributes to their recovery, suggesting that, to some extent, physical strength depends on mental strength.
Themes
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Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Frank tells Elsa about hiding in the ceiling and living in refugee camps, even though Elsa can’t quite appreciate the magnitude of the disasters he’s lived through. In turn, Elsa recounts all Margaret’s stories about her childhood, and tells Frank about growing up in her rural neighborhood. Frank thinks of a new poem to articulate all these feelings; he’ll call it “The Third Country,” and it will be a collection addressing both the war and polio, and how these “two devils” brought him to Elsa.
While the novel abounds with subtle comparisons, here Frank makes an explicit connection between the two traumas through which he’s lived. Unlike his mother, who’s at times overwhelmed by the compounded tragedies in their lives, through his poetic vocation and love for Elsa Frank is able to confront, and to some extent move past, these challenges.
Themes
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In the darkness after lights out, Frank scribbles the first lines to the new poem. Then, knowing Sister Penny isn’t there, he sneaks out to visit Elsa. This is the night he’s discovered in her bed.
This night, which marks Frank’s progress towards mental recovery, will also change him from a child to a teenager in the eyes of those around him. It’s a reminder that even milestones of progress can have bittersweet consequences.
Themes
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After this incident, the hospital governors expel Frank and Elsa from the Golden Age. First, they question Elsa intensely, implying that Frank had forced his attentions on her and trying to put all the blame on him. Elsa refuses to exculpate herself and feels deeply insulted by the men’s insinuations.
Elsa’s indignation highlights both the purity of her relationship with Frank and its ambiguity–the inability to fit it into categories like friendship or romance. In contrast, the governors are able to label the relationship and to impute bad motives on its participants, especially Frank. Unburdened by convention, Elsa has a much more acute emotional understanding of her relationship than do her elders. 
Themes
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In turn, Sister Penny has to explain herself to the governors and account for the lax rules that allowed a boy to sneak into the Girls’ ward. She tries to explain the unique nature of Frank and Elsa’s bond, but is aware she’s making the situation even worse. She knows she should start looking for another job.
It’s notable that Sister Penny–who herself maintains an unorthodox love life–is the only one who understands Frank and Elsa. Through her, the novel argues that conventional ideas about what kind of love is acceptable do more to degrade people than protect them.
Themes
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Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon