The Golden Age

by

Joan London

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Sister Penny Character Analysis

The director of the Golden Age, Sister Penny is a firm and competent nurse, managing not only the physical but also the social and emotional needs of the children in her care. It’s largely due to her influence that the children see the hospital as a cheerful “watering hole.” Sister Penny is at once ascetic–she lives in an austere room in the hospital and has very few material desires–and very sensual; she routinely takes lovers, an unconventional practice for a woman in the 1950s. Sister Penny’s lovers show her desire for human connection, but her refusal to marry any of them indicates the value she places on solitude and freedom. Ultimately, Sister Penny is most fulfilled by her work, which she views as a calling and an art, comparable to Ida’s vocation as a pianist. Although she has a comfortable relationship with her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, nursing feels more natural to Sister Penny than motherhood; this is an interesting sentiment in a novel that largely lionizes relationships between mothers and children, and shows that while motherhood is often the most fulfilling aspect of a character’s life, it by no means has to be.

Sister Penny Quotes in The Golden Age

The The Golden Age quotes below are all either spoken by Sister Penny or refer to Sister Penny. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Survival Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Europa edition of The Golden Age published in 2014.
13. Meyer Walks Home Quotes

She was vibrant with life and yet she was solitary. Unburdened by domesticity. She was brave, even audacious. Kept her disappointments in their place. How had a woman like that come to live alone?

Related Characters: Meyer Gold (speaker), Sister Penny
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:
15. Christmas Quotes

She was startled by Ida’s ease and precision. Her concentration, her accuracy, reminded Olive of the skills that were her personal exultation, of a good surgeon at work, or nurses laying out a body. Her own deftness and judgment.

Related Characters: Sister Penny (speaker), Ida Gold
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:
28. The Hunch Quotes

He had an image suddenly of sitting with her at a table in one of the little cafes overlooking Lake Balaton […] around it, brothers, their girlfriends, guests from Budapest. The peace of couples who have been swimming and then taken a siesta together in the afternoon […] such a capacity she had for living. A purity about her, as engrossed in life as an insect going about its tasks, embedded in all that is natural.

Related Characters: Meyer Gold (speaker), Sister Penny
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Golden Age LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Golden Age PDF

Sister Penny Character Timeline in The Golden Age

The timeline below shows where the character Sister Penny appears in The Golden Age. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1. Light
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Frank briefly recalls his arrival at the hospital. Even though Sister Penny was friendly and almost naively cheerful to him, he knew it was impossible to test... (full context)
9. The Dark Night
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Frank likes to imitate Sister Penny but Elsa, who adores her, protests. Sister Penny touches the children without hesitation, while the... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
...all is well at the hospital. She knows they’ll share a cup of tea with Sister Penny , the only one home since all the nurses have gone to a dance. Elsa... (full context)
10. The Loving Body
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Sister Penny is lying on the couch in her office. All the nurses are back from the... (full context)
Vocation Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Sister Penny has had many lovers. She feels that they’ve all understood her, knowing that she has... (full context)
Vocation Theme Icon
Sister Penny briefly had a husband, Alan Penny. However, he was killed at the beginning of the... (full context)
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Sister Penny began taking lovers among her patients, many of whom suffered debilitating injuries and had lost... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Although Sister Penny was discreet, Enid knew about the lovers. In revenge, on her deathbed she bequeathed her... (full context)
Vocation Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Although Sister Penny only has a small room now, she’s very content. As a young woman she though... (full context)
13. Meyer Walks Home
Vocation Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
As Meyer is leaving he runs into Sister Penny , who’s dressed up for a play at her daughter’s college. Meyer’s always been drawn... (full context)
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...landscape he normally considers harsh and unwelcoming. He attributes the change to his interaction with Sister Penny , whom he considers fundamentally like himself, “vibrant with life” but at the same time... (full context)
15. Christmas
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Sister Penny has Christmas lunch with Elizabeth Ann at the house of her friend, Gillian. Sister Penny... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Returning to the Golden Age, Sister Penny is inexplicably pleased to see Meyer. She feels that he’s much like here and that... (full context)
Vocation Theme Icon
Sister Penny , who rarely rests or listens to music, is struck by Ida’s excellence, which reminds... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
When Meyer and Ida return home, Ida asks what he thinks of Sister Penny . Meyer equivocates, not wanting to admit that he feels drawn to her. Even though... (full context)
17. The Sea
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
To cheer the children up after the heat wave, all the nurses except Sister Penny take them on an excursion to the shore. They set up camp in an old... (full context)
18. A Long Cool Drink
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Sister Penny always leaves the door of the Golden Age open. While the children are at the... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Meyer tells Sister Penny that he’s beginning to understand Perth, meanwhile admiring her “incongruous” beauty–he’s surprised to find someone... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Looking at Meyer, Sister Penny is struck by the sense that he’s lost a lot. She’s reminded of Ida, whose... (full context)
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Meyer asks Sister Penny if she has a home of her own, and she tells him that she lives... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Meyer drives away from the Golden Age still thinking about Sister Penny . He doesn’t feel like he’s doing anything wrong; the “meaninglessness” he experienced during the... (full context)
19. Lidja
Survival Theme Icon
...husband, is still away a week past the appointed date for her return. One evening, Sister Penny announces sadly that Lidja has drowned in a freak sailing accident. She doesn’t pray or... (full context)
22. The Concert
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Sister Penny watches Meyer, noting how it always seems like he’s watching events from a distance. She’s... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Sister Penny introduces Ida, mispronouncing the names of all her awards but saying sincerely how honored she... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Vocation Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Ida lowers her fingers onto the keyboard, reminding Sister Penny of a surgeon beginning his work. During her three pieces, which she plays “bare-armed like... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Meyer watches Sister Penny usher the audience towards the drinks. In the midst of the crowd, it seems like... (full context)
24. Ann Lee
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...leg and has to go to the hospital in Perth. Scolded by the hospital governors, Sister Penny locks the doors at night, the nurses check the beds carefully, and all the children... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
One afternoon while Sister Penny is out, a strange man arrives at the Golden Age. It turns out to be... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Sister Penny tries to persuade Mr. Lee that Ann Lee needs to stay at the hospital to... (full context)
25. Blue Air
Vocation Theme Icon
Restless, Sister Penny takes the afternoon off and visits one of her longstanding lovers, Tucker. He’s a polio... (full context)
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...at home in his house and in the grassland surrounding it, and because of this Sister Penny feels at peace when she sees him. While she sleeps, she wonders about the cause... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
In the morning, Sister Penny has a feeling that something is wrong and desperately wants to call the Golden Age,... (full context)
26. The Third Country
Survival Theme Icon
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
In turn, Sister Penny has to explain herself to the governors and account for the lax rules that allowed... (full context)
27. Poetry
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
...“lack of faith” in him, refusing to help him when he needed it most. Even Sister Penny didn’t argue fiercely enough to keep him and Elsa together. He knows that the governors... (full context)
28. The Hunch
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...been written and wants to know what will happen. True to his intuition, he sees Sister Penny ’s car parked across the road from the ocean. She’s standing on the curb in... (full context)
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
Meyer and Sister Penny smile at each other without saying anything. To Meyer, she looks like a “big, strong... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Vocation Theme Icon
Sister Penny informs Meyer that she’s moving to Darwin to accept a new position. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Ann... (full context)
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...about Frank, who is too quiet and seems to have lost some of his confidence. Sister Penny attributes this to his longing for Elsa, saying they shouldn’t be kept apart. (full context)
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...they will soon part and probably never see each other again. He wants to tell Sister Penny how much she’s meant to him. He says that she has taught him “how to... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Meyer and Sister Penny get into their respective cars and drive away. Sister Penny feels light and relieved in... (full context)