When Frank, Elsa, or any of the children at the Golden Age experience the onset of polio, they’re sent to the Isolation Ward—a terrifying experience that at once mirrors Frank’s experience during the Holocaust and represents the fear, loneliness, and helplessness that accompany a potentially deadly disease. There, the children are confused and in terrible pain, and, since there’s no treatment for polio, their parents aren’t allowed inside. Even the nurses wear masks and gloves in case of contagion. Elsa says of the Isolation Ward that “after it was over, like a terrible dream, you couldn’t remember much about it. But you were not the same.” The Isolation Ward is an experience so scarring that none of the children can forget it or bring themselves to speak of it; in other words, it produces a similar effect to that of the Holocaust on Frank and his parents. In fact, the children’s feelings in the Isolation Ward almost exactly mirror Frank’s paralysis and helplessness while hiding in Julia’s attic. The Isolation Ward epitomizes the similarities between the two traumas Frank and his parents face and underlines the similar threats such hardships pose to the family’s survival.
The Isolation Ward is also a notable foil to the Golden Age. Both are institutional facilities connected to polio. However, while the Golden Age represents optimism and community, the Isolation Ward symbolizes polio’s capacity to harm the body and the mind. Moreover, when children at the Golden Age experience loneliness, they often connect it to the overwhelming and frightening isolation they experienced in the aptly named Isolation Ward. At the beginning of the novel, the terror and isolation inspired by the ward seem inescapable to the children. By the end, their memories of the Isolation Ward are slowly fading away—a signal that they are beginning to recover.
The Isolation Ward Quotes in The Golden Age
When at last she’d left the Isolation Ward and her parents were allowed to sit by her bed, they looked smaller to her, aged by the terror they had suffered, old, shrunken, ill-at-ease. Something had happened to her which she didn’t yet understand. As if she’d gone away and come back distant from everybody.