The Golden Age

by

Joan London

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The Isolation Ward Symbol Analysis

The Isolation Ward Symbol Icon

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

The The Golden Age quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Isolation Ward. 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.
3. Elsa Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Elsa Briggs (speaker), Margaret Briggs, Jack Briggs
Related Symbols: The Isolation Ward
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
9. The Dark Night Quotes

After it was over, like a terrible dream, you couldn’t remember much about it. But you were not the same.

Related Characters: Elsa Briggs (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Isolation Ward
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Golden Age LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Golden Age PDF

The Isolation Ward Symbol Timeline in The Golden Age

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Isolation Ward appears in The Golden Age. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
3. Elsa
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
...to come visit. Elsa remembers listening for her own mother’s footsteps all day in the Isolation Ward . To Elsa, the sky and her mother have become “entwined,” since both are so... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Despite this comparison, Elsa remembers that when she left the Isolation Ward and her parents were allowed to sit by her, they looked “smaller” and “shrunken” by... (full context)
6. The Poet
Survival Theme Icon
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
...at the IDB; it’s a big hospital in the middle of Perth, much larger than the Golden Age . Most of the patients are young adults with a penchant for dark humor; young... (full context)
9. The Dark Night
Survival Theme Icon
Elsa feels relieved to be at the Golden Age . The terrifying and painful nights in the Isolation Ward still feel very close to... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
In a flashback, Elsa recalls her time in the Isolation Ward . Although she prayed, God didn’t answer her. One night she wakes up in terrible... (full context)
14. Margaret in Her Garden
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Survival Theme Icon
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Parenthood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...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. (full context)