Many of the novel’s characters experience feelings of crippling isolation. Suffering from a socially stigmatized disease, the children at the Golden Age are cut off from their family and friends. Meanwhile, adults such as Meyer and Ida Gold feel bewildered and out of place in the unfamiliar society to which they’ve been forced to immigrate. At the same time, many of the novel’s characters crave and value solitude. Frank constantly seeks out his own space in the crowded hospital, while his father is only able to reflect deeply when alone. Sister Penny rejects traditional familial arrangements altogether in favor of a solitary life. The novel establishes a tension between unwelcome isolation, which is forced upon many characters, and peaceful solitude, which many characters value and seek out; at many points it seems that solitude will prove elusive and isolation inescapable. However, the end of the novel embraces a positive concept of solitude, arguing that it’s possible to be alone while feeling genuinely comfortable and at home.
Many characters feel deeply alienated, not only by those around them but by the very society in which they live. All the children at the Golden Age have recently emerged from the terrifying Isolation Ward, in which they overcame the onset of polio. The Isolation Ward is an extremely painful and frightening experience, during which parents and doctors can provide little help. For the recuperating children, the Isolation Ward is a kind of bogeyman, a shared trauma which no one can forget but no one wants to talk about. The children are also isolated from their families, both physically and emotionally. In the new and challenging environment, most mature rapidly, a direct result of feeling alienated from their families. Reunions on visiting days only “reminded you how much you had grown apart.” Even in its physical setting, the Golden Age is characterized by its isolation. In her initial description of the hospital, London notes that it is “bounded by four flat roads, like an island,” which shows “its apartness, a natural quarantine.” The neighboring children never talk to the patients, because they’re frightened and disgusted by their disease.
Meyer and Ida Gold feel deeply isolated as well, not just because they’re trying to adapt to a new and unfamiliar society but also because they were expelled so violently from the society they considered their own. The disillusionment of the Holocaust makes it harder to feel secure in Australia; even when recalling their happy childhoods, the Golds are conscious that “they’d been guests, after all, in that country. As they were guests in this one.” Meyer doubts he will ever fully assimilate to his new home. When he looks at the flat and arid Australian terrain and compares it to the lush fields and forests of his youth, he “had a suspicion that never again would he feel at home as he once had.” He’s experiencing not just nostalgia for Hungary, but deep cynicism about the possibility of ever overcoming isolation. After his experiences in the Holocaust, he feels that “to love a place, to imagine yourself belonging to it, was a lie…especially for a Jew.”
However, the very characters who fear isolation are often those who intensely desire solitude. Frank views solitude as the luxury of a secure life. Living in ghettos, camps, and hospitals, he and his parents have spent much of their lives in suffocating closeness to other people, which Frank describes as living “like animals in a burrow.” In contrast, he loves the “clean [and] wise” lifestyle of his family when they have some space to themselves. Meyer feels similarly, saying that “only solitude was natural to him now.” He’s attracted to Sister Penny because to him she seems fundamentally “solitary” and “unburdened by domesticity.” In Meyer’s eyes, and in Sister Penny’s own conception of herself, solitude is a form of liberation.
At the end of the novel, Frank says that he “fell in love with many people, but always lived alone.” In his adult life, Frank has maintained a healthy degree of solitude while also pursuing rich relationships with other people. When Elsa’s son Jack visits him, he describes similar traits in his mother, who always insisted on independence despite her disability. Jack remembers covertly watching his mother struggle up a sand dune, for example, wanting to rush to her assistance but knowing she would prefer him to respect her solitude.
As many of the novel’s final encounters demonstrate, characters overcome feelings of isolation while simultaneous achieving contentment through solitude. Meyer spends most of the novel feeling alienated by the Australian landscape, but during a thunderstorm at the end he suddenly envisions “a tiny farm” on which he could “grow fruit trees and vegetables, feed his family from the land,” just as his own father once did. Finally, Meyer is achieving a sense of rootedness and continuity which he thought would never return after the Holocaust.
Similarly, throughout the novel Meyer and Sister Penny are attracted to each other in large part due to each one’s appreciation of the other’s desire to be alone. Their connection shows the ironic possibility of solitude to bring people together. After Frank’s expulsion from the Golden Age they have a chance encounter on the beach, in which both parties recognize the opportunity for an affair but part without pursuing it. In this final episode, they achieve a shared understanding while preserving their solitude and distance from each other.
Separated from Elsa after their expulsion from the hospital, Frank is so isolated and depressed that his mother orchestrates their reunion. In the chaos of a thunderstorm during the Golds’ visit, Frank and Elsa escape into the bushes to embrace, describing these stolen moments as a form of solitude. Importantly, they appreciate their togetherness even while they know that separation is imminent; this demonstrates that relief from isolation doesn’t preclude the embrace of solitude. In the epilogue, Frank welcomes a visit from Elsa’s son Jack, which brings him closer to the woman from whom he’s been separated for most of his life. While both men like and respect each other, they maintain reserve and distance during the interview. Their behavior shows their mutual value of solitude, even during a moment of reunion.
For much of the novel, isolation and solitude stand in conflict with one another. Most of the characters are frightened by the experience or prospect of isolation, but they also feel oppressed and suffocated by constant proximity to others, driving them to seek solitude. Poignant but hopeful, the novel’s final moments depict characters overcoming isolation while preserving beneficial solitude; though these episodes, the novel argues that it’s fundamentally important and achievable to find such a balance.
Isolation vs. Solitude ThemeTracker
Isolation vs. Solitude Quotes in The Golden Age
The Golden Age […] stood alone, bounded by four flat roads, like an island, which in its present incarnation seemed to symbolize its apartness, a natural quarantine.
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.
Sometimes his parents forgot themselves over drinks with Hungarian friends and spoke of the country they once knew […] then they fell silent. They’d been guests, after all, in that country. As they were guests in this one.
It seemed sadder somehow. He knew [the babies] cried because they were alone. But visitors reminded you of how much you had grown apart from them. It was almost a relief when they went home.
Over and over again, Frank thought, he, Meyer and Ida had been forced to live within breathing distance of strangers, like animals in a burrow. Knowing about their underclothes, the smells and habits of their bodies. The little meannesses, the same old jokes, the sulks and temper flurries […]
He had a suspicion that never again would he feel at home as he once had. Never again on this earth. And another suspicion: that to love a place, to imagine yourself belonging to it, was a lie, a fiction. It was a vanity. Especially for a Jew.
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?
She played very fast, bare-armed like a workman, with the conviction of one who must finish a job. The dress enthralled them, its blue-black shining folds, and Ida’s strong white arms, her black hair in a roll, her faintly slanted Hungarian eyes were inexpressibly exotic. They knew that wherever she came from, she must have been famous there.
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.
The vision seemed to come to him out of the sky, unfolding like a cloud or flock of tiny birds, the outline spreading and contracting. A smallholding, a tiny farm. With ploughing, fertilizing, watering, he could pasture a goat on a block like this, grow fruit trees and vegetables, feed his family from the land. It was what his father had done.