As pre-adolescent children, Frank and his fellow patients at the Golden Age are materially and emotionally dependent on their parents. Although familial relationships are often fraught throughout the novel, London emphasizes the fierce, unconditional love and devotion that exist between children and their parents. However, all the children at the Golden Age are separated from their families and grappling with a disease their parents can’t fully understand and against which they are powerless. As a result, many of the children, especially Frank and Elsa, develop a premature emotional estrangement from their families. One of the novel’s great preoccupations is the tension that arises when children both long for and chafe against a traditionally childlike relationship with their parents. While this tension shows the ability of traumatic experiences like polio to undermine family structures, the book’s main characters, Frank and Elsa, eventually develop satisfying relationships with their parents, in which both parties feel and express love for each other while also maintaining a certain distance. The novel’s endorsement of these relationships argues that while it’s bittersweet for parents to relinquish intimacy with their children, doing so is necessary to accommodate the children’s growing maturity, especially when they are facing exceptional challenges at a young age.
London frequently and touchingly depicts the tender relationships between the young patients of the Golden Age and their worried parents. In her first appearance, Elsa comforts one of the babies, Rayma, instinctively understanding that she’s longing for her mother. Elsa notes that the children spend much of their days missing their parents, and that they can all “identify their mother’s footsteps.” This initial scene highlights the instinctual bond between parents and children.
One of the novel’s most compelling vignettes describes the arrival of Ann Lee’s father, who lives too far away to visit often. London lingers over the “look of complete satisfaction” on Ann Lee’s face when her father picks her up, and the way her father squints “in the pained way that a man did when he was trying not to cry” after seeing her walk. Similarly, Frank greatly respects his friend Sullivan Backhouse’s father, a powerful and prosperous man who nevertheless “had eyes for no one” but his son on his frequent visits to the ward. When Frank encounters Mr. Backhouse after Sullivan’s sudden death, London describes the older man’s dignified grief in elegiac, almost heroic, terms.
Elsa and her mother, Margaret, also share an instinctive understanding and sympathy, which is especially notable given Margaret’s strained relationship with her insensitive husband, Jack. In the Isolation Ward, Elsa reminds herself that she has to survive because otherwise “her mother would also die.” Both Elsa and Margaret feel deeply nostalgic for the pre-polio days when they shared in housework and childcare, clearly viewing their relationship as the most important in the family, even stronger than Margaret’s with her husband. Brash and impatient, Ida Gold isn’t a demure and appealing mother like Margaret; her ceaseless advocacy on Frank’s behalf makes her disliked by some (the nurses refer to her as “Princess Ida”). However, London lionizes her steadfastness, making it clear that however unconventional or unsightly her devotion might be, it’s no less valuable.
However, separated from their families and fighting an often-incurable disease, the children realize both how responsible they are for their parents’ happiness and how fundamentally powerless their parents are to protect them. In order to cope with these frightening realizations, many of the children—especially Frank and Elsa—are often frustrated with their parents and desire greater independence. While all the children wait eagerly for their families to visit the ward, Sister Penny remarks that they’re usually agitated or unhappy after visiting with parents who are increasingly distant from their daily lives. In one episode, Margaret spontaneously hitchhikes all day to visit Elsa. When she arrives, both mother and daughter feel disconnected from each other, Margaret worrying that “her daughter would outgrow her” because of their separation and Elsa feeling that Margaret’s fretting “would only hold her back” from recovery. Whenever she sees Margaret, Elsa feels that “there was another mother waiting for her, blurred…with an angel’s perfect understanding.” In this poignant rumination, she expresses her growing independence from her actual mother and her wish to be protected and understood as a child, if only by an imaginary parent.
Frank similarly both looks forward to and dreads his mother’s visits; he says he’s always happy when she leaves. Watching the older Sullivan put on a brave face to comfort his own father, Frank notices his friend’s dutiful acceptance of the “huge responsibility” of comforting his father. Although younger than Sullivan, Frank is determined not to be his parents’ “only light,” and instead wants to be his “own reason for living.”
All the children are intensely aware that, unlike childhood challenges they faced before their disease, “their success and failure in overcoming polio was up to them.” Because of this consciousness, the children can’t feel happy within the traditional relationships their parents try to perpetuate, no matter how nostalgic they are for the less complicated days of their pre-polio childhood. While the children’s forced independence from their parents is sad and frightening, many of them, namely Frank and Elsa, resolve this tension by building new relationships that respect their maturity while allowing both parties to support each other emotionally.
While Margaret spends most of the novel wishing for a return to her close relationship with Elsa, she eventually embraces her daughter’s newfound independence and fights to preserve it. When her imperious sister-in-law, Nance, decrees that Elsa should plan to live at home and go to secretarial school, Margaret summons the courage to announce that Elsa can and will become a doctor, even though she knows such a career will propel her daughter away from home and from her mother, a provincial housewife. Meanwhile, faced with Frank’s depression after his expulsion from the Golden Age, Ida realizes that she alone cannot heal him, and astutely reunites him with Elsa. Ida acknowledges and accepts that the parent-child relationship is no longer entirely central to Frank’s life, and that he has other relationships that she doesn’t try—or desire—to fully understand.
Of course, not all families arrive at this healthy balance. Despite Ann Lee’s evident closeness with her father, Sister Penny is devastated when he takes her away from the hospital because she’ll never learn to walk properly at home; her parents choose to maintain their previous closeness to their child over facilitating her full recovery. On the other hand, Sister Penny is proud that her own daughter, Elizabeth Ann, is competent and independent, but she remarks ruefully that she feels more like “a friendly aunt” than a mother. When Elizabeth Ann marries into an aggressively conventional family, Sister Penny feels the sting of disownment.
The necessity of growing apart from one’s parents as one grows up, and the simultaneous desire to preserve an intimate familial bond, is a nearly universal dilemma. While most people experience this conflict during adolescence and adulthood, the novel explores this tension among children whose maturation has been accelerated by a terrible disease. London uses these extenuating circumstances to render this issue in especially poignant and striking terms; in doing so, she directs the reader to reconsider a fairly commonplace aspect of growing up.
Parenthood and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Parenthood and Growing Up 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.
Sometimes even now in the Golden Age, after her mother visited, Elsa had the funny feeling that there was another mother waiting for her, blurred, gentle, beautiful as an angel, with an angel’s perfect understanding.
He felt her reverence for music and literature was theatrical, deliberate, and set them even more apart from everyone else.
Why do I refuse it? he thought, wheeling off. His parents, he knew, regarded his lost legs as one more tragedy they had to bear. I refuse to be their only light. I want to be my own reason for living.
It was the beginning of himself. Up until then he hadn’t really felt sad or frightened, his mother had done that for him. As long as she was there, he didn’t have to fear. He was part of her, and like a mother cat she had attended to every part of him.
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.
Margaret grieved that her daughter had to carry this burden. Elsa, each time she saw her, had become more adult. She had lost her childhood. If she didn’t see Elsa more often, didn’t pay her close attention, Margaret wouldn’t keep up with her. Her daughter would outgrow her.
Frank felt it as a relief. When his mother was at the piano she was distant from him. For once she took her eyes off him […] Somehow he knew that what she did was very good. In this role he had respect for her, and gratitude. It seemed to justify everything, their foreignness, their victimhood in the other country. It brought honor to them.
Ida stood still. It felt like the time when the tanks rolled in, and you thought, This can’t be happening. Everything becomes provisional. She walked straight out of the house to the phone box on the corner and rang Margaret Briggs.
Her parents never said a word about her expulsion from the Golden Age. Nothing could affect their shining gaze on Elsa. But they hadn’t tried to stick up for her, they hadn’t saved her. She saw them differently. They had no power. They cared what other people thought.