The novel devotes much attention to bodies both weak and strong. Polio has transformed the bodies of the children at the Golden Age, limiting their motility for the rest of their lives and rendering them “deformed” and “incapable” in the eyes of their community. However, in order to fight the disease and to build new lives during their recovery, the children develop a mental and emotional maturity that notably contrasts with the frailty of their bodies and the social expectations for children and polio victims. At the same time, the novel often dwells on the bodies of its adult female characters, namely Ida, Margaret, and Sister Penny. While rarely praising conventional feminine attributes like beauty, the novel repeatedly points out their physical strength and competence. In this case, the women’s bodies express their exceptional agency, tenacity, and ability to overcome obstacles–all attributes that are, at least stereotypically, the province of men. Highlighting the children’s mental acuity and the women’s unconventional toughness, London uses the human body to celebrate the existence of physical and mental strength in unexpected places.
Intensely aware of their own frailty, the children at the Golden Age are fighting both to regain some of their previous strength and to get used to the prospect of living lives that will be defined by physical disability. After leaving the Golden Age, Frank becomes horribly conscious of the ways his body is different from other children’s. Anxious about the prospect of returning to school, he criticizes himself as “small, pale, with pathetic spindly legs and the shoes of an old man.” Similarly, when Elsa looks in the mirror she notes that “the once fluid lines of her body” are “now distorted,” and worries that people who used to remark on her beauty will now refer to her as “the crippled girl.”
However, the hospital nurses charged with the children’s recovery know it’s just as important to cultivate mental strength as it is to facilitate physical recovery. Lidja, the physical therapist, exhorts the children to “think those muscles in your foot!” and gives them lectures on character, although she’s supposedly only concerned with their physical health. One of the novel’s most poignant episodes comes when Malcolm Poole’s father exhorts him harshly to start walking again, telling him he needs “a little more grit.” Mr. Poole views his son’s disability as evidence of mental weakness, but it’s obvious that all the children are more mentally mature and sensitive than they were before polio. Sister Penny chides Mr. Poole for this outburst, understanding that a unilateral concern with physical recovery is unhealthy and unproductive.
Sister Penny further reveals her nuanced conception of strength after Frank and Elsa are caught in bed together. While the prudish hospital governors are horrified, Sister Penny, who knows the children well, says their romance is a result of how “mature–emotionally–they really are” as a result of fighting polio together. With some exceptions, most of the children–especially Frank and Elsa–are acutely sensitive and self-aware, much more so than they might have been without the challenge of polio. In this sense, their physical disabilities serve to highlight their exceptional mental strength.
While contrasting the children’s physical frailty with their mental fortitude, the novel also links the ferocity and toughness of its female characters to their mental strength. Most of the novel’s adults are women, all of whom display exceptional and unconventional strength on a physical and mental level.
Ferocious as both a mother and a pianist, Ida’s strength as a parent is matched by her severe features and stolid body. While performers are often shown as graceful or ethereal, London emphasizes Ida’s intense and rigid strength during her concert at the hospital, describing her as “bare-armed like a workman” and later remarking on her “strong white arms.” Sister Penny, competent and wise, is also defined by her capable body. Seeing her in a swimsuit at the beach, Meyer appreciates her strength, likening her to “a big, strong, sports-playing girl.” Even Margaret, a nervous and sometimes comical figure with too-large shoes and blouses that seem about to fall apart, is characterized by her ability to cope with the physical strain of running a rural household while caring for her invalid daughter.
While the children’s external frailty highlights their internal strength and maturity, the women’s mental strengths are augmented by their physical ability. However, this too is an important juxtaposition, setting their manifold capabilities against the 1950s expectations (especially prevalent in a provincial and conservative city like Perth) that women be demure, subservient, and largely helpless.
For the children at the Golden Age, the frailty of the body belies the strength of the mind. For their mothers and nurses, physical strength underlines mental fortitude. In both cases, London uses attributes of the tangible body to explore the more ambiguous territory of the mind. Moreover, she celebrates the human body in its various incarnations, even those not considered conventionally attractive or desirable, and meditates on the ability of those bodies to contribute positively to the development of mental strength.
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity ThemeTracker
Strength, Physicality, and Femininity Quotes in The Golden Age
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.
Watching her play, Frank was moved. He saw her strength, her vast determination. He remembered her fury when he was in the hospital. “You are going to get strong! You are going to walk […] you want to know why? They take the weak ones first.”
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.
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.