The Golden Age is permeated by a respect for work, as well as for those who perform it diligently and well. Even in the midst of crisis and trauma, many characters are defined and motivated by their vocation (that is, the strong feeling that they are suited to a particular career)—whether it be Frank’s incipient conviction that he is a poet, Ida’s devotion to the piano, or Sister Penny’s almost preternatural facility as a nurse. Besides giving these characters a sense of individual purpose, these vocations—or “callings”—allow them to live comfortably within norms of a society in which they don’t always feel at home. Similarly, this sense of vocation gives characters a degree of distance and liberty from those around them, while also facilitating and improving their closest relationships. Ultimately, The Golden Age shows that identifying and embracing one’s vocation is the best way to foster contentment and purpose among the vagaries and uncertainties of life.
Many characters, especially Frank, Ida, and Sister Penny, have a strong feeling of being called to a particular discipline. While Frank’s interest in poetry is originally subsidiary to his admiration and love for Sullivan, after his friend’s death he begins writing his own poems and recognizes that Sullivan has alerted him to his own instinctive identity as a poet. One of Frank’s major worries is how he will break the news of his vocation to Ida and Meyer. This seems like a misplaced fear, given his sophisticated parents’ intense respect for art of all kinds, but it demonstrates, humorously and touchingly, how central to his identity Frank views his new vocation.
In this way Frank is very similar to his mother. A highly trained concert pianist, Ida was just beginning to achieve professional success before the Holocaust ended her career. As a working-class immigrant in a small Australian city, she’ll never return full-time to the piano, but she still considers her vocation central to her identity. Ida believes her qualities as a pianist are intimately linked to her core emotions and strengths, namely the persistence and ingenuity that kept her and Frank alive throughout the war. When she hides Frank with her piano teacher, Julia, she briefly compares piano, the vocation to which she thought she’d devote her life, to the new task of survival, saying of both that “you must have a certain ruthlessness to win, as if by right.” It’s important that Ida sees her vocation and her ability to survive as things that are cultivated not simply by training, but which already exist within her on a more fundamental level.
While Sister Penny’s work takes place on a technical, rather than artistic, plane, she views nursing as a vocation and is spectacularly good at her job. She can identify and manage not only the physical but the emotional needs of the children in her care, as well as their parents’ anxieties. Her unattached and ascetic life within the hospital contributes to the impression that she derives purpose from her work rather than personal relationships. Notably, Sister Penny explicitly connects Ida’s skill at the piano to her own expertise, saying that Ida reminds her of “the skills that were her personal exultation, of a good surgeon at work, or nurses laying out a body.” Her use of the word “exultation” highlights both the sacredness and the sense of personal pride that both women see as central to their work.
For all three of these characters, a sense of vocation allows them to defy certain societal mores while also living comfortably within them. As an invalid, Frank experiences frightening lack of volition. Moreover, he knows that the rest of his life will be influenced by the social stigma of disability, and that he’ll never be able to control how other people perceive or treat him. As a poet and creator, he’s able to articulate his feelings in a way he normally can’t, defining his own narrative and reclaiming a certain amount of power, if only over his personal life.
Once a concert pianist from an affluent and urbane family, Ida is now a milliner’s assistant; she sees her new society as provincial prudish, but she knows others perceive her as a needy refugee and second-class citizen. Despite her reservations and even haughtiness at the prospect of playing at the Golden Age, when she performs a benefit concert for the hospital she finally recaptures the dignity and pride she, and her family, have been missing. Frank says that Ida’s playing “justified everything, their foreignness, their victimhood in the other country. It brought them honor.”
A single and work-focused mother in a conservative society, Sister Penny even feels alienated from her own daughter, who is steadily gravitating toward marriage and a more conventional life. She knows that, rather than seeking purpose within a family as most women do, she would “nurse to the end.” In her work, Sister Penny has an occupation which her society values and rewards. However, she uses her occupation to liberate herself from society’s general expectation that women marry and sublimate themselves to the lives of their husbands and children.
Moreover, in a novel in which characters toggle between closeness and distance to those they love most, vocations allow them to achieve balanced relationships with other people while retaining an independent life of the mind. Sharp and mature, Frank finds it hard to fit in among other children. Poetry facilitates his important relationships, first with Sullivan and then Elsa, who is captivated by his ability to parse and articulate their experiences.
Sister Penny, never satisfied by conventional womanhood, takes many lovers but is never inordinately affected or destabilized by them, because she views them as subsidiary to her work as a nurse. Her security in her vocation allows her to satisfy her sexual and emotional needs while retaining the aloofness and independence she fundamentally craves.
Ida’s renewed dedication to the piano rehabilitates and soothes her tense relationship with her son. Frank frequently finds his mother overbearing and seeks to extricate himself from her influence; he even says that her “reverence for music and literature was theatrical and deliberate,” and defines his austere approach to art against hers. Still, when he sees her play, Frank notices “her strength, her vast determination,” and is moved in spite of himself. Watching her, he feels it’s a “relief” to be distant from and unobserved by his mother, but he’s also reminded of their fundamental closeness, remembering that as a child “he used to climb up on her knee” while she played. The concert at the Golden Age, which marks Ida’s embrace of her vocation, also achieves a balance between Frank’s childlike love for his mother and his adult appreciation of her gifts.
It’s worth noting that London doesn’t portray the strong sense of vocation as something reserved for the elite or highly educated. Sister Penny’s technical vocation is as important as Ida’s artistic one, and many of the novel’s primarily working-class characters share their pride and humility in work well done. For example, Meyer feels that his calling is to protect Ida and her gifts and is happy to achieve this by driving a soft-drinks truck. Ultimately, the novel’s reverence for its characters’ work ethic and sense of purpose imbues all work, whether prosaic or exotic, with respect and dignity.
Vocation Quotes in The Golden Age
Talent was not enough, Julia used to say, you must find the grip, the hunger, the small, determined child inside you. You must have a certain ruthlessness to win, as if by right. In the hierarchy of talent, you are a born aristocrat […]
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.
She was startled by Ida’s ease and precision. Her concentration, her accuracy, reminded Olive of the skills that were her personal exultation, of a good surgeon at work, or nurses laying out a body. Her own deftness and judgment.
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.”