Symbolism in The Golden Age

The Golden Age is a historical fiction novel that examines the life of the protagonist, Frank Gold, as he recovers from polio in a children’s convalescent home. The novel presents a hopeful narrative which emphasises the resilience of humans in the face of adversity and the importance of forging meaningful connections with others. Although the text explores dark events, such as the Holocaust and polio, it does not have a miserable tone. Instead, London highlights the bravery of the characters she depicts. London utilises symbolism throughout The Golden Age in order to intensify her communication of ideas. Although she includes many symbols, a number of key symbols that are useful to analyse are light, gold, birds, the netting factory and the outdoors. 


London frequently references birds in order to communicate the notion of freedom. She juxtaposes the freedom of the birds outside with the confinement of the children within The Golden Age, in order to emphasise their separation from the outside world. 

“They heard their cries and looked towards the windows but could not see the large black birds swirling and dispersing over the Netting Factory.”

In Chapter Four, a group of cockatoos fly over The Golden Age, which comforts the children. The children can hear the birds outside, however they are just out of their sight. This indicates that although the children are allowed to experience tastes of the outside world, ultimately, freedom is just out of their reach. 

“Ida thought the cries were melancholy, harsh, echoing into emptiness, an Australian sound.” 

In this quotation, London combines descriptive language with the symbol of birds in order to create a unique description of Australia. She juxtaposes freedom with melancholy in order to highlight that, although Ida is physically free in Australia, emotionally she finds the landscape to be “harsh”. 


Joan London utilises the symbol of gold to establish the theme of strength and hope within her novel. Gold is a well known symbol that is commonly associated with love, compassion, wealth and courage. London often utilises this symbol when describing Elsa’s hair, in order to highlight her virtue and strength. 

“Even if her head was turned away into the pillow, the sight of her thick gold-brown plait somehow gave him hope.”

Here the symbol of gold is used to establish Elsa as a character with strength and resilience. London also uses this symbol to depict the positive impact that Frank’s relationship with Elsa has on his recovery. 

“Good name by the way…Gold. Very…apposite.

The importance of Frank’s last name being Gold is highlighted when Sullivan first meets Frank and remarks that his name is appropriate. “Gold” is viewed as a pure standard which is often used to measure other metals, and “Frank” is an adjective meaning honest and direct. Through this comparison, Sullivan identifies Frank as being honest and strong. Gold is also a common Jewish surname, which originated in the Middle Ages when Jews were stereotyped as being greedy, due to their common occupation as moneylenders. Sullivan assists Frank in distancing himself from these anti-Semitic viewpoints by realigning his name with positive attributes. 


In The Golden Age, light is used to symbolise hope and beauty. The light from the Netting Factory illuminates the rooms of the convalescent home each night and provides the children with hope that one day they will be able to return to the outside world. It allows them to find comfort in a small, but significant, connection to the world outside of The Golden Age. 

“Her face, in profile, was outlined by light.”

When Frank lays his eyes on Elsa for the first time he describes her as being “outlined by light” and he is so overwhelmed with emotion that he cries. This establishes Elsa as a character who will provide Frank with hope and support him in his recovery. It also emphasises Elsa’s beauty and angelic appearance. 

“It brought the world to the girl’s doorstep.”

The noise and the light from the Netting Factory enters the girls room. This allows them to connect with the bustle of the outside world. The symbol of light also indicates that there is hope for them to one day rejoin this busy world.

The Outside 

Many characters in The Golden Age find comfort through spending time outdoors. For the children at The Golden Age, being outdoors provides them with hope that one day they will be able to reconnect with the world outside of polio. For those outside of The Golden Age, the outside is a place of reflection, peace and serenity. Both Margaret and Meyer seek time outdoors to reflect on their thoughts. 

“During the long days in hospital, the sky passing across the high window in the Isolation Ward had become Elsa’s backyard, her freedom, her picture show.”

Whilst at The Golden Age, the sky is a constant element for Elsa and provides her with hope during a period of significant adjustment in her life. By looking at the sky, Elsa feels connected to the world outside of The Golden Age and less isolated. 

“She always found an excuse to go outside for a moment…If she didn’t go she felt trapped.”

This quotation illustrates the sense of freedom which Margaret finds when outdoors. She also comments that outdoors “she [does] not feel alone” because “it [is] never silent there”. Therefore, Margaret is able to find a sense of belonging in the outdoors, which offsets the isolation that she feels within her family life. 


London uses the symbol of poetry to highlight the positive impact that vocation can have on an individual. Poetry provides both Frank and Sullivan with a purpose and gives their lives meaning. Notably, it also helps Sullivan to come to terms with his illness and approaching death. 

“Polio had taken his legs but given him his vocation: poet.”

In this quotation, Joan London juxtaposes the negative physical impact of polio with the positive effects of vocation. Through this she aims to highlight that despite the suffering that the polio stricken characters endure, there is also hope for positive transformation.  

“Coming to terms with death is a necessary element in any great poem, Sullivan once said…and in this matter….we have had an early advantage.”

Although he is experiencing great physical trauma, Sullivan still holds a sense of humour. London depicts poetry as having played a key role in allowing Sullivan to accept his situation and to inspire Frank with his optimism.

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