The age of anxiety

Analysis of Auden's The Age of Anxiety


In Auden's lengthy poem, "The Age of Anxiety", he follows the

actions and thoughts of four characters who happen to meet in a bar during

a war. Their interactions with one another lead them on an imaginary quest

in their minds in which they attempt, without success, to discover

themselves. The themes and ideas that Auden's "The Age of Anxiety" conveys

reflect his belief that man's quest for self-actualization is in vain.



W. H. Auden was born in York, England, in 1907, the third and

youngest son of Constance and George Auden (Magill 72). His poetry in the

1930's reflected the world of his era, a world of depression, Fascism, and

war. His works adopt a prose of a "clinical diagrostician [sic]

anatomizing society" and interpret social and spiritual acts as failures of

communication (Magill 74). They also put forth a diagnosis of the

industrial English society among economic and moral decay in the 1930's

(Magill 72). Conflicts common in his works are those between war and peace,

corruption of modern society, and the "dichotomy between the rich and the

poor" (Barrows 317).



"The Age of Anxiety" is, in general, a quest poem. Unlike the

ideal quest, however, this quest accomplishes nothing. The characters

search for the meaning of self and, in essence, the meaning of life, but

because their search is triggered by intoxication due to alchohol, the

quest is doomed from the start. Throughout the quest, the characters

believe themselves to be in a form of Purgatory when they are allegorically

in Hell. They fail to realize this due to "the modern human condition

which denies possibility but refuses to call it impossible" (Nelson 117).



In "The Age of Anxiety", there are four characters of significance.

Quant, the first to be introduced, addresses himself in a mirror, an action

typical to a drunken man. He is an aging homosexual widower who finds

refuge in the mirror because it offers him the easiest way of facing

himself (Nelson 117-118).



Malin, the most dominant character overall, is a medical

intelligence officer on leave from the Canadian Air Force. His background

labels him as the "would-be doctor and leader" in the world of "The Age of

Anxiety". His name is reminiscent, in relation to the war, of a malingerer,

and the composition of his personality hints at the evil within him (Nelson

118).