Analysis of "The Age of Anxiety" by W.H. Auden
The themes and ideas in Auden's "The Age of Anxiety" reflect his belief that
man's quest for self actualization is in vain.
I. Auden's background
A. As a 1930's poet
1. Views of Society
2. Diagnosis of the industrial society
B. Major conflicts of his works
II. "The Age of Anxiety" overview
A. As a quest poem
1. Characters' search for self-actualization
2. Characters' inevitable failure in the quest
B. Characters' views on the general situation
1. Their belief to be in Purgatory when they are
allegorically in Hell
2. Their disbelief in impossibility
III. "The Age of Anxiety" character analysis
IV. Part I
A. Commonly called "Prologue"
B. Introduces scene and characters
C. Characters think aloud to reveal their nature
1. Quant views himself with false admiration
2. Malin examines the theoretical nature of man
3. Rosetta endeavors to create an imaginary and happy past
4. Emble passes his youthful judgment on the others' follies
V. First act of Part II, "The Seven Ages"
A. Malin's domination of this act
1. Serves as a guide
2. Controls the characters through his introduction of each age
B. Others support Malin's theories by drawing from past, present, and
potential future experiences
C. The ages
1. The first age
a. Malin asks the reader to "Behold the infant"
b. Child is "helpless in cradle and / Righteous still"
but already has a "Dread in his dreams"
2. The second age
a. Youth, as Malin describes it
b. Age at which man realizes "his life-bet with a lying
c. Naive belief in self and place in life is boundless
d. It is the age of belief in the possibility of a
3. The third age
a. The sexual awakening
b. Distinction between dream and reality
c. Discovery that love, as it was thought to be, is a
sharp contrast to love in the bounds of reality
4. The fourth age
a. Presents circus imagery "as a form of art too close
to life to have any purgative effect on the
b. Rosetta's definition of life and the world
5. The fifth age
a. Conveys the image of man as "an astonished victor"
b. Man believes he has made peace with the meaning of
c. Anxiety declines as "He [man] learns to speak /
Softer and slower, not to seem so eager"
d. Man is no longer confined to a prison of prismatic
color, but is free in the dull, bland place
that is the world
e. Emble's opposition of the fifth age
(1) Refuses to go willingly into middle age
(2) Demands to know why man must "Leave out
the worst / Pang of youth"
(3) Is disturbed by time unlike the others
for he is still young enough to have
f. Quant's domination of the fifth age
(1) Attempt to eliminate all hope
(2) View on man's adaptation to the fifth age
6. The sixth age
a. Man begins to show age
b. "Impotent, aged, and successful," Malin's portrayal
of a man of this age is indifferent to the world
7. The seventh age
a. Hypothetical man is tired out
b. Malin is ready for this age in contrast to the
others' reluctance to die just yet
VI. Second act of Part II, "The Seven Stages"
A. Unlike "The Seven Ages," this act is nothing more than a dream
B. "The Seven Stages" is an attempt to find the perfect time of life
C. The stages
1. The first stage
a. Each character begins alone, "isolated with his own
b. Justification of the view that the quest is for
2. The second stage
a. Is initiated by the first pairing of characters
(1) Shows possibility of hope
(2) Shows futility of hope
3. The third stage
a. Begins as the couples turn inland
(1) Emble and Rosetta by plane
(2) Quant and Malin by train
b. The characters complete the third stage without
success in their search for self
4. The fourth stage
a. Malin speaks for them all in his derogatorative
statements about the city
b. Malin passes judgment on its citizens based on
the urban surroundings
5. The fifth stage
a. Rosetta visits a mansion in which she wishes
she were raised and to which she wishes she
b. While Rosetta is within the house, the others
examine its exterior and its comparison to
he human body
c. Rosetta finds life inside the house no better
6. The sixth stage
a. A "forgotten graveyard" is the setting
b. Symbolizes "The results of life"
7. The seventh stage
a. The characters wander deep into a forest, each
taking a solitary path
b. They meet at the edge of the forest with a desert
c. As they realize that life has no meaning, the
desert becomes the real world, thus ending
this stage with their awakening
VII. The remaining three parts
A. Follows the characters from the bar to their homes
B. The four remember the despair of the conclusion of "The Seven
Stages" rather than the journey itself
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-
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).
Rosetta, the most human of the characters, is a department store buyer,
and comes closer to self-actualization than any of the other characters in the
poem. Emble is a young sailor and would-be prince whose wish is to have sex
with Rosetta. Ironically, his failure to do so is the primary composition of
the climax of the work (Nelson 118).
Part I of "The Age of Anxiety", the "Prologue" as it is commonly called,
introduces the scene and characters. The characters each think aloud in
monologue so as to reveal their true nature to the reader. Quant views himself
with false admiration, and Malin questions the natue of man. Rosetta constructs
an imaginary past to compensate for a less than adequate one. Emble, with
youthful tact, passes judgment on the others' follies (Nelson 118).
The first act of Part II, "The Seven Ages," is dominated by Malin,
acting as a guide. He controls the actions of the characters through his
introductions to each age. The other characters support his theories by drawing
from their past, present, and potential future experiences (Nelson 118-119).
The first age begins with Malin asking the reader to "Behold the infant"
as though he is observing us as the infant while his own infancy fails to exist.
The child is "helpless in cradle and / Righteous still" but already has a "Dread
in his dreams." By this, Auden means that even when we are most innocent, we
are still imperfect (Nelson 119).
The second age is youth, as Malin describes it. It is at this age at
which man realizes "his life-bet with a lying self." Despite this, man's naive
belief in self and place in life is boundless. It is in this age that the
belief in the future is possible (Nelson 119).
The third age is termed by Malin as the age of sexual awakening. It is
in this age that the distinction between dream and reality begins to surface in
the mind of man. With this distinction comes the discovery that love, as it was
thought to be, is a sharp contrast to love in the bounds of reality (Nelson 119).
The fourth age presents circus imagery "as a form of art too close to
life to have any purgative effect on the audience." It is reinforced by
Rosetta's definitions of life as an "impertinent appetitive flux," and the world
as a "clown's cosmos" (Nelson 119).
Malin conveys the image of man as "an astonished victor" in the fifth
age. Man in this age feel as though he has made peace with the meaning of life.
The anxiety of life declines as "He [man] learns to speak / Softer and slower,
not to seem so eager." Here, man discovers he is no longer confined in a prison
of prisimatic color, but free in the dull, bland place that is the world (Nelson
Emble, being the youngest of the four, refuses to drift into the middle
age of the fifth age willingly. Instead, he demands to know why man must "Leave
out the worst / Pang of youth." He is unlike the others in that he is still
young enough to have an influence on his future (Nelson 120).
Quant is more dominant in this age than any other for it is this age
that he represents. In it, he attempts to eliminate all hope for a future. He
feels that "if man cannot adjust to mediocrity, it is too bad. . . If man asks
for more, the world only gets worse" (Nelson 120).
The sixth age is attributed to man's "scars of time," to man's aging.
"Impotent, aged, and successful," Malin portrays man to be indifferent to the
world (Nelson 120).
"Hypothetical man" is exhausted when "His last illusions have lost
patience / With the human enterprise" in the seventh age. Malin greets this age
with preparedness, but the other characters feel reluctance in greeting death
The second act of Part II of "The Age of Anxiety", "The Seven Stages,"
is different from "The Seven Ages" in that the first act is based on experiences
and the second act consists entirely of a dream. The purpose of "The Seven
Stages" is to determine the ideal time of life for man in which he can reside
for eternity (Nelson 121).
The first stage begins like all quests begin, with all characters alone.
They are each "isolated with his own thoughts." Their journey ends in the same
fashion, with each of them alone, which labels this as a false quest for nothing
is accomplished (Nelson 121).
The second stage is initiated by the pairing of the characters. This
pairing represents the possibility of hope with the two youngest, Emble and
Rosetta, and it also symbolizes the futility of hope with the two eldest, Quant
and Malin (Nelson 121).
The third stage begins as the couples begin to head inland. Emble and
Rosetta travel via plane, which symbolizes the useless attempt to escape life by
flying above it. Quant and Malin, on the other hand, travel by train, which
represents the same inability to escape life, although this time the method is
through immersion into life (Nelson 121).
In the fourth stage, Malin speaks for the group in his derogatory
statements about the city. Malin also passes judgment on the people of the city
not on the basis of personality content, but on that of the surroundings of
which he thinks so lowly (Nelson 122).
The fifth stage is reached when the group sights "the big house" while
riding on a trolley. Rosetta, with her false past as an outline, references the
house to one in which she was imaginarily reared, and to which she shall return.
During her visitation to the house, Quant and the others analyze the house's
exterior. Quant comments on the house's appearance: "The facade has a lifeless
look." The house is compared to a human being, with its "book-lined rooms"
serving as the brain and "the guards at the front gate [who] / Change with the
seasons" serving as the senses. Rosetta finds her life within the house no
better than before (Nelson 122).
The sixth stage takes place in a "forgotten graveyard." It is observed
as a "still / Museum [exhibiting] / The results of life," which could either be
death or the life that results from death as the "Flittermice, finches / And
flies restore / Their lost milieu" (Nelson 122).
The seventh stage begins as each character plunges deep into a dense
forest where they are confronted by a vast desert. Here, Quant asks the
question, "Do I love this world so well / That I have to know how it ends?" The
four take heed of the question and realize that their quest has no meaning, and
as they do so, their dream world drifts upwards into the realm of consciousness
and the vast desert makes the transition to reality (Nelson 122-123).
The remaining three parts follow each of the characters from the bar to
their respective homes. They each remember the despair of the conclusion of
"The Seven Stages," but have no recollection of the journey itself (Nelson 123).
Auden has effectively portrayed the flaw of man in his fruitless quest
for the meaning of self. His representations of Quant and Malin as the elders
whose future is bleak counters the bright and cheery illusion that Emble and
Rosetta may possibly have a future, though, in reality, the only sure future is
Altick, Richard D. "Lives and Letters". New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
Auden, W. H.. "19th Century British Minor Poets". New York: Delacorte Press,
----. "City Without Walls and Other Poems". New York: Random House, 1969.
----. "Secondary Worlds". New York: Random House, 1968.
Bahlke, George W., ed. "Critical Essays on W. H. Auden". New York: G. K. Hall
& Co., 1991.
Barrows, Marjorie Wescott, ed., et al. "The American Experience: Poetry". New
York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974.
Kunitz, Stanley J. And Haycraft, Howard, eds.. "Twentieth Century Authors".
New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1942.
Magill, Frank N., ed.. "Critical Survey of Poetry". Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Salem Press, 1982.
Nelson, Gerald. "From "Changes of Heart" ("The Age of Anxiety")." "Critical
Essays on W. H. Auden". Ed. George W. Bahlke. New York: G. K. Hall & Co.,