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Please identify the elements of Socialist Realism in "The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden.

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shahrzadeh | Student | (Level 1) Honors

Posted January 14, 2010 at 2:20 PM via web

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Please identify the elements of Socialist Realism in "The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden.

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted January 16, 2010 at 2:47 AM (Answer #1)

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To be honest, I see elements of Socialist Realism as well as what we might call Capitalist Realism. In fact, I see more of a challenge to Socialism than a satirical poem in support of socialism. (When you refer to a piece of literature as Socialist Realism, that piece of literature usually supports the idea of socialism, usually by sarcastically condemning a more open capitalist state. But here, the speaker criticizes elements of socialism just as much, if not moreso, as capitalism.)

Overall, this poem is about the disappearance of individualism: at the hands of any type of state: socialist, capitalist, democratic, etc. Auden's criticism here is about technology and social control and how they reduce the 'everyman/woman,' the common citizen to statistics: social security numbers, passwords (especially now with computers), income brackets, "appropriate" # of children (this one is in the poem).

"For in everything he did, he served the greater community" - this line seems to be, sarcastically, criticizing a socialist state; in other words, a state where there is heavy governmental control.


"And he had everything necessary to the Modern Man,/

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a fridgidaire." This line seems to be sarcastically criticizing a capitalist state; in other words, a state where there may be less governmental control, but control through other means: commodification and materialism.

In both cases, I think the speaker is criticizing the lack of individuality. In both cases, the "Unknown Citizen" conforms to the state, or he conforms to the pressures of socio-economic influence: to be happy and a good citizen, you should have a radio, phonograph, etc.

The fact that the Citizen has no name underscores his lack of individuality. In the end, I think this is more generally a Social Realist poem as opposed to just a Socialist Realist poem. There are elements of different Realisms here: but they all have to do with restoring individuality and renouncing conformity in the Modern Age.

The last two lines question whether the unknown citizen was happy, concluding that we "would have heard." Since we do not hear from the citizen himself, we'd have heard from his family/friends. We do not. They've all been relegated to statistics. The citizen has no voice. The only thing we know about him is what things he bought/owned and what the state/union had to say about his cooperation with their rules.

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