The Unknown Citizen

by W. H. Auden

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How does Auden describe the unknown citizen? Does he have any freedom to live?  

The unknown citizen has no freedom, a good example of an unfree man in this society. The Unknown Citizen is not happy, and Auden tells us that he does not even care about the fact that he is not happy. Auden also states that happiness and freedom are absurdities for someone in this society because it values conformity over those things.

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In his poem, "The Unknown Citizen," Auden set forth an inscription upon a monument dedicated to this unknown man, much as we dedicate a monument to an unknown soldier.  The poem describes the man as one who is utterly conforming, someone who has lived his life checking off the right boxes. He worked, he paid his union dues, he was never a disruptive force in school, he had "the proper opinions" (Auden line 23), he had the consumer goods he was expected to have, and the requisite number of children for his generation.  In short, he did everything the state and society expected him to do.

It is at the end of the poem that Auden asks,

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:  

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard (lines 28-29).

Auden is saying that freedom and happiness are absurdities for a man in this state and society.  These are not of concern. Conformity is all that matters, and this society chooses to erect marble monuments to that conformity.  So, certainly, the man was not free, and neither was he happy.  He did all the right things, though, and that is all that counts.



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