Identify the elements of Socialist Realism in "The Unkown Citizen" by W.H. Auden.

Expert Answers
MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a difficult question, because Socialist Realism really only applies to a select group of Soviet artists in the early 20th century. There are 4 elements to Socialist Realism:

1. Proletarian- art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.

2. Typical- scenes of every day life of the people.

3. Realistic - in the representational sense.

4. Partisan - supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

Looking at these 4 criteria, we can see that the poem would appeal to workers. Certainly, upon reading, one can feel the frustration & anonymity forced upon individuals by modern life/society. It also demonstrates typical scenes in everyday life. We find reference to appliances, social clubs, products, etc. It's also a quite realistic depiction of loos of identity in a modern world. However, I would argue that this poem does not support the "aims of the State and the Party", mostly because it is an American poem arguing for the rights of individuality. Look at the last few questions: Was he happy? the speaker claim they would have known if he wasn't, but of course, they really know nothing about him. That is the point of the poem; one cannot truly know another by simple statistics.

This poem is closer to social realism, which depicts social and racial injustice and economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles. So it still contains the elements of realism, just as the poem does, but it doesn't have the implied support of the Soviet Government. Instead, it focuses on social issues; in this case, the conformity of modern society and the loss of happiness in the midst of materialism.

mkcapen1 | Student

It should first be noted that Alden had written the poem upon coming back to live in America where commercialism abounded.  This was a shock to him as he had been living under a different government and in a different society.  It is like George Orwell's book “1984”, but as a poem instead of a story.  In the poem the man shuffles through papers and work day in and day out making decisions that will have consequences for others whom he does not know.  The citizen is under the control of others and all information about him is known.  However, he is happy in his life because it appears that he has the perfect life.  His life is compared in the level of statistics and this is what is used to determine if the man meets the measure of what a citizen should be.

Social realism is evident in that the citizen has total entrustment of his government/state to meet his needs and decide what is best for him.  The socialist element is also evident in the statement that he

 "served the Greater Community."

The ideal of socialism is that the community is a collective unit and no individual should stand out or do more for himself than the community as a whole.