Was the citizen in "The Unknown Citizen" happy? Was he free?

The citizen in "The Unknown Citizen" was neither happy nor free. What's more, the speaker regards the very question as absurd. Had the unknown citizen been either of these things during his lifetime then the government would've known about it.

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The unknown citizen, like all citizens in this regimented society, isn't supposed to be happy or free. He's expected to conform, to do what the government wants him to do. And throughout his life that's just what he's done.

This man is a government's dream; he does everything expected of...

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The unknown citizen, like all citizens in this regimented society, isn't supposed to be happy or free. He's expected to conform, to do what the government wants him to do. And throughout his life that's just what he's done.

This man is a government's dream; he does everything expected of him, making him easy to control. If the man had been free, then the speaker's assessment of him wouldn't have been nearly as positive. Then, the citizen would've been more difficult to control, his habits more difficult to fit into the precise categories of behavior laid down by the bureaucracy.

As for the unknown citizen's happiness, that's also completely irrelevant to the powers-that-be. Whether the man is happy or sad is of no concern to the government's large and growing army of statisticians, economists, and social researchers. All that matters to them is that he can be controlled and surveilled so that he doesn't step out of line. As long as the unknown citizen's behavior can be adequately measured according to the latest techniques of information-gathering, it doesn't matter whether he's happy or not.

Besides, if the unknown citizen had been either truly happy or free at any time in his life then the government would've known about it. That they didn't know any such thing tells you exactly what kind of life this ordinary man led.

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The unknown citizen was neither happy nor free. The poem raises this question at the end of the poem and then calls it "absurd," saying:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

In other words, if this anonymous person had ever done anything to self-actualize, that is to become genuinely happy or free, the government would have been alerted. Such an act would have been "wrong" because it would have upset the smooth operation of his society. At that point, ironically, the citizen would not have been "unknown" but would have had a name, because he would have become a dissident.

The citizen retains his status as unknown by never doing anything that is the least bit unorthodox or odd. He comes across more as a robot who does what he is expected than as a distinct human being. He worked in a factory and satisfied his employers, he liked to get together with his friends for a drink, he had insurance and purchased all the recent consumer products he was expected to buy. He supported whatever were the current government policies, married, and had five children, all of which earned the approval of the state.

The poem attacks the kind of conformity that leaves a person nameless and unknown. Auden suggests we would be happy and free if we broke out of the expected mold.

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We cannot know the answer to these questions. The speaker of the poem declares that the "question is absurd" because "we" would absolutely have heard if there had been anything wrong with the life of this man. However, it seems as though this kind of information is not what society considers to be important. The things that society deems significant to a life have been accounted for. This man had appropriate insurance policies, relatively good health, a career; he possessed all the material goods "necessary to the Modern Man," had the "proper opinions" about relevant topics, did not tend to make waves politically or otherwise, married and had a family, and so on and so forth. No emphasis whatever is placed on the man's happiness or his sense of freedom, and so we have no information regarding these topics—not necessarily because the answer to the two questions is "no" but, rather, because society didn't care about the answer. The poem points out the fact that we value life all wrong. We should be concerned about happiness and freedom and, instead, we care more about insurance policies and material possessions.

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W.H. Auden’s title “The Unknown Citizen” is ironic because, in fact, much is known about the supposedly “unknown” citizen.  Like the unknown soldier whose body has been destroyed—the allusion in the title—the  the unknown citizen’s individuality and spirit have been destroyed: he has been reduced to statistics.

The central point Auden makes with his questions is that this individual is not free, nor is he happy.  Because he  did everything that was expected of him for the “Greater Community” (line 5),  he never took a chance to learn what he wanted or to become a fully realized individual.  He was a conformist who “was popular with his mates” (line 13), and “Social Psychology workers” (line 12) even went so far as to note that “his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way” (line 15).  Later we are told that he held “proper opinions for the time of year” (line 23).  He supported war or peace, depending on which opinion was more in vogue.  In other words, he never thought for himself but just jumped on the popularity bandwagon.

In answer to the questions “Was he free? Was he happy?” the speaker (not Auden) says, “The question is absurd.”  But that’s Auden being ironic; to Auden the question is not absurd at all. No one who sells his soul to what’s popular and expected, who never has an original thought of his own, can truly be free.  He is constrained and even owned by the society in which he lives.  Such a person, Auden suggests, can never be deeply happy.

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