The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden

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What does not being a “scab or odd in [our] views” have to do with being a “saint”?

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Erin DuBuque eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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To answer this question, it is important to understand W. H. Auden's intention in writing this poem. "The Unknown Citizen" is humorous, but at the same time it depicts a dystopian society in which a model citizen is someone who conforms completely to societal norms in every way, never deviating from what he is expected to do. As Auden explains, "in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word," such a conformist would be considered a saint.

In the "old-fashioned" or traditional meaning of the word, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, a saint is "the title given to a person who has received an official honor from the Christian, especially the Roman Catholic, Church for having lived in a good and holy way." Historically, many of those who have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as saints received this designation because they opposed traditional political or social institutions and were persecuted or even martyred as a result. Auden, however, twists the meaning of the word saint to a "modern sense" of someone who always does what is expected of him and never steps out of line.

Auden gives numerous examples of what is expected of a saint in "the modern sense." For instance, people never complain about him. He works in a factory his entire life except when he joins the military in time of war. He accepts what he is taught by his teachers without question, marries and has an average number of children, purchases and uses modern machines and appliances, and goes out for drinks with his friends.

As for the points mentioned in the question, these are other examples of the citizen's conformity. Auden mentions that he is not a scab. A scab is someone who is willing to work in a factory without union membership, often during a strike. A citizen intent on conformity would never do such a thing. As Auden points out, "his union reports that he paid his dues."

Additionally, this citizen is not "odd in his views," but instead conforms to whatever viewpoints society expects him to have. Social psychology workers report that he did what he was expected to do, reacted normally to what he read in the newspapers, and "held the proper opinions."

In conclusion, it sounds as if the narrator of this poem is a government employee tasked with making sure that people conform to society in every way, and citizens who do this are ironically referred to as "saints." In such a society, the government would consider it irrelevant whether its citizens are happy or free.