What does the poet want to convey about modern society through the poem "The Unknown Citizen"?

Through the poem “The Unknown Citizen,” Auden wants to convey the idea that modern society is overly regimented and controlled by the state. As a result, people have become dehumanized, treated as nothing more than cogs in a gigantic machine.

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Auden wrote "The Unknown Citizen" in 1939 after he moved to The United States. It was published early in 1940. At this point, World War II had begun in Europe, but the US would not enter the war for almost two more years. (When the poem mentions "the War," it is referring to World War I.)

The poem critiques the way modern society instrumentalizes human beings. To instrumentalize a person is to use them merely to extract as much value or profit from them as possible. It is considered unethical, for instance, to have a second child so that that child's bone marrow can be extracted to treat an illness in the first child. A person should not be birthed simply to be used.

In this poem, however, the state finds in the unknown citizen the model citizen because he is utterly instrumentalized. He completely conforms and does everything he is supposed to do, without deviation. He comes to work regularly and without complaint, so society is able to extract maximum value from his labor. He also does exactly what he is supposed to do with his leisure time: he was "popular with his mates and liked a drink." In other words, he doesn't do anything to create headaches or require the state to expend extra resources "fixing" him. In fact, by drinking, he drowns any disquiet he might feel. He also does his part in having a family to provide more instruments for the state to use: in fact, he has five children. Finally, not only does he work efficiently, he also consumes, keeping the machinery of capitalism profitable. His lack of a name symbolizes that he is valuable to the state only for what he does for it, not for himself as a unique being.

Auden ends the poem by asking the more abstract question of whether such an individual is free or happy and having the state dismiss such musings as "absurd." Auden wants to convey that it is dehumanizing for people to be treated as if they are little more than machines to be programmed and worked until they wear out.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 21, 2021
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Auden's “The Unknown Citizen” can be interpreted as a withering critique of the increased regimentation of society during wartime. In such a society, the state exercises almost total control as it mobilizes all sectors of society as part of the war effort. Auden isn't necessarily against the idea of the state doing everything necessary to defeat the forces of fascism. However, he does want to highlight what he sees as the dangers of a regimented society on individual freedom.

In such a society, people like the eponymous unknown citizen have effectively had their individual identities erased. They are no longer valued for themselves, for what they are as human beings. Instead, they're regarded by the state as nothing more than cogs in a gigantic machine, to be controlled and manipulated by the state as it sees fit.

The very fact that the unknown citizen is unknown is rather telling in this regard. He's praised, among other things, for his service to the “Greater Community” and for the fact that he always paid his dues to his union. But we never know his name, and that's because his identity as an individual has been erased. All that matters to the state and its bureaucrats is that the unknown citizen did what he was supposed to do and ticked all the right boxes.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 21, 2021
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Auden's complaint in this poem is, largely, about the issue of conformity; in modern society, our individuality is eroded by the fact that we are forced into a particular life path which characterizes us as a "good" citizen.

The Unknown Citizen in the poem is celebrated for having served his "Community" by essentially contributing to it in a monetary way—he has performed well for his employers and has never held "odd" views, and he has served his country in times of war and has paid his dues to his workers' union. Even his interactions with his friends have been measured by the State in terms of how far these showed him to be normal: being "popular" and producing the appropriate number of children are elements which indicate he has served his country "well."

There is no consideration of the man's actual feelings or genuine opinions—they are only relevant so long as the ones he holds are "proper." Essentially, the citizen is celebrated for having been exactly like everybody else; this is what makes him worthy of celebration—he has produced the right number of children, fought in the correct wars, and purchased the right material goods ("a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire").

Auden is not necessarily critiquing socialist societies particularly; his focus on materialism and employment, if anything, suggests a critique of the capitalist idea that humans exist to produce wealth for the nation. Rather, he is critiquing the idea that in all modern societies what is really expected of us is to be statistically valuable. The government does not really care whether we are "free" or "happy"—so long as we do what we are told and conform, we will be "good citizens" (but we will also not be remembered).

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     Auden was remarking on the utter inane bureaucracy of modern semi-socialist societies.  The unknown citizen, so ordinary in every way, should deserve an honored spot in the epitome of social governments.  Through the use of irony, Auden is pointing out that honoring such an individual is outside the realm of actuality.  While the modern society celebrates individuals with individual achievements, the poem flips that idea on its head and celebrates the unknown and average person.

     The poet is sending out a warning in many ways.  The anonymous nature of the unknown citizen is a comment on governments encouraging communalism versus freedom.  The last lines of the poem comment on how the citizen was perfect in every way and inquires if he was really free.  The utopian answer is that if he wasn't free, surely "we" would have known about it.  This is really the sticking point of the poem.  By giving up our individuality in the world and doing only that which is expected or demanded of us, regardless of the circumstances, then we forfeit our freedom as an individual. 

      The final thought on the matter is contrary to the underlying irony.  Auden argues it is possible to live an entire life as an unknown citizen and there is nothing inherently wrong with that, but you will never know freedom. 

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