Who is in control in the society depicted in "The Unknown Citizen"?

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Unknown Citizen," we know there is state, because we are told that the monument is was erected by the State before the poem begins.  But as we read the poem, we see that the State and this society comprise people who keep records, the most superficial kinds of records, records that tell us nothing about a person. 

There is a "Bureau of Statics" (line 1) that maintains a file on this citizen, a file that shows there have never been any complaints about him. There is nothing to indicate that he was anything less than an exemplary employee and records show that he served "the Greater Community" (line 5).  "Social Psychologists" (line 7) report him to have been well-adjusted, and the Union records show that he paid his dues properly.  The poem goes on to report that he had the appropriate health insurance, normal responses to advertising, and the correct opinions on issues.  He had all the material possessions he was supposed to have and five children, which was the proper number.  The poem piles superficial detail upon superficial detail, with the reader seeing a portrait of a man who has been stripped of all humanity, reduced to a folder of statistics and reports. And at the end of the poem, this is clear, with the narrator's question and answer,

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

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard (lines 32-33).

This is Auden's take on society at the time. The poem was published in 1939, after Auden moved from England to the United States.  The poem is somewhat prescient in its characterization of the United States well before the fifties were upon us, which was a time of great conformity and the "Organization Man." But the seeds of that society were just beginning to be sown, and Auden could see that people were beginning to be numbers, not people, in American society, hence it was a faceless man, described only by his conforming attributes and statistics, who was being honored with a marble monument.