The Unknown Citizen

by W. H. Auden

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Exploration of the theme and characterization in W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"

Summary:

In W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," the theme revolves around the dehumanizing effects of a bureaucratic society that reduces individuals to mere statistics. The characterization of the titular "Unknown Citizen" depicts him as a perfect conformist who adheres to societal norms without questioning, highlighting a loss of individuality and personal identity in modern life.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why was the citizen unknown in Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

This idea of the unknown citizen is also an allusion to the "Unknown Soldier."  This is a reference to the unknown, unidentified American soldiers who are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. They are meant to represent all the soldiers who have died and been buried unknown.  People who have lost a loved one whose body was not returned or who was reported as missing in action are often comforted by this tradition.  And many people stop by these graves to pay their respects to the men (and now women) who have given their lives to their country but remain unidentified.  There are graves for World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  There is no tomb at Arlington for an unknown soldier from the Civil War.  In the case of the unknown citizen of the poem, someone has died unknown because of the conformity that was imposed upon him by the government and society, a conformity he seems to have embraced, not worthy of our respect.  But the unknown soldiers remain a symbol of sacrifice and valor that most people do respect and even cherish. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why was the citizen unknown in Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

This poem is told from the point of view of state bureaucracies that consider people as numbers or statistics rather than unique individuals. This particular person is unknown because he is a complete conformist to social norms. There's no reason for the state to know his name, because he poses no threat and is interchangeable with millions of other people. He does everything he is supposed to do and is completely well adjusted: "He worked in a factory and never got fired ... he was popular with his mates and liked a drink." He buys what he is told by advertisers to buy:  a phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire." He holds whatever are the "popular opinions" at the time.

The poem, written in 1939 soon after Auden moved to America to a society that seemed complacent to him, works as satire in two ways. It satirizes and pokes fun at a government that reduces people to statistical norms, but it also makes fun of the people who conform, never think for themselves, and never rebel. The unknown man is anonymous because, in the end, he never does anything to make himself stand out. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why was the citizen unknown in Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen" is written in the form of a government report about a citizen who is, in death, commemorated by the State but remembered only by numbers rather than by his name. The idea of the unknown citizen is usually understood to refer to the tombs of unknown soldiers which were erected after the First World War to represent all those lost in the conflict whose bodies were not found and whose names were not known. Auden's suggestion here is that this practice actually erases our individuality—and that the practice of modern life in general is making us lose our identities.

The unknown citizen, then, is an ordinary man who fitted perfectly into society during his lifetime. His employers were "satisfied" with him, and his views were in keeping with what was expected. He had friends, was insured, got married, had children, and did everything in the "normal" and "right" way. However, in death, he is nothing more than a statistic. The state commemorates him in the same way as it has commemorated, presumably, countless other people who also did everything in the right and normal fashion and contributed the right number of children to the population. Auden's commentary indicates that governments do not care whether people are actually happy: they want to reduce people to machines, which function according to pre-determined guidelines. But this is not really how people are, and it is dangerous to treat humans, who are individuals, in this fashion. If we do this, we will all become "unknown" in death.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Auden's attitude towards the "Unknown Citizen" in his poem?

I think that Auden holds a variety of attitudes in his poem.  Yet, I think that he feels a particular sadness of the state of affairs that envelop the modern body politic, "the unknown citizen."  Auden sees a collusion between business, technology, and government as having reduced the complexity of the citizenry to patterned and predictable conformity.  In his poem, he talks about how the "unknown citizen" bought the products he was supposed to buy and that he articulated opinions that he was supposed to articulate.  Technology has created a system where external forces can know and determine what individuals will do.  It is in this light that Auden feels a sense of sadness for the citizens who have to endure such a state of affairs and anger masked in satire for those in the position of power who construct being in the world in such a manner.  For Auden, the external forces that are upon the modern body politic are too strong and severe to be repelled without a great deal of dissent and resistance.  For this condition, Auden feels sadness as a sense of despair echoes in his recasting of the modern condition.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Auden's attitude towards the "Unknown Citizen" in his poem?

W. H. Auden  answers the question: “Who is the unknown citizen?” Where is the  statue dedicated to this character described as “The Unknown Citizen”? The poem was written in 1940 after Auden moved from England to the colonies [the United States].  Before World War II came to America, Auden decided to write a parody of  “The Unknown Soldier” comparing it with the non-existent unknown citizen.  

The narration of the poem is  third person point of view.  The narrator lists the reasons that this citizen is worthy of the title: the unknown citizen. It is as though the Bureau of Statistics has a guy who looks into the backgrounds of all people.  The unknown citizen had all the right parts. No one really knows him or even what he looks like.  But that does not matter since his information fits in all the little slots.

Even in Auden's time, men were becoming numbers.  The last four of the social security number; the zip code; the birthdate, the nine digit telephone number; the routing number on the checking account— for identity checks sometimes the person’s name is not even needed.  The citizen has become faceless in modern society. 

The poet’s interesting idea was important because he was worried that people were losing their identities.  Since the 1980s, it is a scary concept because clever people can steal a person’s identity, his money, and cause enumerable problems.

This poem may also be labeled as  an "elegy" which is a poem about a dead person. The poem is also satirical.  It shows what the poet thought might be the future of the individual if the government continued to pry into personal business. 

There are difficulties that an individual can face in modern society: obscurity, conventionality, and administrative control. The unknown citizen tried his best to be absorbed into the conventional accepted and approved world.

What did the bureaucratic world discover about this unknown citizen?

  • No official complaints against him.
  • This man was a saint in his behavior and conduct.
  • Everything he did was the greater good of the world.

The unknown worked in a factory as  paying union member.  He never crossed the picket lines and his compatriots thought he was a good guy. 

He liked to drink with his friends.  He bought a paper every day.  This was man who was fully insured.  His health records report that he went to the hospital once and was cured of his problem.

From his consumer’s record, he often bought on credit and paid his installment payments. He owned all of the modern conveniences. 

His opinions were those that conform to the accepted opinions.  He went along with what the government wanted: If there was a need for war, he was all for it.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

Where there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.

The unknown citizen was married with five children. According to the genetic specialist, this was the perfect additions to the population. The children’s teachers believe that he never interfered with their education.

It does not matter if the unknown citizen felt free or happy.  If there had been anything wrong, the government would have known about it.

The poem makes the reader want to look over his shoulder to see if Big Brother is still watching from 1984.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Auden's attitude towards the "Unknown Citizen" in his poem?

In his poem, "The Unknown Citizen," Auden set forth an inscription upon a monument dedicated to this unknown man, much as we dedicate a monument to an unknown soldier.  The poem describes the man as one who is utterly conforming, someone who has lived his life checking off the right boxes. He worked, he paid his union dues, he was never a disruptive force in school, he had "the proper opinions" (Auden line 23), he had the consumer goods he was expected to have, and the requisite number of children for his generation.  In short, he did everything the state and society expected him to do.

It is at the end of the poem that Auden asks,

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

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard (lines 28-29).

Auden is saying that freedom and happiness are absurdities for a man in this state and society.  These are not of concern. Conformity is all that matters, and this society chooses to erect marble monuments to that conformity.  So, certainly, the man was not free, and neither was he happy.  He did all the right things, though, and that is all that counts.

 
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

It is ironic that the ideas and themes presented in 'The Unknown Ctizen' by W H Auden are starting to become almost even more relevant to us in our internet world than they were in Auden's own time, devoid as it was of laptops, iphones and identity chip tagging. Never has it been more possible for States to hold more information about its citizens private and public lives. Auden was almost heralding the 'age of Big Brother.' And we don't complain! Are we like the 'saint' for not complaining - is this because we don't see anything to complain about - we are complicit in our own captivity. There are some birds like parrots that live long healthy lives in cages. Now, states can know which websites we visit, what we buy there, what we buy when the forecast is wet, what barbie stuff will appeal to us when the forecast is hot,companies can put targeted ads on the pages we view 'specially for US' (that's scary! but do we do anything? No - many of us think it's a small price to pay for the instant convenience of the internet, of the property security of cctv and the health and medical records that bring down our insurance costs.) If something is wrong - surely we will say?

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

Post II

In addition to these ironies, in his satire, Auden highlights opposing measures of the progress of JS/07 M 378 through life. One of these measures is represented by good behavior in the factory; in a sound Union (as opposed to a trouble making Union); proper conduct within his Union (e.g., not being a "scab," which is an anti-union worker); the proper beliefs about and participation in war and peace; and the correct absorption of propaganda from the daily Press (remember, the press played a big role in the Cold War for all countries involved). An opposing measure, perhaps seen as the reward or pay-off for the first measure, is JS/07 M 378's standard of living. He bought goods on the Installment Plan (monthly payments for large, otherwise unaffordable purchases); he had a phonograph for records, "a radio, a car and a frigidaire" (the original refrigerator). One of these opposing measures reflects conformity and party line, the other represents wealth, prosperity, progress and ostensible freedom.

In the end, the narrator, a representative of the "state," which has access to all levels of data collection and analysis, asks what the "state" thinks of as purely rhetorical questions about freedom and happiness and dismisses them out of hand as "absurd." The surprise, a sad surprise really, is in the last line: "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." The surprise is that the "state" actually, truly expected to have heard about unhappiness and restraints to freedom (1) in the society pictured (reflecting 1946) and (2) through the means established and exercised. In summary, "It's a good life, Charlie Brown," as long as you don't attend to the background framework and the rigidity; as long you look only at the popularity and cars and phonographs and radios and purchases on the Installment Plan. (Maybe we should have attended to this poem a little more carefully in 1946.)

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

((Too long for 1 post.))

Post I

The Unknown Citizen, this multileveled and complex poem by W.H. Auden, is usually described by its surface level of meaning, that being that the "state" of some "future" time has reduced individuals to a collection of data and numbers. However, there are too many references to the America of Auden's present day life to fully justify a label of futuristic, and there are too many references to "standard of living" particulars to fully justify analyzing it as solely a diatribe against the "state." In addition, the "state" provides the poem with a surprise ending.

W. H. Auden was a York-born Englishman (1907) who became an American citizen in 1946 after having lived in America from 1939; he moved to Austria in 1958, which is where he lived until his death in 1973. Therefore, the differences between American English and British English sentence stress and word-syllable stress will be apparent and significant in his poetry and, in fact, do enter into comprehending the meaning of "The Unknown Citizen" because it relates to rhythm, and Auden's rhythm underscores his meaning. 

This poem is often described as free verse but actually it is anapest with liberal variations. The triple beat rhythm begins in the title and carries through to the last line. This is worth mentioning in regard to understanding the poem because the anapest triple beat underscores the ironies and the surprise (almost tragic surprise, really) of the poem. Auden is satirizing his present day post-World War II democracies that had developed "progressive" means, based on Social Darwinism, of taking care of--and tracking the care of--their citizens. "JS/07 M 378" isn't just a presage of what is to come, it is an ironic tribute to what was, from passport numbers to Social Security numbers.

The anapest rhythm lilts along in an ironic and a self-satisfied way, not in a sinister or a cold and heartless way. This is important all throughout but especially in the last few lines. The two major ironies are emphasized by the lilt (again, Auden undertakes liberal variations). The first of the major ironies is that all the huge efforts that go into finding out about JS/07 M 378--the Bureaus, the polls, the researchers, etc.--all end at last in the "absurd." The second major irony is that the tools designed purportedly for safety and liberty are in reality the tools of anonymity and restriction. Two of these tools, according to Auden's The Unknown Citizen, are the "Greater Community" and "teachers" in "education."

Post II below (I hope)

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

It seems to me that a main idea of the poem is to bring to light the increase in standardized practices of government.  The title is meant to be a takeoff of "The Unknown Soldier," someone of whom we might not know but someone for whom we match a  identity that is shrouded in patriotism and "the nation."  Auden's poem sees this same level of anonymity, but in the form of the state.  The Bureau of Statistics viewed the individual as "a saint" because the citizen was unknown, and someone that fell in line with the goals of the government's machinery.  At this point, Auden might be making a strong statement about the nature of power in this governmental setting.  Power comes from the top down, and perhaps, it should come from the bottom up, where individuals are not merely seen as statistics and faceless beings, but rather as people who have needs and demand more of their government and community.  In the conclusion of the poem, the state is able to deem the citizen as "free" and "happy" because "if anything had been wrong, we certainly would have heard."  In this closing, one sees that the main idea of the poem is that the large nature of government seeks to reduce individuals to statistics, and in order for power to be asserted, individuals have to find a way to be distinctive, to possess voice, and to represent a state of being that is more than the existence dictated by the "Bureau of Statistics."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"?

The main idea I suppose is that non-commital people deserve the insignificance of their lives. That is to say that people who "don't want to get involved" in life do just that - they stay on the perimeter of the action, watching the parade go by but never taking part. They never make a real contribution to anything and therefore live and die unheeded.

A second criticism focuses rather on the society which has produced these kinds of people. A person's environment also decides whether he or she will be a contributing citizen or not.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is W.H. Auden communicating to us in "The Unknown Citizen"?

Auden is communicating the connections between the "alienation" of modern life and the loss of "personal identity" which has been brought on by modern technology. The title, "The Unknown Citizen" is reminiscent of "the unknown soldier", a man who gave his life for his country yet no one even knows who he is. Auden is drawing a parallel between the unknown soldier and the everyday person who labors day in and day out and, in the end, is known only by some kind of number--like a social security number or today as a computer serial number. Unfortunately, numbers only give identity, not the stories behind the people who represent them. Andfor all the information gathered about a person, the "Unknown Citizen" is not allowed a voice or a word during the entire poem.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is known about the individual in W.H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen"?

We learn in the poem that this unnamed individual was a well-adjusted social conformist who did everything his culture expected of him.

The poem's speaker offers a host of details about this citizen. The man worked in a car factory his entire life, except when he went to war. He read the newspapers and held the orthodox views expected of a citizen: when the government advocated for peace, he supported peace. When the government went to war, he supported war. He was apparently careful with his money and purchased all the right insurance policies. He had five children, which was the right amount for his times. He went to the hospital only once and was cured of whatever ailed him. He bought the normal consumer goods for his era, such as a radio, a record player, a car, and a refrigerator.

In all ways, this man was a model citizen. However, he is "unknown," because we learn nothing of what his interior life was like below the surface of his well-adjusted social self. The speaker asks the following questions:

Was he free? Was he happy?

He then decides such questions about the interior life are "absurd." The poem functions as a satiric commentary on the metrics used to measure a person's well being and quality of life. Auden is suggesting that a person is more than a mass of facts about how many children he had or what he owned.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is known about the individual in W.H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen"?

W.H. Auden gives us many basic facts about "The Unknown Citizen." We know, for instance that no complaints had ever been filed about him, indicating that he did not do anything to hurt anyone else or to damage property or break laws. He is even called a "saint," showing that he must have been a very good person. We also know he worked in a factory and was a satisfactory employee. He was popular with friends and liked to have a drink with them. This citizen read the newspaper--or at least bought one daily. He had insurance and was hospitalized just one time and left well again. He had things...

"...necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire." (Auden ll. 20-21)

He went to war when he was called to do so, was married with five children. What we do not know is whether or not he was free or happy.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the title "The Unknown Citizen" relate to the theme of W. H. Auden's poem?

The title of W. H. Auden's poem, "The Unknown Citizen" matches in satire the theme of his verse.  Like the monuments erected after the World Wars that were perfunctorily dedicated by politicos to soldiers who died defending their country, but their bodies were never recovered, the monument to the unknown citizen, like that of the unknown soldier, honors only his deeds, not his person as they are of greater importance to the State. 

This citizen, who is only recorded as a number, is honored for his very anonymity--an unknown citizen--because he has conformed to bureaucratic standards and never caused any problems, having "reactions to advertisements [that]were normal in every way."  And,

When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.

Like those of the unknown soldier, none of the feelings of the unknown citizen have been recognized,

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

Had anything been srong, we should certainly have heard.

The sterile bureaucratic government that identifies the unknown citizen with a sterile number honors the unknown citizen precisely because his feelings have always been subjugated to the norms of the State in order to serve "the Greater Community."  Clearly, Auden's theme that the large, bureaucratic Government reduces individuals to statistics and unknowns is in accord with the satiric title that suggests a marble monument is erected to a citizen because of this very anonymity.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on