The Unknown Citizen

by W. H. Auden

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Discussion Topic

The identification of the "unknown citizen" in the poem is solely by a number

Summary:

The "unknown citizen" in the poem is identified solely by a number, which symbolizes the loss of individual identity in a bureaucratic and conformist society. This numbering reduces the citizen to a mere statistic, highlighting the dehumanizing effects of modern life.

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How is the unknown citizen identified in the poem's subtitle?

Despite the fact that this man went to such great lengths to be a model citizen, doing everything just as he was asked and expected to do by his government, his employer, his family, and so forth, the letters and numbers by which he is identified show that all of his efforts mean little (or nothing) now that he is gone.  He was not known, at least not by his government, in any sort of personal capacity at all. He is identified not by his compliance, work ethic, goodwill, or popularity, but, by a series of letters and numbers that reminds me of our social security numbers: quite possibly the most impersonal way to acknowledge one's individuality. The questions, "Was he free?" and "Was he happy?" are deemed absurd by the speaker, who does not seem to realize that these are actually the most important questions, rather than, "How many children did he have?" or "What appliances did he own?"  It begins to seem that a life of compliance, where one stays in line and always tries to do the right thing, is ultimately not really a life. It certainly does not make for a life that is worth remembering, judging by the numbers and letters that adorn his grave.

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How is the unknown citizen identified in the poem's subtitle?

If you are referring to The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden, the state identifies the unknown citizen by the state-allocated letters and numbers, JS/07 M 378, on his marble monument.

Interestingly, the subtitle states that the unknown citizen's marble tomb has been erected by the state. As marble is expensive, we may surmise that this unknown citizen must have distinguished himself in some way when he was alive. Indeed, as the poem explains, this unknown citizen was the perfect resident. He lived for the 'Greater Community,' purchased life and health insurance according to law, delighted his employers with his work ethic, satisfied social psychologists with his social prowess, held politically correct beliefs during his life, and had the requisite number of children for a man of his station. When he lived, he even purchased every home appliance the modern man should have possessed, on installment plans, of course.

Unfortunately, for all the trouble he took to endear himself to his government, the state only remembers him with a marble monument in the event of his death; he doesn't even have a name, and all traces of individuality have been erased from history. The unknown citizen has become a sad caricature of true humanity.

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Why is the "unknown citizen" in the poem identified only by a number?

In W. H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen," the citizen of the title is identified only as a number for at least two reasons. In the first place, he is unknown. The title echoes that of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. If the citizen had a name, he would no longer be unknown. In the second place, the citizen is an Everyman figure, a vehicle for Auden's satire of a faceless, anonymous modern society.

Unknown soldiers are commonplace, because in the chaos of war many people are killed on the battlefield and cannot be identified. Civil society is not supposed to be like this. When people die, they are mourned by their families and have proper memorials to commemorate who they were and how they lived. Auden is saying that this man received no such individual treatment. His death was merely logged by "the Bureau of Statistics." Every detail that might have singled him out as an individual is erased. He was a citizen, a worker, and a consumer:

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

The unknown citizen's name has been erased, along with any claim he had to freedom, happiness, a soul or a mind of his own.

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