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Literary Analysis : W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"

Updated on January 20, 2013

W.H. Auden's “The Unknown Citizen” was penned in 1939 in theNew Yorker. It was later published in 1940 in the anthology Another Time.The title points to the anonymity of the individual in a society that insists on conformity.

The personhood of an individual in a society impressing conformity is reduced to statistics. Particularly, Auden wrote the poem in an era marked by dictatorship in most of the European countries. The individual is addressed as a number here; something that comes across as an American Social Security number. His virtue lies in his being politically correct and adherent to social dictates. The marble monument is a recognition for his conduct that is attributed to him only after his death. The tribute also echoes the 'reification' of Modern Man.

He is assessed on the basis of objective reports and on the fact that there was no complaint against him. The poet asserts: "In the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.” This holds true as in the olden times a saint was one who perfectly obeyed God. In modern times, in a regime characterized by dictatorship, the place of God is replaced by the Government. He took care to serve the Greater Community. Individual aspiration is relegated to collective compliance here.

He worked in a factory and never got fired. He managed to offer contentment to his employers Fudge Motors Inc., but what is not mentioned here, more significantly, is whether or not he was content. He did not put forward any sort of singular or unique viewpoint, was always politically correct and merged with the general mindset. The only thing that mattered to his union was that he paid his dues.

A union is generally built up for the good of the individual members. Here the relationship turns out to be one of convenience. He was popular among his mates and liked a drink. Read ’liked a drink’ as he ‘socialized.’ He bought a paper everyday and was therefore well-read and aware of the current affairs. He reacted to advertisements as the normal consumer would. He was insured and secure healthwise as he was hospitalized only once in his life and left the hospital cured. The above statements reveal him to be an object of observation, study and analysis.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

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

He is appraised based on general surveys, his financial security and material entities. His personal satisfaction and individual independence is yet again deemed secondary here. He opted for peace when there was peace and went for war when there was war. This proves that he was a soldier. He also abided by the social institution of marriage. The Eugenist decided that his five children was the right number for a parent of that generation. The teachers reported that he never interfered with their education. It implies that the system of education was stagnant and any attempt at reform was forestalled. The poet opines in a sarcastic stance:

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

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Note: "The epigraph to "Unknown Citizen" is a parody of the symbolic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating unidentified soldiers; tombs of unknown soldiers were first created following the first World War."(Hewett, Ronald. "A Choice of Poets." London: Harrap, 1968.)

© Rukhaya MK 2012

The content is the copyright of Rukhaya MK. Any line reproduced from the article has to be appropriately documented by the reader. ©Rukhaya MK. All rights reserved.


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