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The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen

How much control should the government have over its citizens' lives? How much conformity is beneficial to society and how much is a detrimental loss of a sense of self? W. H. Auden asks all these questions and more in his 1940 poem "The Unknown Citizen." In his extreme case of government control, a man's life is evaluated entirely upon how he conformed to society's expectations in his occupation, family, and even his opinions. Told in a cold, detached tone as if taken straight out of a government report, the poem will make you question how the government and conformity intersect and what effect that has on society.

The Unknown Citizen at a Glance

Written By

W. H. Auden

Publication Date

1940

Form

Parody of an elegy

Meter

Loosely anapest with some variations

Rhyme Scheme

Irregular (ABABA DDEFFGGE HH II JKKJ LJLNNNOO)

Poetic Devices

Irony

Allusion

metonymy

Alliteration

Caesura

Rhetorical Question

Enjambment and end stop

Frequently noted imagery

Factory for Fudge Motors Inc.

Liked a drink

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire

Five children

Tone

Impersonal, monotone

Key themes

Conformity, standardization, and loss of self

State control and dominion of bureaucracy

Meaning

Conformity and total government control is detrimental to a sense of self and individual identity.

W. H. Auden's The Unknown Citizen

British-American poet W. H. Auden wrote his famous poem "The Unknown Citizen" shortly after he emigrated to the United States in 1939. It was first published in The New Yorker in January 1940 and then later republished in Auden's poetry collection Another Time, which came out later that year.

Auden was born in England in 1907, but he traveled extensively, eventually moving to the United States in 1939 less than a year before Britain entered into World War II. Auden hated the Nazis, their insistence on conformity, and the idea that Aryans were a superior race.

Radical communism was also on the rise in the Soviet Union and its allied countries, stressing the rule of the state over the individual. Although Auden's early views were largely influenced by Karl Marx's theories, he was wary of the standardization happening in Germany, the Soviet Union, and other communist countries.

The Unknown Citizen, Communism, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Radical communism in the Soviet Union emphasized conformity to the state, of which Auden was deeply critical.

It is important to note that Auden was equally critical of capitalist consumerism and was disillusioned with the American Dream. This is shown throughout the poem, specifically with reference to Fudge Motors Inc., an allusion to Ford Motor Company, which was known for developing the assembly line mode of production and further standardizing products and labor.

Auden himself lived through both World Wars, in which soldiers died as a statistic and not as individual people. He witnessed the rise of Joseph Stalin's extreme communism and Adolf Hitler's extreme fascism. He also watched as America became increasingly more industrialized and productivity was defined by standardization. By the time he died in 1973, the entire world had undergone enormous social and political changes.

The Unknown Citizen Poem

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

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.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

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

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

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

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

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard."

The Unknown Citizen Summary

Reading like a passive report without any sign of human feeling, the speaker reflects on the life of an unknown dead man. The speaker states that the dead man was an exemplary citizen because he did everything correctly according to the government. No one ever made a complaint about him, he worked at the same job for all of his life, only leaving to serve in the war, he had a wife and five children which was the perfect number, and he owned all of the right things. He always had the correct view on the issues of the state, being a pacifist in times of peace and fighting for his country in times of war. He bought the newspaper every day and read it just like he was supposed to. He was only in the hospital once and he left there cured. He did everything correctly in order to serve his society and lived a perfect life. It is ridiculous to wonder if he was happy or free, the narrator states, because if anything was wrong with him the state surely would have known.

The Unknown Citizen Analysis

"The Unknown Citizen" uses several literary devices to position the poem as a satire not meant to be taken seriously. The most important of the literary devices are irony, allusion, and rhetorical question.

Irony

The entire poem, including the title, is full of irony. The title "The Unknown Citizen" and the epigraph ("JS/07 M378") at the beginning of the poem state that the dead man is obscure. But lines 1-29 of the poem detail every aspect of the "unknown" man's life from his job to his family to his friends to his consumer habits. While the government claims to know nothing about him, they have information on his entire life:

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree" (1-3).

Far from unknown, the man seems to have nothing private for himself as the Bureau of Statistics, Social Psychology workers, The Press, his Health-card, Producers Research and High-Grade Living, Public Opinion researchers, the Eugenist, and his children's teachers all kept record of the various facets of his life. In fact, the only things that are actually unknown about him are his name and his individual thoughts and opinions. This shows that to the state, which is doing the reporting on the dead man, none of the things that set him apart as an individual are important. He might be a model member of society, but his identity as a person is largely wiped out.

The man is anonymous because he is just one person in a population of mass conformity. Everyone buys the exact same things, has the same opinions, and even has the same number of children to be considered exemplary. Because they are all the same, their names are insignificant if they are doing everything the state tells them to. Their identity is only important if they are doing things incorrectly and must be punished.

Irony: a situation in which there is a contrast between what the reader or a character expects and what actually happens

Allusion

There are two allusions in this poem that reveal Auden's disillusionment with all forms of government, not just left-wing or right-wing. The first occurs early on in the unknown man's workplace:

He worked in a factory and never got fired,But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,For his Union reports that he paid his dues" (7-10).

This is an allusion to Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford revolutionized the production of automobiles in 1913 when he introduced the assembly line method of production. Instead of each employee working on everything, the assembly line meant that every worker was trained on one specific task, passing down the product until it was finally assembled as a whole. This decreased the time it took for a Ford automobile to be built from 12 hours down to an hour and 33 minutes.

The assembly line, however, stressed conformity and standardization. The workers were all cogs in the machine to their employers. If one person wasn't pulling their weight, they could simply be fired and replaced. This caused the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor organizers to begin pushing for unionization in 1937. Ford was strictly opposed to unions and at times met their protests with violence. After years of resistance, the Ford Motor Company became the last major automobile company to unionize in 1941.

The second allusion is to the Soviet Union's Five-Year Plans when the speaker states, "He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan" (19). Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet Union began implementing a series of economic plans with the hope of boosting the economy. The first plan, implemented by Stalin in 1928 focused on increasing industrialization and agriculture, but it came at the cost of consumer goods. The Soviet Union launched 13 five-year plans in total. Consumers and individual people often shouldered the majority of the loss in the name of economic growth.

Auden includes these allusions to critique both standardization in the United States and in the Soviet Union. He is wary of conformity and loss of identity both with extreme capitalism and extreme communism. In general, he notes that both countries are guilty of pushing their state's control and eroding their citizen's identity as individuals.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

Metonymy

Metonymy occurs in how the speaker presents news organizations and propaganda:

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every dayAnd that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way" (14-15).

The press refers to the media—journalists and editors—who disseminate news to the general population. Instead of being a group of diverse, unbiased journalists, however, metonymy groups all news sources and opinions together. This is useful in order to present "the press" as a all-powerful organization which has complete control over the news and is able to feed ordinary people propaganda that they accept as law. The man's obedience in buying a paper every day and reacting to propaganda exactly as he's expected to also shows that he lacks original thought and simply believes what he is told.

Metonym: the substitution of the name of a thing or concept for something that is closely associated with it.

The Unknown Citizen, Photography, StudySmarterFig. 2 - "The Press" is a metonymy for journalists who control the flow of information and make the citizens believe whatever they tell them.

Rhetorical Question

The speaker uses rhetorical questions to further take away the autonomy of the unknown citizen:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd" (28)

In this world where the unknown citizen is simply a number in a mass of people just like him, his individual freedom and happiness don't matter. The ideals of happiness and freedom are themselves considered "absurd" and irrelevant. As long as he is doing exactly what society expects him to do, there aren't any issues. The rhetorical questions also show how little agency the people have in their own lives. They don't even have the chance to decide if they are happy, fulfilled, and free as the value of such ideals have already been discredited for them.

Rhetorical Question: a question asked to create dramatic effect or emphasize a point rather than to get an actual answer

Some critics have stated that the society in "The Unknown Citizen" reads like a dystopia. Think about other dystopias you know (i.e. The Giver, The Hunger Games, 1984). How does the government in this poem compare? Is it fair to call this a dystopia?

Alliteration

Alliteration calls attention to certain pairings of words, making them stand out and emphasizing their importance over others. Consider the repetition of the "F" sound here:

He worked in a factory and never got fired,But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc." (7-8).

The alliteration groups together the words "factory," "fired" and "Fudge (Motors)," emphasizing their importance. In this society where a good life means doing everything the government tells you to, the most important thing a person can do is fit into the status quo. It also emphasized the power of Fudge Motors Inc. because they are backed by the government. If the man did not satisfy his employer, the government would have a very different opinion on his life.

The Unknown Citizen, Factory Workers, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker stresses that the citizen is good because he worked in a factory, producing goods for an automobile company every day of his life.

Alliteration, while naturally rhythmic, counterintuitively contributes to the monotonous tone of the poem. When alliteration happens in the same spaced out, lazy way several times in a row, it's effect becomes expected and tedious.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every dayAnd that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured." (14-17).

The "P" sound in line 14, "A" sound in line 15, "P" sound in line 16, and "H" sound in line 17 are interspersed at almost the exact same intervals. The repetition of the letters is spread out long enough that these lines aren't sing-songy, and instead they mimic a emotionless job being done again and again at regular intervals (like stapling or stamping a paper).

Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

Caesura

Caesura creates breaks in the middle of a sentence, often for a natural stopping place. In "The Unknown Citizen," however, caesura is used for emphasis to show how much power the bureaucracy has over ordinary citizens. Consider line 24:

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went." (24)

The breaks after "when there was peace" and "when there was war" show that the government is really controlling force the citizens. The statements are straightforward and matter of fact: when his country decided it needed him to act one way or the other he did it. The government control over the breaks and pauses in the sentences as well as control over its citizens' lives. Caesura again shows the power the bureaucracy has in the last line:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." (29)

The insistence that nothing was wrong and the stop in the middle of the sentence is one last reminder of who is in charge.

Caesura: a break/pause near the middle of a line of poetry

Enjambment and end stop

The majority of the lines are end stopped, meaning the thought ends with the line instead of spilling over into the next line. This reflects the idea that everything in the poem is standardized and controlled by bureaucracy or some kind of higher force. Consider the final seven lines of the poem:

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

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

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

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

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." (23-29).

Every single one of these lines ends with some kind of punctuation. The pace of the poem is strictly controlled and words are very purposefully delivered, which ultimately reflects the speaker's control over everything in society, from this poem/report to each individual citizen.

Enjambment: the continuation of a sentence after the line breaks

End-stopped: a pause at the end of a line of poetry, using punctuation (typically "." "," ":" or ";")

Tone and vocabulary

The speaker's tone throughout the poem is emotionless, monotonous, and somewhat dead-sounding. The distinct lack of poetic language, most notably imagery, is an important stylistic choice. Instead of the speaker being a living, breathing person, the tone and vocabulary makes it seem more like a machine or computer. Consider the use of "we" and "our" throughout the poem. The speaker is a collective that is above the humans it watches every single day. Phrases like "our Eugenist" and "our teachers" position people as something the speakers possess.

The vocabulary also sets the speaker and its affiliates apart from the people they control. Words like "Greater Community," "Social Psychology," and "Public Opinion" are all capitalized, making them proper nouns. As proper nouns, these things become physical things that the speaker can use and manipulate.

Read the poem aloud and notice how the words make you feel. Does it feel strange, repetitive, monotonous, etc.? What specific vocabulary stands out to you?

The Unknown Citizen Themes

The major themes in the poem are conformity, standardization, and loss of self as well as state control and dominion.

Conformity, standardization, and loss of self

The unknown citizen is praised for his exemplary life because of his ability to conform to society's standards. He was a model citizen, not because he was happy or fulfilled, but because he did everything he was supposed to. He is praised, not because of who he was as a person, but because of his lack of personal sentiments. The speaker states,

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,For in everything he did he served the Greater Community." (4-5).

Notice that he's not a saint because of any goods acts or morality. Instead, he is a good person because his life was consumed by this bigger-than-thou force, "the Greater Community." The man doesn't even have a name; he doesn't have any physical description or desires or ambitions. Any of those things might have detracted from his ability to serve the community as a mindless follower. In this dystopia, the best quality a person can have is a complete and utter lack of self and desire to conform.

State control and dominion of bureaucracy

As the citizens have no sense of self, the state is free to take control over every aspect of everyday life. And the bureaucracy doesn't just control jobs, medicine, and jail-time. On the contrary, the state has dominion over every aspect of a person's life, deciding what is right or wrong and using that decision to complete dictate a person's value in society. The state monitored the man's opinions:

Our researchers into Public Opinion are contentThat he held the proper opinions for the time of year" (22-23)

They also deem how many kids is acceptable based on eugenics:

He was married and added five children to the population,Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation." (25-26)

All in all, the state controlled every aspect of his life from his job to his children to his opinions and beliefs. Nothing is out of their control, and even in death they are free to judge the deceased based on their compliance to society's expectations.

Eugenics came out of 19th-century intellectuals who were studying Darwinism, evolution, and adaptation. In the 20th century, eugenics examined genetic fitness and public health generally. It didn't position one race or gender over another, but instead took an enormous variety of genetic characteristics into consideration.

The Nazis, though, manipulated eugenics to fit their own political and social agendas. They long held that Aryans were the genetically superior race of humans and Jews were polluting the gene pool. They (wrongly) used eugenics to justify this worldview and began a campaign to "cleanse" Germany of biological threats to their public health. The Nazi Party used eugenics to justify the sterilization and murder of the "genetically diseased," most notably European Jews.

Eugenics today is mostly associated with the Nazi Party and the Holocaust. Auden's mention of the Eugenist controlling population is not a coincidence, but rather a haunting reminder of the horrors the state is capable of when given enough control.

The Unknown Citizen - Key Takeaways

  • "The Unknown Citizen" was written by British-American poet W. H. Auden in 1940.
  • This was a time of great social change, in the midst of World War II. Auden was suspicious of government control, especially in radical communism and capitalist consumerism.
  • The poem examines the life of an "unknown citizen" even though the government kept extensive records on every aspect of his life.
  • With allusions to both the Soviet Union and the United States, Auden shows that he is critical of too much conformity on both sides of the political spectrum.
  • The main themes are conformity, standardization, and loss of self and state control and dominion of bureaucracy.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Unknown Citizen

The unknown citizen is described as the exemplary citizen. He does everything exactly how he is supposed to. But he lacks any identity of his own and isn't even given a name. 

Conformity, standardization, and loss of self

State control and dominion of bureaucracy

Conformity and total government control is detrimental to a sense of self and individual identity. 

The purpose of the poem is to caution against blindly accepting society's definition of good and reinforcing the necessity to think for oneself. 

The irony is that the government knows everything about the citizens life, even down to his opinions and every day habits, but he is still referred to as unknown and they call him by a number instead of his name. 

Final The Unknown Citizen Quiz

Question

Who wrote "The Unknown Citizen"? 

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Answer

"The Unknown Citizen" was written by W. H. Auden in 1939. 

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Question

What is important about the time period "The Unknown Citizen" was published in? 

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Answer

"The Unknown Citizen" was published in 1940 during World War II and the rise of radical communism and fascism. Industrialization was also pushing capitalism in America. Auden was very critical of complete government control and a loss of individuality among citizens. 

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Question

What is ironic about "The Unknown Citizen"? 

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Answer

The poem is titled "The Unknown Citizen"  and the man himself is only called by a number and not a name. However, the government knows everything about his life and uses that information to state that he was a model citizen, without even caring to learn his name. 

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Question

What was the unknown citizen like? 

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Answer

The unknown citizen did everything that society told him to. He had the right job, the right opinion, the right medical history, the right number of children, etc. However, his personal opinions and ambitions are never revealed and he is known by a number. 

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Question

What effect do the allusions have? 

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Answer

The allusions to both America and the Soviet Union show that neither left-wing nor right-wing governments escape Auden's critique.  He is wary of total government involvement in all countries, not just in communist states. 

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Question

What is the tone of the poem? 

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Answer

The tone is impersonal and cold. The speaker comes across as monotone and emotionless. 

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Question

What does metonymy do? 

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Answer

Metonymy lumps all journalists and new sources together over the general and powerful "Press." The Press is the only source of information and people including the unknown citizen read it every day, accepting all of the propaganda as facts.   

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Question

What effect do the rhetorical questions have? 

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Answer

The rhetorical questions make it clear that happiness and freedom are irrelevant in this society. The only thing a life is measured by is how it is used in service to society. 

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Question

What effect does enjambment and end stops have? 

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Answer

The poem is largely controlled by end stopped lines. Just like the people conform to society's expectations, the poem itself is neat and orderly. It reflects the governments total control over every aspect of life. 

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Question

What are the themes in the poem? 

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Answer

The main themes are conformity, standardization, and loss of self and state control and dominion of bureaucracy.

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