English Literature
The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Analyzing the Influence of Government Control and Conformity in W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"

First published in 1940, W.H. Auden's renowned poem, "The Unknown Citizen," raises important questions about the extent of government control and the impact of conformity on society. In this thought-provoking piece, the life of a man is evaluated solely based on his adherence to societal norms in various aspects of his life, including his occupation, family, and personal opinions. Written in a detached and emotionless tone, reminiscent of a government report, "The Unknown Citizen" challenges readers to consider the intersection of government control and conformity and its consequences on society.

About W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"

W.H. Auden, a British-American poet, wrote "The Unknown Citizen" after immigrating to the United States in 1939. The poem initially appeared in The New Yorker in January 1940 and was later included in his poetry collection, Another Time, released that same year.

Born in England in 1907, Auden traveled extensively throughout his life and eventually settled in the United States in 1939, just before Britain joined World War II. Auden strongly opposed the Nazis and their emphasis on conformity and Aryan superiority. He was also critical of the rising popularity of radical communism in the Soviet Union and its affiliated countries, which prioritized the state's rule over individualism. While Auden's early beliefs were influenced by Marxist theories, he was wary of the standardization and conformity prevalent in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and other communist nations.

It is worth mentioning that Auden was equally critical of capitalist consumerism and the American Dream, evident in the poem's reference to Fudge Motors Inc., a nod to the highly standardized Ford Motor Company known for its assembly line mode of production. Living through both World Wars, Auden witnessed soldiers being reduced to mere numbers rather than individual human beings. He also observed the rise of extreme communism under Joseph Stalin and fascism under Adolf Hitler. Additionally, he witnessed America's rapid industrialization and the emphasis on standardization and productivity. By the time of his death in 1973, the world had undergone significant social and political transformations.

The Message of the Poem

The poem is structured as a monument and reads like a cold, detached report about a deceased individual. The man is identified as "JS/07 M 378," and the speaker states that the Bureau of Statistics found no official complaints against him, and all reports about his conduct were in agreement. The man is described as a "saint" in the modern sense of the term, as he dutifully served the "Greater Community" in every aspect of his life.

The speaker goes on to mention that the man worked in a factory, never lost his job, and satisfied his employers at Fudge Motors Inc. He was also a union member who paid his dues and was well-respected by his coworkers. The poem also notes that he was a regular reader of newspapers and had typical reactions to advertisements. His insurance policies and health records further confirm his compliance with societal expectations. The man is depicted as a typical modern individual with modern gadgets, such as a phonograph, radio, car, and refrigerator, which are deemed necessary for a "Producers Research and High-Grade Living." Finally, the poem implies that the man held appropriate opinions for the time, showcasing his conformity to societal norms.

The poem's concluding lines question the man's liberty and happiness, suggesting that the answers are irrelevant since any issues would have been reported. Ultimately, the poem highlights the detrimental effects of government control and conformity on an individual's life, reducing them to nothing more than a "Known Citizen."

The Takeaway

"The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden remains a powerful commentary on the harmful impact of government control and conformity on individuals and society at large. Through the life of an unknown citizen, Auden challenges us to consider the balance between societal expectations and an individual's sense of self and identity. This poem continues to resonate with readers, reminding us to question the extent of control and conformity within our own communities.

The Loss of Identity in "The Perfect Citizen" Through Literary Techniques

"The Perfect Citizen" by W.H. Auden is a satirical commentary on the negative effects of societal expectations and conformity on individuals. The poem employs irony, allusion, and rhetorical question to criticize the loss of identity and autonomy in a society obsessed with economic growth and conformity. These literary techniques highlight the damaging impact of societal pressure on individuals.

Irony: Challenging Societal Norms

The title and epigraph of "The Perfect Citizen" are ironic, as they suggest the insignificance of the citizen in question, labeled as "JS/07 M378." However, the poem goes on to list every detail of his life, showing the government's extensive knowledge of his every move. This irony highlights the lack of privacy and individuality in a society where conformity is valued above all else. The citizen's anonymous identity and lack of personal thoughts and opinions reveal that to the state, only conformity matters, not individual expression.

Allusion: A Critique of Standardization

The speaker alludes to the standardization of both the United States and the Soviet Union, using metonymy to criticize the loss of individuality in these societies. The reference to Ford Motors Inc. reflects the assembly line method, which prioritized conformity and reduced workers to mere cogs in the machine. Similarly, the allusion to the Soviet Union's Five-Year Plans highlights the societal pressure to conform and prioritize economic growth over individual needs.

Rhetorical Question: The Absurdity of Conformity

The speaker's rhetorical question, "Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd," dismisses the idea of individual freedom and happiness in a conformist society. This challenges the readers to question the quality of life in a society that values conformity over individuality.

In conclusion, "The Perfect Citizen" uses literary devices to criticize the detrimental effects of societal expectations and conformity on individuals. The poem serves as a warning against the loss of identity in a society driven by economic growth and conformity.

The Manipulation of Society in "The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden

In his poem, "The Unknown Citizen," W.H. Auden uses powerful literary techniques to critique the control of government and media over the lives of individuals in society. Through the use of metonymy, rhetorical questions, alliteration, and caesura, Auden highlights the dangers of conforming to societal norms and the suppression of individual identity.

Metonymy: The Power of the Media

In the poem, "The Press" is used as a metonymy for the journalists who control the flow of information and manipulate citizens into accepting propaganda as truth. This is shown in the lines, "The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day/And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way" (14-15). By grouping all news sources and opinions together, the speaker portrays the media as a powerful organization that controls the minds and actions of ordinary people.

Rhetorical Questions: Questioning Autonomy

Auden also employs rhetorical questions to emphasize the lack of autonomy of the unknown citizen. Questions such as, "Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd" (28), serve to show the futile attempts of individuals to seek freedom and happiness in a society that values conformity and obedience over individuality.

Alliteration: Emphasizing Conformity

The use of alliteration by Auden calls attention to certain words and emphasizes their significance. In lines such as "He worked in a factory and never got fired,/But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc." (7-8), the repetition of the "F" sound emphasizes the importance of conforming to societal expectations and pleasing one's employer in this society.

Caesura: Highlighting Government Control

Auden also utilizes caesura, or breaks in the middle of a sentence, to emphasize the extent of bureaucratic power over individuals. This is evident in line 24, "When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went," where the pause highlights the fact that even during times of war, the citizen's actions were controlled by the government.

Critique of Economic Growth

Through the use of various literary devices, Auden effectively critiques the impact of economic growth on individuals in "The Unknown Citizen." The poem serves as a warning against the dangers of prioritizing economic success over individual freedom and identity.

Government Control in "The Unknown Citizen"

In W.H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen," the consistent use of breaks and pauses after phrases such as "when there was peace" and "when there was war" highlights the government's forceful control over its citizens. The speaker's tone is matter-of-fact, stating that the man in question simply did as his country required of him. This not only reflects the government's control over the lives of its citizens, but also over the pauses and breaks in the poem itself. The last line, specifically, with its caesura, further emphasizes the power held by bureaucracy.

Caesura: a break or pause in the middle of a line of poetry.

Enjambment and end-stopping

The majority of the lines in the poem are end-stopped, meaning that the thought ends with the line rather than continuing into the next. This mirrors the idea that everything in the poem, and in society, is standardized and controlled by a higher force, such as bureaucracy. This is evident in the final seven lines, which all end with some form of punctuation, further emphasizing the strict control and purposeful delivery of words by the speaker, representing the government's control over individual citizens.

Enjambment: the continuation of a sentence after a line break.

End-stopping: a pause at the end of a line of poetry, typically marked by punctuation such as "." "," ":" or ";"

Tone and Vocabulary

The speaker's tone in the poem is emotionless, monotonous, and robotic, using minimal poetic language and imagery. This choice portrays the speaker as more of a machine or computer than a human, further emphasizing the detachment between the government and its citizens. The use of pronouns such as "we" and "our" throughout the poem further reinforces the speaker's position as a collective entity above the citizens it controls. Words like "Greater Community," "Social Psychology," and "Public Opinion" are all capitalized, giving them the status of proper nouns and emphasizing the government's manipulation of language and control over its citizens.

Note: As you read "The Unknown Citizen," be mindful of how it makes you feel. Do you experience a sense of strangeness, repetition, or monotony? What vocabulary stands out to you?

Exploring Themes in W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen"

The poem "The Unknown Citizen" delves into themes of conformity, standardization, loss of self, and state control and dominance.

Conformity, Standardization, and Loss of Self

The subject of the poem is praised for living a perfect life, not because he is happy or fulfilled, but because he conforms to society's expectations. He is deemed a model citizen because he follows orders and is commended for his lack of personal feelings. The speaker even compares him to a saint, not because of any noble or courageous deeds, but simply because he serves the "Greater Community." It is worth noting that the man in question is not given a name, physical description, or personal desires as these could potentially hinder his ability to conform unquestioningly to societal norms. This dystopian society values conformity above all else, elevating individuals who lack a sense of self and willingly conform to imposed expectations.

State Control and the Dominance of Bureaucracy

In this society, individuals have no sense of self, and the state holds complete control over their lives. The bureaucracy not only dictates jobs, medicine, and punishment, but also manipulates and governs the minds of its citizens.

The State's Control Over the Individual in "The Unknown Citizen"

In 1940, W. H. Auden wrote "The Unknown Citizen," a thought-provoking poem that explores the idea of the state having complete dominion over an individual's life. The state dictates what is considered right or wrong, ultimately determining a person's worth in society. This control is evident in every aspect of the unknown citizen's life, including his opinions, family size, and even in death. The mention of eugenics and its role in society further emphasizes the extent of the state's control.

The concept of eugenics originated with 19th-century intellectuals studying Darwinism, evolution, and adaptation. In the 20th century, eugenics focused on genetic fitness and public health in general, without bias towards a specific race or gender. However, the Nazis corrupted this concept to suit their political and social agendas. They believed in the superiority of the Aryan race and viewed Jews as a threat to the gene pool. This twisted interpretation of eugenics justified the sterilization and murder of those deemed "genetically diseased," including European Jews. Therefore, Auden's mention of the state controlling the population in the poem is a chilling reminder of the atrocities that can occur when the state has too much power.

The poem follows an "unknown citizen" who is portrayed as an exemplary member of society. He conforms to societal norms without question, but his individual identity is never acknowledged. This lack of recognition for his individuality highlights the themes of conformity, standardization, and loss of self in the poem. Auden's writing also alludes to the influence of both the Soviet Union and the United States, suggesting a commentary on too much conformity in all forms of government.

The main message of "The Unknown Citizen" is that allowing the state to have complete control over individuals and their lives can be detrimental to their sense of self and personal identity. The poem serves as a warning against blindly accepting society's definition of what is considered good or acceptable. It reminds readers of the importance of thinking for oneself and not succumbing to societal pressures.

In conclusion, W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" sheds light on the dangers of the state having complete dominion over a person's life. Through vivid imagery, subtle allusions, and profound themes, the poem sends a poignant message about the preservation of individuality in a society that values conformity. It serves as a cautionary tale to avoid becoming unknown citizens controlled by the state.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime