The Crisis of Identity in the Unknown Citizen
Identity is defined as the qualities and beliefs that make a particular person distinguishable from others. Developing an identity is an integral milestone of life as if affects how mankind understands and experiences the world. W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen”, conveys an ideal scenario of what of what an identity consists of. Even the title of the poem itself suggests the life of an ordinary, average, and uneventful life. The title also alludes to the tomb of the “Unknown Soldier.” Many countries use this term to honor soldiers who died in battle anonymously, and while the character in this poem is no warrior, he will end up the same way as those soldiers: unknown. Through a variety of poetic devices including tone and irony, W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen” conveys a theme of identity, or in this case, the lack thereof.
Going about His Normal Life
The poem begins with an ironic commemoration to the unknown citizen that seems to be honoring the man: “To JS/07 M 378 / This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State”. However, the poem then uses a satirical tone to demonstrate that the citizen has done nothing extraordinary in his life by stating that “The Bureau of Statistics” (1) had looked upon all the information they had on this individual and found no wrong or anything to raise a grievance about: “One against whom there was no official complaint” (2). The civilian paid his dues and had no eccentric views; He simply lives his life in an ordinary and monotonous way, with no indication of a desire for self-improvement.
The poem continues and states that this individual is described as a “saint” (4), which in this scenario, refers to an individual who has been acknowledged as holy or virtuous, meaning that this citizen has done nothing to raise suspicion about trouble in his life. The speaker portrays this character as unknowingly camouflaging himself. This man is going about his normal life and has no knowledge that he is completely indistinguishable from his fellow citizens other than by a number.
The crisis of identity continues throughout the rest of the poem. To illustrate, the narrator explains that “He worked in a factory and never got fired, / But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc” (7-8). This man was involved in his community and retained the same job for the majority of his life, never raising any complaints. The following verse then brings in societal views to describe the man: “He wasn’t a scab or odd in his views” (9). The word scab is referring to a person being opposed to following the crowd in their decisions and choices. Therefore, not only does this individual blend in with his fellow citizens, he also thinks and behaves like them. He seems to slide by in day to day life which results in having little to no attention brought to himself as he takes care of the debt he owes to the community, just as a model citizen ought to. There is an inverse relationship in that the more than man conforms to society, the less noticeable he becomes.
The poem continues and brings “Social Psychology workers” (12) into the mix, which brings up the topic of truly knowing people. The government employs workers to find out more about their citizens’ lives and yet they know nothing about them other than the statistics from their studies. The government sees this citizen as a number, not as a real person with unique qualities that set him apart from others.
Furthermore, the narrator describes that “he was popular with his mates and liked a drink” (13). This serves as proof that this person had a social life. The speaker is painting a picture that, even though the man was popular among the people, the government took no notice as they could not see past their data into what really mattered. The narrator also reports that “Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured” (16) which is indicative that this individual was responsible and took care of himself. Later, four objects owned by the unknown citizen are mentioned: “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire” (21). The narrator reveals that these items were “necessary to the modern man” (20) for that time period. This is yet another example of Auden’s satirical tone as these items are in no way necessary for life, but to be a “modern man” one had to have all the latest technology. The entirety of the poem drips with satire. The narrator pretends that every accomplishment is important and valued, but the tone seems to mock the unknown citizen and his regular activities.
Never Standing in the Way
As the theme of the citizen blending in continues to develop, the speaker briefly mentions that the man held all the proper opinions and held the same views on war as everyone else. Furthermore, this person had five children, “Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation”(26). This is yet another example of the government putting the man into a designated and expected box. Not only did he have the right number of children, the unknown person never stood in the way of his children’s learning: “And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education” (27). This means that their education was left up to the control of the State. Again, this is another example of how the unknown man did nothing to upset anyone.
The poem then concludes in two lines that veer off from the tone of the rest of the poem. The speaker asks “Was he free? Was he happy?” (28). These two questions serve an ironic purpose for the answer to come as the man never had anything go wrong in his life, but then the speaker continues and answers that “The question is absurd” (28). These two questions are referred to in the singular, as ‘the question,’ as if being free and being happy were the same thing. The speaker concludes with the phrase “Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard” (29) which leaves the reader with an eerie feeling. The narrator defines happiness as the things that do not go wrong, rather than things that go right. In the state’s eyes, this unknown citizen is simply a number, not an individual with unique talents, opinions, beliefs, and so on. He lacks an identity.
All in all, Auden’s blatant portrayal of an individual in society coincides with current literature by highlighting the individuality problems that people face today. Auden uses many poetic devices to demonstrates that even though the unknown citizen goes by the book, does everything right, and does not cause any trouble, the man remains unknown because he does nothing to set himself apart from others. In his poem, Auden seems to send the message that there are countless “Unknown Citizens” who have lost their identities and are a part of a faceless crowd. Auden’s poem is a reminder of the potential dangers of conformity-individuals can lose their unique identity and become a non-person without a voice; an unknown.
- Auden, W. H. “The Unknown Citizen.” Literature The Human Experience: Reading and Writing. Shorter ninth edition, edited by Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz, Bedford and St. Martin’s, 2009, pp 407.
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