The Unknown Citizen: by W. H. Auden - Summary & Analysis

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      W. H. Auden's The Unknown Citizen deals with the effect of science and technology on man in society. It was first published in the listener, on August 3, 1939, and later included in the Collected Shorter Poems 1950 Science and the growth of various other disciplines like psychology, sociology, etc, has brought many benefits to man but at the same time, he stands much poorer. Commenting on the poem Dennis Davison writes, "The Colloquial Language and the everyday allusions to frigidaire, radios, installments plans, trade unions, etc, make one immediately at home with this poem".

      The pre-scientific society left much scope for the individuality of man but in the modern age of science and technology, he has been reduced to the position of a cog in the machine. All his feelings and thoughts are manipulated by those who operate the machines of propaganda and persuasion. The man, in the modern age, is losing his power of independent thinking. He leads an unknown and obscure life. in the poem, Auden paints the picture of such an unknown man in the modern society.

Auden in this poem, The Unknown Citizen satirizes the modern society, which is devoid of religion and all other values of life. The modern society is committed to materialism, which makes the modern man unhappy. Social critics want a change in the values of modern society by advocating a revolution.
The Unknown Citizen


      The poem deals with man in the modern age of science and technology which force him to conform to a standard pattern of life and thought. Modern mass-organize a-such as the factory or the trade union impose a uniformity on the individual and this is strengthened by the press and the educational system one such man gets killed in war and the state has erected a monument in memory of this unknown citizen. During the whole of his active career, there was no official complaint against him. He was a royal servant of the system. He always tried to serve society.

      Before the war, he worked in a factory and he was never rebuked or dismissed from job. He always won praise for his sincerity. He was popular with his friends and liked a drink.

      Like any other man in the modern age, he read a newspaper every day. He reacted to the advertisements in the usual way of being guided by them in making purchases. He had all the things supposed to be necessary for modern living, like a car, a radio, a phonograph and refrigerator. He was guided by the trend of thought set by the newspapers and other media of propaganda. During peace time he advocated the cause of peace, and when war broke out, he went to the front like many others. He led the kind of family life led by millions on others. He added five children to the population - a number supposed to be the right for a parent of his generation. As a student, he was very docile and never questioned his teachers on any issue. We get the man swallowed up the system. Whether such a man could have freedom or happiness is an absurd question as they are not the relevant issues for a modern man who has become quite mechanical in his action, thought and feeling.

      Auden's attempt to show how the average person is pressed into conformism by all social forces, made to ignore that within modern society there are often deep conflicts between these social forces. Apart from the devious conflicts of Labour and Capital, there are the population problems and the supply and demand problems in a society in which 'advertisement' and 'producers Research' demand free-spending, whereas the boom slump economy produces unemployment and periods of austerity. These and other profound conflict which are equally characteristic of modern mass society, as are the conformist influences, make the average citizen a prey to dangerous forces which Auden should not have ignored.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Auden in this poem, The Unknown Citizen satirizes the modern society, which is devoid of religion and all other values of life. The modern society is committed to materialism, which makes the modern man unhappy. Social critics want a change in the values of modern society by advocating a revolution. Auden feels that both the society and the individual are to be blamed for the corruption that exists in the society. The unknown soldier's name is signified by a number JS | 07 | M | 378. Our age is an age of statistics and every problem is analyzed by collecting information from various sources. The Bureau of Statistics found the unknown citizen to be a man who perfectly fitted into the system.

      The Unknown Citizen also read newspapers daily and formed his opinion accordingly. During peace, war is painted as something horrible in the press and thus he supported the cause of peace. On the eve of war, the same press exhorts everybody to fight for the motherland and our unknown citizen too reacted accordingly. He stands for the modern man who has lost independent thinking and has become a cog in the machine of society.

      The Unknown Citizen sketches in, with the lightest of ironies, some details of the average man. Bureaucracy cannot be concerned with the happiness of the individual, cannot indeed be concerned with any of the things that make him individual. The question at the end of the poem is quite thought-provoking. The question is - if the man was free. But the answer is negative. Because freedom means freedom of conscience. In the modern society, it is hard for an individual to hear the dictates of his conscience. A person who has become a cog in the machine of society newspapers, unions, insurance people, etc. cannot be happy, particularly when he has no individuality, no conscience of his own. Therefore, these two questions are highly ironic and sum up what has been said before.

      In this poem, in a straightforward manner, Auden implies that in such a society where a man has to live for the 'Greater Community' his individuality is annihilated. Man becomes a mere mechanical adjunct to the various social and economic institutions which imperceptibly take control of him. The subtle irony which Auden employs here is that it is such obligations that give the modern man existence a definition and shape. Man in this modern society is forced to fulfill ridiculous obligations to his employers 'union,' social psychology and "The Press".


      The success of man in a commercialized society does not go together with happiness. In fact, the consideration of happiness is quickly set aside as something 'absurd', for all that matters in such a world is how closely and blindly one can conform to its standards.

      The theme of conformity and absence of individuality which Auden has treated of in the poem is typically a modern concern which finds expression in the writings of several modern writers.

      The Unknown Citizen is written in a clear and simple style and is free from obscure references which we find in a considerable measure in Auden's poetry. It makes its appeal effectively by virtue of its simplicity, directness and the humorous vein. It constitutes a true and sincere commentary on an aspect of the life of the modern man to which he will have to find a serious thought before it is too late.

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