The Unknown Citizen Essay, Research Paper
The 20th Century witnessed the rise of nationalism. Government started to justify many of its actions, unimaginable before, as for the good of the nation. The government played a deeper role in people s personal life, probing and examining every minute detail in search for any unpatriotic crime. Individuals who met the government s standards were lauded as model and patriotic citizens. Those who did not, such as those in the Red Scare of 1950s, were ostracized. This alarmed a generation of writers who wrote to protest this new society. W. H. Auden was among one of these writers. In his poem The Unknown Citizen , through the use of irony, allusion, tone and word choice, the author expressed his concerns for society that sat passively while its government became more powerful and impersonal, restricting personal freedom and happiness.
The speaker of The Unknown Citizen is a faceless government official, who is relating a report of a man’s life to someone who asked if the man was happy and free. The poem carries a voice of very ironic tone, sometimes become sarcasm. The speaker describes the man as a model citizen who in a modern sense of an old-fashioned word is a saint. When asked if the man was free and happy , the speaker responds that the question is absurd, had anything been wrong he should certainly has heard. The irony of the situation is that the very action of probing into the man s personal life by the official that is absurd. The confidence of the official that he has known everything about the man s life is a false one. The irony is that the official has no knowledge about the man s life. All he knows are dry facts. He does not know the private feelings of the man. And it is the private feelings of that man that determine whether he was happy or not.
Beneath the use of ironic tone, the author employs word choice to raise certain intended connotation about the government and the citizen. The words such as normal , and proper , are used to describe the citizen’s attributes as the investigators have found them to be; he is also said to have had the “right number” of children for his generation. In contrast, those who would be opposite to the citizen are described using scab and odd . These word choices are meant to turn the reader against the government, which so offhandedly dictates what is normal and proper and correct and what is not. Intellectually, the use of normal and proper bring up a mindless society of drones, unable to think for themselves or act in any way other than they have been programmed for. The emotional connotations of scab are bitter, as a scab itches and is often picked at. The connotation of the words Auden chooses for his poem highlight the government’s over controlling nature. At the same time, Auden employs words to develop the passiveness of the unthinking citizen: no official complaint, the Greater Community, normal in every way, the proper opinions for the time of the year. Using these word choices, Auden not only attack the citizen but modern society overall. Modern society, on its surface, advocates freedom of speech and expression. Yet, beneath punishes people, either psychologically, socially, or physically for the free expression of certain ideas. Only certain proper opinions are allowed for the time of the year. If it was peace time, it was expected that a man was for peace , and if there was war, he went. Much of this is due to the oppressive nature of the government, however, the citizen has choices too. He could have protest, registers official complaint or complains in private and trying to do something about the complain. Yet, to Auden s dismay, the citizen remains normal in everyway.
To strengthen his theme, Auden also employs allusions to familiar features of current government and society to increase the reader’s identification with those in the poem. An allusion to the United States is made from the phrase “Fudge Motors, Inc.” on line 8, which owns factories. The word Ford could easily be substituted for Fudge. Ford is one of the icons of America, representing the success of free market and capitalism. In contrast, Auden also refers to communism through his allusion of a Greater Community. The man is said to have served the Greater Community in everything he did. This juxtaposition of communism and capitalism, two seemingly incompatible systems since communism allow no private ownership while capitalism depends on it and the owner s greed, strengthens the theme by making them universal to all government, not any particular one.
The Unknown Citizen is an attack by Auden on the government that restrict freedom and happiness from it citizens and at the same time, a critique on modern society that remains passive in the face of ever growing government intrusion. He employs literary devices such as diction, ironic tone, and allusion to enhance his message to the reader. Finally, through the question of was he free? happy? , Auden is asking us if that is the fate we want: a statistical Unknown Citizen, complex, troubled person lost in an uncaring world controlled by intrusive government?