The present society is not far from the one that passed less than a century ago. Like before, people nowadays still pay high regard to material wealth, popularity and acceptance. They still search for happiness, which they think can be found in material success. This similarity in society’s standards can be seen by comparing poems written in the early 1900s and a song recorded in the 70s. Together, the poems “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1972) and “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Arden (1940) and the song “Richard Cory” by Simon & Garfunkel (2001; 1966) talk about a similar theme.
These literary works satirize people’s search for happiness in material success, and the standards that the past and present societies have promoted. Robinson’s “Richard Cory” mainly talks about a man who lives unhappily despite his wealth. Simon & Garfunkel’s song, which has the same title, is obviously based on Robinson’s poem but the songwriters added more details regarding the character. Like in Robinson’s poem, Richard Cory in the song is also rich. He is the owner of a factory. “He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style” (Simon and Garfunkel 4). People look up to him because of his wealth.
They think of him as a complete man for he has everything they do not possess. In Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” the man possesses material things such as “a phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire” (21). Although these are not really signs of wealth these days, they are still material possessions. Therefore, comparing the three men, one can see a major similarity among them: their material success. All three men have all the material things they need to survive and be accepted in society. The characters also reveal other characteristics that make them complete to the eyes of their observers.
Richard Cory has grace and style, which he attains through education. It is common knowledge that to gain education in the past requires financial stability. Therefore, having grace and style still suggests wealth. Likewise, in the song, Richard Cory has political connections. This still implies material wealth for it is impossible to be connected with people of high status if one is poor. Auden’s character is presented in a slightly different way. The unknown citizen is revealed to be a man who closely follows the rules of society.
He is not wealthy as Richard Cory but his records show that “no official complaint” (2) is ever filed against him. He paid his dues, insured himself, and “served the Greater Community” (5). In other words, he does all his duties to the society. Fulfilling these duties means having the material capability to do so because those duties imply the use of money. To pay one’s dues, insure oneself, and serve people require money. In other words, although there is difference in the way the unknown citizen is presented, he shares the same reality of needing money in order to live by society’s standards.
This truth suggests the kind of society that existed in the past and still exists in the present. Like in the past, money is still the center of people’s attention. People use money to gain acceptance into society, they use it to weigh people’s worth like in the “Unknown Citizen,” and they rely on it to judge a person’s fulfillment. For people, the more wealth one has, the more success he has. The three poems emphasize material wealth as the basis of happiness. The recurrence of the theme emphasizes the satirical quality of the three works. In “Richard Cory,” material wealth makes him enviable.
His fortune makes people curse the life they live for they equate happiness with material success. For the people, being rich serves as the standard for happiness. There is a strong contrast between the people and Richard Cory in the two works. While people live in poverty, work hard and survive with hungry stomachs, Richard Cory throws parties, owns a yacht, meets other wealthy people, etc. Although the unknown citizen in Auden’s poem is not amazingly wealthy, his freedom from debt, ability to support five children, and avail of insurance suggest his financial capability. The ending of the poems further contains satirical elements.
Notably, Richard Cory commits suicide, suggesting unhappiness despite his material possessions. Likewise, the unknown citizen’s happiness is in question as reflected in the line, “Was he free? Was he Happy? The question is absurd” (29). This line implies that it is not important to know if he was happy or free. To the persona, what is important is that the citizen obeys the rules of society and conforms to its norms. As the persona believes, it is absurd to question the citizen’s happiness because the society does not judge people by their happiness. This is mainly because they do not know the real meaning of happiness.
As the three poems reveal, the society upholds material happiness more than other forms of happiness such as spiritual happiness. For them, the gauge of perfect life is measured by a man’s possessions. Given the belief of the people, the authors of the works present irony at the end. The suicide of Richard Cory reveals to the people that their notion about happiness is wrong. The authors of Richard Cory end their works in a tragedy to emphasize that material possessions alone do not complete a man. Likewise, Auden suggests the unhappy life of the citizen despite fulfilling his duties to his people.
This shows too that freedom from financial difficulties does not guarantee freedom and happiness. The recurrence of the theme of material possession and the dissatisfaction attached to it closely satirizes reality. Many people equate material success with self-fulfillment. Many strive to own big mansions, luxury cars, signature clothes and other possessions but still end up unhappily. We have seen how Michael Jackson’s fame and success ended in a disaster, Kurt Cobain’s suicide despite a still growing career, and Elvis Presley’s addiction that led to his untimely death.
Likewise, we see people like former presidents rise in power yet still clamor for more as if there is no end to their lives. Indeed, like the people in the three works, our society has remained materialistic and greedy. We still make the same mistakes that former people did. We make physical possessions our highest standard to gain acceptance. We judge people by their wealth, connections and physical appearances. We pay attention to how people fulfill their duties more than how we reach out to them. As the same attitude recurs in our history, the essence of the three poems especially the character of Richard Cory lives on and on.
Works Cited Auden, W. H. “The Unknown Citizen. ” Another Time. Michigan: Random House, 1940, pp. 83-84. Richard Cory. Youtube, 1966. Music Video. Accessed 20 May 2010 <http://www. youtube. com/watch? v=euuCiSY0qYs>. Robinson, Edwin Arlington. “Richard Cory. ” Mirrors: An Introduction to Literature. Ed. In Knott, J. & Reaske, C. Michigan: Canfield Press, 1972, p. 211. Simon, P. & Garfunkel, A. “Richard Cory. ” Sounds of Silence. Sony Music, 2001. CD. Part of conformity and being a Modern man is to have all these material things.
Like Richard Cory, the unknown citizen possesses the money to exist in a society that pays utmost importance to money. Based on this, one can form a picture of a society that promotes materialism. In Auden‘s poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” the persona describes both the “Modern man” (20) and the society he lives in. and Simon and Garfunkel’s song with the same title, material wealth forms part of being accepted in society. Richard Cory is described in both works as rich, “richer than a king” The recurrence of this theme in the works emphasize the standards that both past and present societies hold onto.
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Topic: Satirizing Society and Its Standards
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