The Unknown Citizen Explication: Unveiling Societal Strictures

Categories: The Unknown Citizen

In the realm of "The Unknown Citizen Explication," numerous conflicts unfold, shedding light on the conformity of the middle class, government manipulation, and the sacrifice of individualism on the altar of societal norms. The speaker, unconventional in their role, delivers a poignant elegy etched on a marble monument erected by the State, dedicated to a mysterious figure identified only as "JS/07 M 378."

This elegy, a lament for the departed, is a creation of either a government official or an ardent supporter of the governmental machinery.

The use of possessive pronouns throughout, as evidenced in lines such as "…our Social Psychology workers found…" and "Our researchers into public opinion are content…," highlights the insidious nature of government manipulation, reminiscent of Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984. The speaker exposes the extent of this manipulation, referencing entities like the "Bureau of Statistics," a universal "Health-card," and personal conduct reports, illustrating the invasive reach of the government into individual lives.

Another prevalent conflict within the poem is the dominance of the middle class, portrayed through the lens of the "Modern Man.

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" Capitalized for emphasis, the "Modern Man" is defined by possessing all the perceived necessities: "a phonograph, a radio, a car, and a Frigidaire." The satirical undertone surfaces as the speaker elaborates on the modern man's married life and contribution to the population—a calculated five children, aligning with societal expectations. The poem's irony lies in its attempt to praise the unknown citizen's life while inadvertently highlighting his conformity to the rigid standards of society.

Despite the seemingly complimentary tone, the poem serves as a satire, unveiling how conformity stifles individuality, reducing people to mere external distinctions.

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The term "Unknown Citizen," appearing only in the title, acts as a parody of the "Unknown Soldier." This allusion suggests that many live and die in obscurity due to their unremarkable lives. The allegory extends further with rhetorical devices like exaggeration, seen in lines such as "…in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint," a stark contrast to the mundane reality of a person without official complaints.

Additional exaggerations, like the assertion that the citizen possessed everything necessary for the "Modern Man," challenge the societal norms of the 1930s. The mention of "Fudge Motors, Inc.," resembling the prominent Ford Motors, Inc., introduces a subtle play on words, adding a layer of appeal. References to "Producers Research" and "High-Grade Living" allude to well-known publications, Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping, emblematic of an idealized middle-class society.

The poem's structure combines patterned meter and rhyme, albeit with inconsistencies. The anapestic meter, characterized by two unstressed beats followed by a stressed beat, creates a rhythmic flow, as observed in the line, "He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be." The rhyme scheme fluctuates between ABAB and rhyming couplets, contributing to a melodic quality reminiscent of nursery rhymes. This seemingly joyful rhythm contrasts with the somber subject matter, amplifying the irony present in the poem.

Two pivotal questions conclude the elegy, posed on the monument: "Was he free? Was he happy?" The subsequent defensive tone suggests a reluctance to acknowledge any flaws. The speaker asserts, "had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard," yet the credibility of a government commemorating an unknown citizen solely for adhering to societal norms is questionable.

Delving deeper into the poem's thematic complexities, one cannot ignore the societal expectations that form the backdrop of the unknown citizen's existence. The poem, set against the backdrop of the 1930s, encapsulates the societal ideals and norms of the time. The enumeration of material possessions, the prescribed number of children, and the emphasis on conformity reflect the prevailing ethos.

By praising the citizen's unobtrusive life, the poem inadvertently critiques a society that values homogeneity over individuality. The unknown citizen becomes a symbol of the silent majority, conforming to the societal template without making waves. Auden, through his satirical lens, prompts readers to question whether such a life should be celebrated or, in fact, lamented for its lack of uniqueness.

Moreover, the poem's allusion to the "Unknown Soldier" introduces a layer of complexity. While the soldier's anonymity is a consequence of the chaos of war, the unknown citizen's obscurity arises from a life deemed unremarkable. This deliberate parallel raises profound questions about the nature of recognition and the criteria for memorialization. Is a life devoid of controversy and distinctiveness worthy of commemoration?

The thematic exploration extends to the language and rhetorical devices employed by Auden. The use of anapestic meter, though irregular, imparts a rhythmic cadence to the verses. This rhythm, akin to a march, metaphorically echoes the societal march towards conformity. The rhyming couplets, momentarily interrupted but ultimately persistent, symbolize the societal expectations that persist despite occasional deviations.

Additionally, Auden's choice of corporate names, such as "Fudge Motors, Inc.," serves as a subtle commentary on the glossing over of imperfections. The term "fudge" implies a manipulation or alteration, hinting at a sanitized version of reality. This clever wordplay injects humor into the poem while underscoring the artificiality of societal constructs.

As the elegy unfolds, the unknown citizen's life becomes a canvas onto which societal norms are projected. The enumeration of possessions, employment at a corporation, and adherence to union dues paint a picture of a life neatly fitting into prescribed boxes. The meticulous crafting of this image, however, reveals the inherent absurdity of measuring a life by external markers alone.

In the final lines, the speaker's defensive tone raises skepticism. The insistence that any wrongdoing would have been heard contradicts the very essence of the unknown citizen's life—unremarkable and easily overlooked. The government's claim to omniscience is a poignant commentary on the illusion of control and knowledge wielded by those in power.

In conclusion, "The Unknown Citizen Explication" transcends its initial portrayal of an anonymous figure and delves into the intricacies of societal expectations, conformity, and the blurred line between recognition and obscurity. Auden's satirical masterpiece serves as a timeless mirror reflecting the societal norms of the past and, by extension, inviting contemplation on the present and future.

Updated: Jan 02, 2024
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The Unknown Citizen Explication: Unveiling Societal Strictures. (2016, Dec 25). Retrieved from

The Unknown Citizen Explication: Unveiling Societal Strictures essay
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