Unknown Citizen Essay
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“Social Security Number? Birthdate? Nine digit telephone number starting with area code? ” In many ways, we are simply numbers to modern society, not individuals with feelings and emotions and dreams. As the world around us evolves so does technology. With the fast paced advancements occurring in technology it seems that the humanity of the world is decreasing. This makes it harder for people to develop their own personal identity. In today’s society people are being seen more as “faceless” citizens rather than individuals.
This is because they are given numbers and labeled based upon how society sees them.
In “The Unknown Citizen”, W. H. Auden shows us how the government sees society as statistics rather than a group of individuals. The unknown citizen of Auden’s poem is unknown because his name has become unimportant. The subtitle “To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument is Erected by the State (Auden 864)” is a fictional concept that the government enforced by an alpha-numeric tag.
This tag is used to distinguish who each person is. Throughout the poem the individual is being referred to as “JS/07/M/378”. The random letters and numbers followed by forward slashes are all representations of the government.
Meaning each section of letters and numbers are representing something. “JS” could possibly be the first letters of his first and last name and “M” could represent his gender being male. However, the fact that his name is never mentioned and a marble statue was built in his honor in very ironic. Instead of writing his full name the government chose to use the name they had given to him. This automatically is seen as a form of dehumanizing. The statue can also be seen as a form of symbolism representing the chilling manner in which the government chose to honor this man.
Auden gives the audience the perceptive that the government is honoring people who they never knew really existed while they were alive. Auden uses irony to describe how the unknown citizen was seen by the government. “He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be one against, who there was no official complaint, and all the reports on his conduct agree (Auden 864)”, is an ironic way to start off portraying him. The Bureau of Statistics is a fictional sector of the government that finds people and categorizes them based upon facts and figures.
This suggests that tatistically speaking he would be considered normal. “That in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint for in everything he did he served the Greater Community (Auden 864)” is another perfect example of irony. A saint in an old-fashioned sense is someone who actually stands alone to defend their beliefs and often perish while trying to overcome those enormous challenges. This life is normally seen as an extraordinary one. A saint can also be used in reference when referring to religion. However, Auden suggests that the modern saint is the complete opposite.
The unknown citizen lived a life in which he was not devoted to God but to a Greater Community. The government would be considered the Greater Community. It is almost like Auden gives the government godlike qualities because they believe everyone should follow what they say. He always acted in a manner that was expected or accepted by this society. Even though Auden sounds like he is praising all of the unknown citizen’s accomplishments he truly is not. He goes on to say “he was popular with his mate” and “he was fully sensible” to show how conformed he was to society. He also followed all rules passed by the state.
The way he lived his life was considered normal. He brought a paper every day and reacted in the “normal” way expected. Advertisers benefited from this because they gained statistics of their own allowing them to help their business profit. He never got involved with his children’s education allowing the government to have more control over him. “When there was peace he was for peace; when there was war, he went (Auden 865)” suggests he had no mind of his own. This man never questioned anything himself but, instead followed everyone else. Not once did he take a second out to think about something on his own.
If the government said it is right then he went along with it. “He worked in a factory and never got fired, but satisfied his employers Fudge Motors Inc. Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views for his Union reports that he paid his dues (Auden 864-865)” shows that his performance was based upon how his employer felt. Fudge Motors Inc. would be a parody for Ford Motors Inc. He basically dehumanized himself just so he could please the state. Auden intentionally wrote this poem in a very clinical way to make a point about how flawed the government is. Auden compares the Eugenics from the odern society to the Nazi’s in Germany.
“He was married and added five children to the population which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation (Auden 865)” can be used as connection between the two. The Nazi’s were known mainly for trying to create the perfect society. From this it is possible that Auden could be suggesting that with conformity comes chaos. Auden wrote “The Unknown Citizen” during World War II leaving the perception that maybe he wrote it about an unknown citizen who served in the war and warning the soldiers to question the government who are sending them out to fight.
He points out that the government judge people based off of reports and documents and what they considered to be right. The title suggests he is talking about one person when in reality he is talking about society as a whole and how the government saw it. We as people see the government as leaders who represent and enforce our values while we are considered to be just another number. Lastly an unknown citizen falls prey to government control. The government itself is the speaker in Auden’s poem. This is why Auden uses plurals like ours.
In the eyes of the state, the man they considered a saint was the government’s idea of the perfect man. The government does not truly care about him just the fact that he does what he is told. Words such as Greater Community, Installment Plan, Modern Man, and Public Opinion are capitalized to show the emphasis that the government puts on these concepts. Everything about his life is closely monitored, even his private life. The fact that the government knows things like he likes to drink helps support that. “Was he free? Was he happy?
The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard (Auden 864)” suggests that the government does not care about people’s happiness or freedom. It is human nature for a person to want to belong and be part of something. Even though the poem was written over sixty five years ago it does have some truth. As technology becomes better, faster and accurate we are becoming more of a statistic and less human. Yet in a society that dehumanizes us, we still want to be a part of it. No one wants to be considered as an outcast or looked down upon for being different.