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The Unknown Citizen

The Unknown Citizen


by W. H. Auden

The Unknown Citizen Theme of Passivity

The Unknown Citizen is called a modern-day "saint" by the State, but it isn’t clear just what he has done that is so worthy of praise. His most potentially heroic deed is serving in the army during a war, but does serving in a war automatically make you a hero, even if you were only doing what everyone else did? On the whole, the Unknown Citizen belonged to the faceless masses, from his consumer habits to his love of having "a drink" with his mates. Attacking the conformity of middle-class America has always been a favorite sport of intellectuals, and you can find tons of more contemporary examples, like the Oscar-winning movie American Beauty. You may choose to disagree with Auden’s perspective, or you could say, "Right on!" This is the kind of poem that battles conformity by provoking strong opinions from its readers.

Questions About Passivity

  1. Where in the poem does the Unknown Citizen take action, and where does he merely react to things?
  2. Does his wartime service run counter to his passivity?
  3. Could his passivity merely mean that he’s really happy and content?
  4. What is the relation between his passive behavior and his consumer habits?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Even as a soldier, the Unknown Citizen remained a passive bystander to his own life.

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