The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden
Section III (Lines 6-11) Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
- The UC had one of the most boring jobs in the world: factory work. (We’re assuming he didn’t work in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.)
- Notice how the poem says very few truly nice things about the UC.
- Everything is phrased in the negative. Instead of, "he was great at his job and everybody loved him," we get, "he never got fired." It’s another backhanded compliment.
- We should probably assume that he didn’t work in the factory during the war because he was fighting as a soldier.
- Formally, these lines sound slightly different than what came before, maybe even a little "off." The formal structure of these two lines differs from the two preceding lines in two ways.
- First, the syntax (the order of the words) is weird because line 6 begins with the phrase "except for the war," which we would normally expect to come at the end of a sentence.
- Secondly, the poem unexpectedly shifts from an ABABA rhyme scheme to a rhyming couplet (retired/fired). This is such a simple and obvious rhyme that it makes the UC’s life sound even more awkward and boring.
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,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
- Finally, we get a positive accomplishment. The UC "satisfied his employers."
- Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound so impressive after all. "Satisfied" is a lot more neutral than, say, "thrilled" or "wowed."
- But right after this lukewarm praise, we get more negative praise – for not being something.
- The UC was not a "scab" and he didn’t have unusual opinions around the workplace. (A "scab," by the way, isn’t just the thing your mother told you not to pick off your scraped elbow. It’s also the word used to describe people who would replace workers who were on strike.)
- Unions aren’t nearly as powerful as they used to be, but back in the 1930s, they had the power to cripple major companies through labor strikes – assuming there was no one with whom to replace the workers.
- Although companies were happy to find "scabs," no one really respected the replacements because they were not team players and only looked out for themselves.
- The fact that the UC wasn’t a scab is really just another example of his normalcy.
- He was a good union member and "paid his dues." More importantly, the union itself was normal, or "sound."
- The biggest accusation made about unions during this time was that they were secretly socialist or even communist organizations. The speaker confirms that the UC’s union is neither of those things.
- In this poem, it seems that everyone is investigating everyone else. Behind all the reassuring clichés, there is a lot of suspicion and paranoia on the part of the State.
- Finally, these lines are the first to really suggest a particular nation or culture, and the giveaway is "Fudge Motors, Inc."
- For one thing, most car manufacturers were located in America in the 1930s. For another, the name of the company sounds a whole lot like Detroit-based "Ford Motors, Inc." the first and largest auto company in the world at the time.
- And, yes, "Fudge" is a very silly name, as we’re sure Auden was aware.