Study Guide

The Unknown Citizen Setting

By W. H. Auden


It’s hard to know what kind of setting to imagine for this poem. You’ve got the setting of the monument on which the poem is inscribed, and then you’ve got the setting of The Big Man himself, our Unknown Citizen.

What kind of monument is it? We think a bronze statue of this famous Magritte painting would be a good fit. We don’t think the monument would let us know very much about the UC at all. Maybe it would just be a slab of clean white marble with no decoration, or a big marble replica of a dollar bill (because he was so good at buying things), or maybe it would be an obelisk like the Washington Monument. We’re sure you can come up with something interesting.

Anyway, we’re going to plop our monument down right in the middle of the Washington Mall, maybe next to the Lincoln Memorial. The Unknown Citizen deserves a central place in our nation’s capital, considering all his huge accomplishments like having five kids! It will be right down the street from the Bureau of Statistics, a huge, drab marble building. And, of course, it will have that strange dedication "To JS/07 M 378" on it.

As for the Unknown Citizen, he lives a very neat, organized society. It looks like a squeaky-clean 1950s TV show – except in the 1930s. The new Ford has just been waxed, the Jell-O is cooling in the frigidaire, and the kids are on the living room floor, listening to the latest episode of Little Orphan Annie on the radio:

"Who's that little chatter box?
The one with pretty auburn locks?
Whom do you see?
It's Little Orphan Annie."

If you’ve ever seen the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, you know what we mean. But there’s a slightly seedy underside to this quaint little vision, and it’s that the government seems to know everything. There are tons of reports and paperwork to fill out, and researchers into Public Opinion are walking the streets, taking the mood of the public on every subject under the sun. If you say something odd or don’t pay your Union dues, people will look at you cock-eyed and maybe even stop talking to you. And, trust us, no one is ever going to ask if you’re happy.