Study Guide

The Unknown Citizen Quotes

  • Identity

    (To JS/07 M 378
    This Marble Monument
    Is Erected by the State) (epigraph)

    There’s no way of knowing what the strange combination of numbers and figures is supposed to mean, but we think it’s a dedication "to" the Unknown Citizen. If so, then Auden is setting up a point he will make in less blunt fashion in the poem: if people are treated only as statistics, they might as well be a statistic, or a number. It’s like calling a person "C3PO" or "R2D2."

    He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
    One against whom there was no official complaint, (lines 1-2)

    The beginning of the poem sneakily suggests that the Unknown Citizen is, in fact, an individual, or "One." But it also introduces the idea that the "official" realm is all that matters. For example, it makes no difference if there were "unofficial" complaints about him – maybe his wife says he snores too much – as long as the government doesn’t have to deal with it.

    Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views (line 9)

    A scab is a worker who ruins a labor strike by returning to work before the strike has achieved its goals. Although scabs are usually considered cowardly, at least they take a stand for something, even if it’s their own personal gain. But the Unknown Citizen never breaks from the "mass" identity that binds him in every situation – in this case, at work. There is nothing "odd" about him, but what this really means is there is nothing to him, period. He has no independent personality. He goes whichever way the winds are blowing.

    And our Social Psychology workers found
    That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink. (line 12-13)

    Social Psychology is the study of group identities. A group of rioting fans at a football match would be a great subject for a Social Psychologist. According to these workers, the Unknown Citizen was a popular guy. Could he have become popular without having a unique identity?

    Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
    That he held the proper opinions for the time of year; (lines 22-23)

    Public Opinion researchers are people who take polls and surveys that turn people’s opinions into statistics. They are notoriously inaccurate and often silly. Like the Social Psychologists, they study group identity, not the individual. The Unknown Citizen has no stable opinions – he changes them depending on "the time of year."

    Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd.
    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard. (lines 28-29)

    The poem suggests the freedom and happiness are concerns of the individual, not the group. These two questions are more relevant to personal identity than any others. But the State has no concern for them.

  • Manipulation

    He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
    One against whom there was no official complaint. (lines 1-2)

    Is the lack of an "official complaint" the reason he gets a monument dedicated to him? It’s as if the State were saying, "If you don’t cause us any headaches, monument-viewer, you could have a nice big marble monument, too!" The problem with monuments is that you usually only get one after you die. When you think about it, it’s a pretty paltry payoff for a lifetime of straightedge existence. These lines an interesting question: what would have happened to the Unknown Citizen if there had been an official complaint against him? Would the still be dedicated to him?

    For the Union reports that he paid his dues,
    (Our report on his Union shows it was sound) (lines 10-11)

    In this society, there isn’t just one over-arching bureaucracy. There are many different layers of bureaucracy, and they are all looking over their shoulders at the level below. That’s paranoia for you. In this case, the Union is watching over the Unknown Citizen to make sure he pays his dues, and the government is watching over the Union to make sure it doesn’t encourage communist and socialist agitators.

    The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
    And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way. (lines 14-15)

    We have no idea how the Press would know these things, but it probably involves some sneakiness and manipulation. Do they have a guy follow him around town to see if he buys a paper? Or maybe they just interviewed his friends and coworkers. Nor do we know exactly what a "normal" reaction to an advertisement is, apart from the one desired by the advertiser: buying stuff.

    Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
    He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
    And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
    A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire. (lines 18-19)

    The State and corporations depend on one another, so the State is happy when the Unknown Citizen buys stuff from corporations. The people with the most money in a society are almost always the ones with the most power. The monument is designed to manipulate the viewer by convincing him or her that these expensive appliances are "necessary." This is still how advertising works today: "You mean you don’t have the newest iPod?"

    When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went. (line 24)

    Who decides when there is peace and when there is war? Usually, the people who deploy the troops: the government. Sometimes war is inevitable and necessary, but sometimes it’s not, and it sounds like the Unknown Citizen was not one to ask questions. If no one asks questions, the State can do almost whatever it wants. The "war" referred to here could be World War I, which made a huge impact on the psyche of Europeans like Auden. But, ominously, this poem was also written around the time World War II started. If you want to read a great Auden war poem, check out "September 1, 1939".

    Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation. (line 26)

    The Eugenist manipulates people by telling them how many kids they should have. Although Eugenics become something of a dirty word after Hitler came along, some countries still practice a version of population control. Again we see that the UC had an appropriate lifestyle when it came to his children.

    And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education (line 27)

    This point is kind of buried near the end of the poem, but it’s really important. If parents show no involvement in their kids’ education, the State gains that much more influence over what children learn. Many of the twentieth’s centuries most ruthless and manipulative governments, including Nazi-era Germany and China during the Cultural Revolution, used public education to indoctrinate students with harmful ideas.

    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard. (line 29)

    This line is both funny and bone chilling. If we lived in this society, we wouldn’t want the State to know about our problems. The State has a different idea of what it means for things to be going "wrong" than the individual does.

  • Patriotism

    And all the reports on his conduct agree
    That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
    For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. (lines 3-5)

    In this state, religion is considered "old-fashioned," probably because it is considered a competitor to the interests of the nation. Can patriotism be a religious phenomenon? What is the "modern sense" of the word "saint," and who is included or left out in "the Greater Community"? The idea here actually sounds fairly appealing, but in the words of the speaker, it comes across as creepy. Why?

    Except for the War till the day he retired
    He worked in a factory and never got fired,
    But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc. (lines 6-8)

    In the 1930s and now, doing one’s job and contributing to the economy are considered patriotic. On the totem pole of bureaucracies, the government is slightly above the corporation, which is why the State can call citizens away from their jobs to serve in the army during a war. These lines are the first to indicate that the setting of the poem is probably America. Are Americans more patriotic than other nations? What are the benefits and drawbacks of our kind of patriotism?

    (Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

    During the 1930s, many people were concerned that labor unions were secretly plotting to overthrow the government and bring about a communist society. If your union was "unsound," you were considered unpatriotic.

    Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
    He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan (lines 18-19)

    The Instalment Plan! Our savior! Even though buying things on credit can get people into serious debt, the practice is often encouraged because it stimulates the economy and creates jobs.

    Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
    That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
    When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went. (lines 22-24)

    Only the "proper opinions" are considered patriotic, especially when they have to do with war. The poem treats "war" and "peace" as if they were seasons of the year: "Ah, it’s spring, we must be at war. Okay, now it’s summer, we’re at peace again." We’re exaggerating, of course, but you get the idea.

    He was married and added five children to the population,
    Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation. (lines 25-26)

    Having kids was considered patriotic because it meant more people in the labor force. But having too many kids would mean overpopulation. Fortunately, the Unknown Citizen’s five kids comes to just the right number.

    Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd. (line 28)

    Patriotism is all well and good, but if the average person in a society isn’t free or happy, what’s the point? It’s kind of sad that the Unknown Citizen tried so hard to please the State, but the bureaucratic speaker of the poem obviously doesn’t care about him.

  • Passivity

    One against whom there was no official complaint (line 2)

    The Unknown Citizen isn’t the only passive person in the poem. The speaker is also quite passive, or maybe passive/aggressive would be more accurate. The speaker never gets excited about anything. He can only delivered compliments in the negative, by saying what the UC didn’t do wrong, rather than what he did right.

    Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
    For his Union reports that he paid his dues, (lines 9-10)

    These lines have a nonsensical connection to one another. The speaker deduces that the Unknown Citizen must not have been a scab or had strange opinions simply because he paid the regular membership fees for his Union. The point of a Union is to protect the rights of the factory workers, but, if left to their own devices, they can just suck up people’s money and give back nothing in return.

    And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way. (line 15)

    The Unknown Citizen doesn’t act, he reacts. It’s almost as if he were the subject of a scientific experiment, where things were being placed in front of him to see what he would do. "Hmm, I think I’ll buy a frigidaire." Success!

    Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
    And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured. (lines 16-17)

    Again, Auden uses all his poetic powers to make the Unknown Citizen sound like a ghost. It never says that he bought the insurance policies – they were merely "taken out in his name." This makes the purchase sound like a passive decision. Throughout the poem, the reader views the Unknown Citizen at a distance, from the perspective of the investigators who are poring over his paper trail.

    And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
    A phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire (lines 20-21)

    The Unknown Citizen buys whatever appliances and gizmos are considered "necessary" at the time, even if they aren’t really essential. What would this list include today? A new computer, iPod, and a flat screen TV?

    Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
    That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
    When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went. (lines 22-24)

    These lines are the very definition of passivity. He has no will of his own.

    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard (line 29)

    The speaker is offended by the possibility that the Unknown Citizen could have thoughts and emotions of which the State is unaware. But considering how passive he is, you wouldn’t think that the UC would be bold enough to voice his deepest thoughts.