Study Guide

The Unknown Citizen Themes

  • Identity

    By definition, the Unknown Citizen has no identity. With the related concept of the Unknown Soldier, it is the soldier’s physical remains, or dead body, that cannot be identified. But for the Unknown Citizen, it is more that his life was so conventional that he did not distinguish himself in any way from his fellow citizens. There must be thousands, even millions, of Unknown Citizens out there, about whom little can be said except that they didn’t get in anyone’s way. On the other hand, you might think that there is nothing wrong with being "unknown," and that the poet is being elitist.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Is the Unknown Citizen a specific individual, or just a bunch of statistics thrown together?
    2. How does the practice of Eugenics or population control affect individual identity in a society?
    3. Do you think the Unknown Citizen would have anything to talk about at dinner parties? Does he have any fun?
    4. Who decides what "normal" behavior is within a society? Does having an identity simply refer to the way we deviate from the norm; for example, by having "odd views"?

    Chew on This

    The Unknown Citizen isn’t a particular person – he represents the average of all people in a society.

  • Manipulation

    Monuments and public celebrations are always political. Even your town’s Fourth of July parade is a staged political event. Now, "political" doesn’t have to have a negative connotation (who doesn’t love free candy and bead necklaces on the Fourth of July?), but in this poem, the State is a creepy, manipulative bureaucracy that is most concerned with preventing oddballs from getting in the way with the status quo. So they have created this expensive marble monument to the blandest person in the country, the one least likely to mess things up for those in power. The inscription on the monument – the poem – tells us almost nothing about the man to whom it is dedicated. It tries to convince the imaginary reader to be more like the Unknown Citizen.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Who is in control in the society depicted in "The Unknown Citizen."
    2. How might the "marble monument" be a form of manipulating? Who is it intended to manipulate?
    3. Why is it important that he never interfered with his children’s education?
    4. Who benefits most in a bureaucratic system? What does it take to get inside the bureaucracy?

    Chew on This

    Despite the poem’s sinister tone, there is no reason to think the Unknown Citizen is being manipulated by anyone.

  • Patriotism

    Some people say, "My country, right or wrong." Other people think argument and dissent are the signs of a true patriot. Auden’s poem falls more toward the latter end of the spectrum. The poem tells us that "in everything he did he served the Greater Community," but we’re not sure what this means. Who decides what the interests of the Greater Community are? Does this group exclude anyone? Is individual identity at odds with it? These are a few of the disturbing questions that the poem raises in relation to patriotism. And, of course, things are complicated by the fact that the poem seems to be set in America but was written by an Englishman.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. What do you think the Greater Community represents in this poem? Is it a nation? Is it some smaller group? A larger group?
    2. Have you ever heard the argument that buying things is patriotic? What does this mean? Do you agree?
    3. Do you think it’s appropriate to compare an average, anonymous middle-class American to the Unknown Soldier? How does the metaphor work?
    4. What is the difference between a "modern" and an "old-fashioned" saint? Can an old-fashioned saint be a patriot?

    Chew on This

    The Unknown Citizen argues that patriotism is always a bad thing, and that a person’s primary loyalties should be toward mankind.

  • 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

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