Hypocrites run society. Society puts both men and women under pressure to fit the image of perfection, yet when a person does achieve this so called perfection, others ridicule them for succumbing to peer pressure. In “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden, the speaker, a government bureaucrat, also takes on this two-faced attitude towards a man identified as the unknown citizen. At first glance, this poem seems like the well- deserved tribute to a man who lived the perfect life, but after a more detailed analysis, the speaker reveals his attitude towards his subject.
The speaker uses diction and irony to criticize the citizen for following the standards set forth by society to encourage the reader to be brave enough to stand out as an individual. Just as society holds double standards for men and women, the speaker communicates in two tones towards the unknown citizen. At first the speaker talks about the citizen with a respectful tone, but the speaker’s use of diction and irony change the tone to be a critical one.
The speaker begins by praising the citizen for being,”One against whom there was no official complaint” (Auden 5). It would appear as though everyone aspires to be the kind of person that no one ever says anything bad about, but the diction of this line suggests that no one ever complained about the citizen because he did not stand out. Through the tone of this line, the speaker himself makes an unofficial complaint about the citizen for never having done something to cause controversy.
People never completely agree, so the idea that this man never disagreed with anyone advocates for the fact that he did not verbalize his own ideas; he simply agreed with what everyone else had to say. The speaker gives more evidence to support this claim by stating that the citizen’s,”reactions to advertisements were normal in every way” (18). At first this line may also seem like a compliment from the speaker. After all, people would rather hear they had a normal reaction as opposed to having the wrong reaction.
The repetition of the word every in several lines throughout the poem emphasizes the predictability of the citizen responses. By making the citizen seem boring, the speaker illustrates that it is better to stand out in a bad way than not to stand out at all. The speaker also calls to attention that people should not only be wary of the government’s standards but those of businesses and other aspects of society as well. The scientists and engineers who produce the technology and medicine of the modern world use their ability to think outside of boundaries and experiment with different ideas.
The speaker gives one more example of criticism of the citizen when he mentions that the citizen,”worked in a factory and never got fired” (10). Here, the speaker does not celebrate the citizens exemplary work in the factory, he creates another backhanded compliment that on the surface praises the citizen for keeping his job, but is criticizing him for not doing anything outstanding. The speaker uses criticism to make people aware of the dangers of complying with what society says is the standard. All people have the natural desire to want to leave a legacy.
No one goes through life without struggling, but all people, especially those who suffer the most, hope that the story of their lives will live on to teach and assist the generations to come. The speaker uses this inherent desire to encourage people to stand out so that people will not forget them. The speaker criticizes, the citizen for having, “… the proper opinion for the time of year” (26). To say that this man’s opinions change with the seasons undermines the importance of having unique ideas.
If people were not allowed to think or speak differently than others, then humans would still uncivilized ape-like creatures. Change is part of life and change comes from the development of new ideas from different opinions. The speaker, representing the State, dehumanizes the citizen by comparing his opinions to animals or plants which change as part of a cycle throughout the year to upset the read so that they will defend the voices of each individual against the society that oppresses the minorities of race, gender, or ideas.
Another piece of crucial evidence found in the epigraph before the poem begins by labeling the citizen as,”JS/07 M 378″ (Auden 1). This line shows that the State cares little about this man on a personal, mental or emotional level. Even though Auden wrote this poem before the tragic events of the Holocaust, the reference to the citizen as series of letters and numbers reminds modern day readers of the severe cruelty that millions of innocent people felt the wrath of Hitler during World War II.
This connection provokes anger in readers in hopes that they will treat others with the utmost respect for individuality and originality, as well as fight to protect each person’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The last piece of evidence instills in the reader the idea that it is not only honorable to express your own opinions but it is also honorable to protect the freedom of opinions and actions of others. In the last lines of the poem the speaker asks, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd” (31).
The second to last line elicits a strong reaction from the reader. The way the speaker dismisses these questions may leave them to question the humanity of the speaker. Questions about freedom and happiness debated and discussed between billions of people who each have their own idea and point of view. Because the speaker represents the bureaucracy of the citizen’s world, his disregard for the personal, mental, and emotional well-being of man teaches the reader to be wary of a society that only cares for itself.
The speaker’s use of diction and irony to illustrate the danger of conforming to what society says a person should do shows the reader that the consequences of falling in line with everyone else are worse than if they stand out. It is imperative that people share that being different is healthy with people of all races and ages. Even now, people are teaching young children that being different is wrong when, the worst of insults is calling someone normal.