Propriety demands we behave in particular ways under particular circumstances”often hiding what we really feel. For example, its fine to cry at a funeral, but its frowned upon if one cries in the workplace over a failed task, and so, we often hide our genuine selves behind the appropriate persona”we wear masks. The practice of revealing only our best to the world is explored by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem We Wear the Mask.
In the piece, Dunbar makes a case for people to make their lives easier by hiding their suffering; his rationale is that those who are responsible for the pain theyve caused do not care they have caused it, and that individual solace can be found only among those who suffer similarly. The theme of protecting and masking oneself runs throughout Dunbars poem, and it begins with the title We Wear the Mask. The use of the word we creates an immediate separation alerting the audience the piece contains a struggle.
There is the group of people to whom the poems speaker belongs, and they are the we. By default, then, those who are not of the we are the opposition”the them. If the reader relates to the piece, he becomes one of the we, and the line separating the internal and the external has been established in Dunbars work much as it is in the real world. The first words of each of the three stanzas of We Wear the Mask reveal an interesting refrain: We. . . . Why. . . We. It is perhaps telling in its lack of grammatical correctness.
The final We should be an Us to make this refrain proper; however, changing it thus would invite the other”the them into the inner circle, and that is a line Dunbar and his speaker want to remain solid. The we in Dunbars poem is repeated, and when examined, it is worth noting the word is used in the context of laborious acts: We wear. . . ; We pay. . . ; We smile. . . .; and We sing. In no instance is the action described by the speaker pleasant. These examples support the theme of protecting and masking oneself in We Wear the Mask: though the tasks seem benign, their context is anything but.
Beginning with the first line, We wear the mask that grins and lies, it is apparent the speaker is revealing to the audience that the smile is phony (line 1). The smiling mask is revealed as a payment to the duplicity to the rest of humanity”the them in the poems third line (This debt we pay to human guile). Finally, the singing is anything but joyous as the tune is really the cries of tortured souls, and the referenced souls belong to the speaker and the rest of the we in the piece.
The third stanza reveals the strongest element of the piece: that the We includes God, and firmly establishes the We are on the side of righteousness. This is evidenced when the speaker addresses the Lord specifically by stating We smile, but O great Christ, our cries / To thee from tortured souls arise (lines10-11). Were God part of the them, the speaker would certainly state his dissatisfaction; however, it is clearly established that God is among the We when the speaker follows the issue of tortured song with the announcement that .
. . the world [can] dream otherwise, / [because] We wear the Mask! The words themselves are given greater weight by the exclamation point that ends the stanza and the piece”the only such mark of punctuation in the whole poem. Symbolically, the mask isnt literally a thing put over the face, but it stands for the revolving personas that hide an individuals true identity. It is a duplicitous result of the human guile the speaker addresses, and it is a means of self-survival.
This duplicity is also referenced in the last two lines of the poems second stanza: Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask (lines 8-9). In this statement, the speaker is in conference with God, and he assures the Lord it is better that the them be confused by the masks of the we. (In this case, the we is written in the plural, objective form as us. ) The circumstances of a situation generally dictate the behavior of the individual, and to avoid complications throughout ones daily life, it is often most appropriate to hide ones true feelings behind the mask of a persona.
The only people who really care about ones suffering are those who suffer similarly, and they wear the very same mask. Other than those who are part of the we, there is God, and God listens to and supports the sufferers. These are the issues explored by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem We Wear the Mask. Work Cited Dunbar, Paul Laurence. We Wear the Mask. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 6th ed. Ed. Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 1101-1102.