The struggle to be a decent human being takes place internally and externally, and though the human need to be a part of a community demands we live among others, individually, people remain isolated within themselves. Most people are aware of the different personas within themselves: the child; the adult; the student; the employee; the big sister; the friend. Each of these roles reflects the individual, but they serve different purposes and have grown out of the individual’s need to show only parts of himself to the outside world.
Propriety demands we behave in particular ways under particular circumstances—often hiding what we really feel. For example, it’s fine to cry at a funeral, but it’s 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 they’ve 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 Dunbar’s 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 poem’s 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 Dunbar’s 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 Dunbar’s 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 poem’s 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 isn’t literally a thing put over the face, but it stands for the revolving personas that hide an individual’s 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 poem’s 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 one’s daily life, it is often most appropriate to hide one’s true feelings behind the mask of a persona.
The only people who really care about one’s 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.