We Wear the Mask Summary

"We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a 1895 poem about the act of concealing one's emotions from the rest of the world, as well as the cost of that concealment.

  • The three-stanza poem develops the conceit of wearing the mask of emotional concealment. It culminates in a collective cry to Christ to relieve the suffering felt within.
  • Historically considered, the poem addresses the plight of Black Americans in the late nineteenth century, as well as the masking of their pain from society's scrutiny.
  • From a more general perspective, the poem is about the suffering and duplicity of the human condition.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

Introduction

Paul Laurence Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask” in 1895 in his second volume of verse, Majors and Minors. While Dunbar was well known for his colloquial poems, which evoke spoken language in their depictions of Black American life, “We Wear the Mask” is among Dunbar’s more formal poems, which use traditional poetic diction and verse forms. Dunbar was only in his early twenties when he released Majors and Minors, yet his work from this period is marked by stylistic maturity and thematic richness.

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Summary

At the beginning of “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s speaker adopts a collective voice and uses the first-person plural. As in many poems that use this pronoun, the speaker’s statements seem to encompass a broader spectrum of human experience. To “wear the mask that grins and lies” is suggested, then, to be a collective fate.

The eponymous mask conceals our “cheeks” and “eyes,” suggesting that our natural modes of emotional expression are purposely hidden from view. The third line calls the mask the “debt we pay to human guile.” That is, the price “we” pay for duplicity is concealment. Because intentions can be separated from appearances, “we” are destined to hide from others.

Lines four and five show more clearly the divergence between inner and outer states. Dunbar devises a contrasting image of smiling while the heart is “torn and bleeding,” a metaphor that viscerally conveys the possible depths of emotional pain. The fifth line underscores this divide with the figure of the “mouth with myriad subtleties.” The subtlety and craftiness of the mouth—a metonym for outward expression—is contrasted with the immense pain of the heart.

The second stanza introduces a separate human entity: “the world.” The speaker asks, “Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sighs?” There are two readings of this phrase. If “we” refers specifically to the Black American community, then “the world” stands for the predominantly White society that marginalizes Black Americans. Alternately, if “we” represents humans collectively, so too does “the world.” These opposing terms dramatize the fact that we each both mask ourselves from scrutiny and, in turn, scrutinize others. From such a view, “us” and “them” are the same.

Ultimately, the speaker’s question in lines six and seven is rhetorical, for its purpose is to argue for concealment: “we” should only let “them… see us, while / We wear the mask.” Despite the ache of duplicity, it is preferable to laying bare one’s true feelings, one’s “tears and sighs.”

In the third and final stanza, the speaker introduces another addressee: “O great Christ.” This apostrophic invocation—signalled by the classical “O”—indicates the grandeur and perhaps the remoteness of Christ. Repeating the figure of the “smile” from line four, the speaker notes that smiles conceal “our cries” to Christ “from tortured souls.” Here, the poem takes on a theological dimension. The phrase “tortured souls” likely alludes to the Christian doctrine of the fall of man, which states that humans are indelibly defined by sinfulness and suffering. 

Lines twelve and thirteen further this theme of humanity’s fallenness. The image of walking through “clay [that] is vile” can be read as an allusion to the Book of Genesis, wherein God makes Adam, the first human, out of dirt. Adam, in turn, is responsible for the original sin that casts humanity into darkness. Thus, the image of “clay” sustains the notion of fallenness, as does the “long… mile,” which figuratively demarcates the great distance between humanity and heaven.

In the final two lines, Dunbar repeats the motif of “the world” from the second stanza. As in that stanza, the speaker calls for a willful deception of the world—to “let them dream otherwise,” to dream as if “our... souls” were not tortured and crying out. The last line repeats the eponymous refrain “We wear the mask!” In this final instance, the addition of the exclamation mark suggests a tone of defiance and collective solidarity.

Given the ambiguity of Dunbar’s poem, the central phrases, figures, and metaphors of “We Wear the Mask” that have been traced above can be construed in two primary ways. The first is a Historicist reading. Given the poem’s social and cultural context, as well as Dunbar’s engagement with themes of racial division and inequality throughout his writing life, “We Wear the Mask” stands as a poem about the pain of Black Americans and their concealment of that pain. From such a view, the speaker addresses the Black community as whole and describes their wearing of the figurative mask to conceal their suffering from “the world,” in this case a metaphor for the rest of society. The poem thus records the division between the felt experience of being marginalized and discriminated against and, on the other hand, the careful exterior expression of “grins,” “smile[s],” and “myriad subtleties.” The poem suggests that living in a divided state takes its toll but that such duplicity is nonetheless necessary. Moreover the “long… mile” of the final stanza evokes the great distance between the current condition of Black Americans and the ultimate goal of justice and equality.

Another valid reading is a New Critical approach, which would take the collective “we” as referring to humanity in general. From such a perspective, the poem explores how all humans “wear the mask” necessitated by our shared capacity for duplicity—what Dunbar refers to as “human guile.” The suffering evoked by the phrase “our tears and sighs” is the suffering of the human condition, and the cries to Christ represent the human longing for relief from that suffering.

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Themes