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 July 17, 2020, 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...

(The entire section contains 942 words.)

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