How does the diction in lines 10–11 of "We Wear the Mask" establish the tone of the last stanza?

Quick answer:

Lines 10–11 of Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" set an agonized tone for the poem's final stanza by contrasting the smile of the people with their pained cry to Christ that arises from their "tortured souls."

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In "We Wear the Mask," Paul Laurence Dunbar writes about how African American people must hide behind a mask that society expects them to wear. They grin and smile. They hide their "tears and sighs." They say all the right things, all those "myriad subtleties" that disguise what they are really experiencing. They continue to "wear the mask."

Lines 10 and 11 of the poem, however, present a stark, almost heartrending, contrast between between appearance and reality. The speaker begins with "We smile," but then he cries out in a desperate prayer. "O great Christ," he calls out, "our cries / To Thee from tortured souls arise." These words are filled with pain, a pain that remains hidden but is almost unbearable. The people cry out to God from their hurting, tormented souls, from the very depths of their being.

These two lines establish an agonized tone for the last stanza as the contrast between appearance and reality continues. The people sing. They put on a show. But the very earth is vile to them as they walk through the world. They suffer deep down as they present a happy face to others, and this is extremely painful, so much so that the people beg God for relief even as they continue to wear their masks.

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