An Analysis of Paul Laurence Dunbar's 'We Wear the Mask'

An Analysis of Paul Laurence Dunbar's 'We Wear the Mask'

'We Wear the Mask' happens to be one of the most critically appreciated poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and is studied in different educational domains. This Penlighten article summarizes and analyzes the poem in detail.
Penlighten Staff
Short-lived!
We Wear the Mask was published in 1896. Dunbar wrote many pieces which highlighted the lives of the Afro-Americans. He died young, at the age of 33.

Writing is one of the supreme modes of expression; perhaps, this is reason enough to proclaim that 'a pen is mightier than the sword.' It is a well-known fact that there are numerous pieces of write-ups in different forms which were influential enough to start several revolutionary movements in the past. There were so many occasions when poems and slogans were written to boost up the morale of the masses so that they could man against their oppressors and wage a war against them for attaining freedom. Not only these heroic acts were brought to pass, but there are legends stating how people used these rhymes, slogans, and poems to carry on tasks that were very demanding.
On this note, it's worth mentioning the case of the African slaves who were kept as bonded laborers and were treated lowly. Their standard of living was at par or even lower than that of animals. In such formidable conditions, they narrated poems and sang songs that could motivate them to bear that kind of inhuman treatment. Such is the power of words.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an Afro-American poet who held humanity above all societal dogmas. The stooped condition of the Afro-Americans of the time kindled his wits to pen down this wonderful poetry which upheld the multiple shades of human nature. Through this article we will attempt to comprehend the meaning of his much celebrated work, 'We Wear The Mask'. This three-stanza poem is worth a million words, in its fashion to state the hardships of the Afro-Americans of his time. Let's read further.
WE WEAR THE MASK - summary and analysis
Understanding The Title

"WE WEAR THE MASK"
Mask is an epitome of disguise, falsity, camouflage, and secrecy. It veils the reality and creates an impression of something that is unreal in order to hide the reality. The title is self-explanatory in the sense that 'we' refers to mankind, thus suggesting that people wear masks. The poet says that mankind is always in the tendency to conceal, to hide, and to create a notion that is utterly false. The title itself is the opening line of the poem, and also forms the concluding line of the second and the third stanzas respectively. This means that the poet has affirmed the fact that mankind is double-faced. It poses a mask over reality.

Now, to understand the reason behind the poet's statement that mankind wears masks, we need to understand the poem line-by-line.
Stanza-1: meaning

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

The African slaves were granted freedom, following the bloody Civil War, which is remembered for the ghastly instances that occurred during the war. The war is also responsible for bringing about the revolutionary freedom that was so sought for. The lives of many Africans changed for they were elevated to a new level in the societal race. They were no longer 'slaves', but were Afro-Americans. They were conferred with the American citizenship after staying there for centuries. The first stanza holds up the myriad feelings that humans feel simultaneously. Let's take a closer look.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

These lines are rhyming not only in recitation, but also in the communication of the message. A mask hides. The mask that is posing 'grins,' it is uttering 'lies'. Let's understand the lines in the light of the Afro-Americans. They were living in traumatic times. But their trauma was hidden with a smile and lies behind the mask. 'Face is the index of mind', goes the saying. Eyes tell the untold and cheeks let the tears flow. So, putting on a mask hides the eyes and the cheeks. So, essentially, it hides the truth. It hides the teary eyes and also the tears flowing from the cheeks.

This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

'Debt' and 'guile' are again two strong words that personify human action and deceit. The poet says that the oppressed are paying a debt by wearing a mask and hiding their true feelings. The reason behind this is the human nature of deceiving others. They in the true nature of deceiving are wearing a deceitful smile, hiding the extremely agonized heart behind it. The words 'torn' and 'bleeding' are referring to the ample pain that they are living every moment. Yet, they are hiding their state behind that wry smile.

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Here the words that hold significance are 'mouth', 'myriad' and 'subtleties'. The mouth in this context is symbolic, and stands for the act of speaking. The word 'myriad' means many or infinite. 'Subtleties' means the minute refined behavior or mannerisms or gestures that are shown to respectable people. We have to take into consideration the racism that dominated that era. The whites deemed themselves respectable, and thus demanded respect. The Afro-Americans were the slaves and therefore expected to be overtly respectful towards the former, failing which called for stern punishment.

Stanza-2: meaning

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

The world is selective about its vision. It sees only the things it wants to see. It chooses to remain blind to the most astounding of situations and still remain calm. It also creates hype over trivialities and brags about it. It uses its discretion to use its wisdom.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?

The above quoted lines shed light on the fact that, the world doesn't need to be told about the plight and misery of the slaves of that time. The extreme pain that they felt needed no special mention. It spoke for itself. The magnitude of the sufferings was high. But notice and care for them was far from truth. They were left to their fate, unattended, left to suffer to the extreme, alone for centuries, with no one to cease the pain.
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

The trailing two lines of the second stanza are again self-explanatory. The poet says that as the world is seemingly blind to the traumatic conditions of the blacks, then let them continue to do so. Let them not see the true sufferings that they are living. Let them rather see the 'masked' faces of the blacks where they are smiling and creating the notion that they are happy and merry. Thus these lines hint towards the poet's mocking intention. He mocks the world to remain blindfolded as the blacks suffer without a complaint, in silence and deceit.

Stanza-3: meaning

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

We are mere puppets at the hands of the Almighty. We do as we have been destined to do. God is our Creator, He is our Savior. We may pose many different things to the world, but we can't hide anything from the divine. In the first two lines of the third stanza, the poet amplifies this thought.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.

The slaves always wore a smile on their faces. They appeared content and satisfied with their state of slavery, with their fateful existence. They fooled the world about their true feelings by smiling at all times. But at the end of the day, when they prayed to the Lord, they know that He alone can see their tears behind the smile. Those tears resulted from deep anguish and distress they were subjected to. The word, 'tortured souls' proclaimed their state of deep suffering. They tell the Lord about the hostilities they suffer from, because He is their lone confidant. They do ardently believe that it is Lord alone who can sympathize with them and make better their wretched conditions.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

The sarcasm is not yet over! The poet describes that these suffering slaves not only smile in pain but also sing. As mentioned in the previous section of this article, the African slaves used to sing songs and rhymes, just to keep the spirits high and carry on with their lives of destitute. The word 'clay' perhaps refers to the world, the earth, our home. The word 'vile' refers to something that is ugly and bad. This means that the world, their habitat itself is ugly. The word 'mile' refers to the long stretches of time that still need to pass. The changing times for betterment are yet to arrive that could liberate them from their agony.

But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Having said all of these, the poet goes back to the initial phase, that is to keep wearing the mask of happiness and smile, so that the world doesn't get a cue of their sufferings and believes that they are really happy people, which in reality is a complete antithesis of reality. Thus talking about wearing the mask yet again.

Theme

It's easier to let the world know about happiness. It's an art to fake happiness at the times of hardship. The central theme of the poem is to speak about the turbulent times and the atrocities meted out to the blacks at the hands of the whites. But, giving in to their conditions, they accepted things as they were without qualms. Hence, the poem highlights the mechanism adopted by the slaves to deal with their state of servitude. The mechanism being a mask to hide the bitter truth from the already blindfolded world. The tone used in the description is certainly sarcastic and melancholic. Sarcastic towards the world's indifference and melancholic about the sad state of affairs. It very well used the concept of symbolic inferences, in its usage of the 'mask' as a symbol of scripted reality.

On a broader note, the poem states the impact of sufferings inflicted on the minority on grounds of racial divide. This poem perhaps was written in the light of the sufferings of the African blacks, but can we in the current times save ourselves from the shadows of such social paradoxes. This is truly an enthralling question which still seeks for an answer.