The Mask


The Mask Essay, Research Paper

What is Behind Your Mask?

Every minute of every day people wear a mask. A mask to hide the

true identity of their feelings. The 1896 poem “We Wear the Mask”,

Paul Laurence Dunbar illustrates this theory. People wear mask for

many different reasons but mostly to hide their true self from society.

The message portrayed by Dunbar is that it is one’s self right to wear a

mask as they so choose.

The first couplet clearly states how strongly Dunbar feels about

the mask that we wear. According to him the mask allows us to

“grin[s] and lie[s]” while on the inside we are hiding how we truly feel.

By hiding our cheeks and shading our eyes we jade reality. In the

following line Dunbar explains one of the ways we use our mask is to

be “guile”. Guile means that we are deceitful to others in our daily

quest. The fourth line of the stanza explains that we may hurt deeply

on the inside but because we are wearing our mask we still smile. So

no matter how bad we do hurt, out of habit we feel obligated to put

on a mask for everyone else. Dunbar ends the stanza by implying that

not only do we lie with our smiles but our mouth lies through the smile

with “myriad and subtle” words.

The next stanza illustrates the fact that Dunbar believes we

have every right to wear our mask. At the same time he seems to be

saying that we should wear our mask everyday and take it off for no

one. Dunbar believes that we should not have to let the world know

“all our tears and sighs”. Why should the world be “over-wise” to our

true feelings. Perhaps we are not harming a soul by the mask we

wear. Dunbar states “Nay let them only see us, while/ We wear the

mask” to prove this point. I believe he might feel this way because in

his personal life he may have had something to hide from the world.

Authors seem to draw their works from true experience.

In the final stanza Dunbars says that the ultimate price we pay for

wearing our mask is when our “tortured” souls cry out to God. With

agony Dunbar cries out “oh Great Christ” as if he has experienced

such a profound amount of pain. Perhaps some people feel that

God is the only one to talk to because he never passes judgement on

us. No matter how hard we try we can never hold a mask to God

because he always sees our true being. The third and fourth line of

the final stanza Dunbar says “We sing, but oh the clay is vile beneath

our feet..” which could mean many things. When he says clay he

could be referring to us humans, and that we as people are ,vile, very

repulsive and wicked. I think that he alludes to Isaiah 64:8 in which it

states ” …We are the clay and you[God] are the potter; we are the

work of your hands”. Our mask of lies and secrets keeps God from

molding us the way he desires, which in turn makes mankind vile. In

the last line “let the world dream otherwise” it seems that Dunbar

wants us to keep wearing our mask so that we, humankind, can live


This poem goes deeper than just the words on the page. When

reading the words over and over the meaning seems to go deeper

and deeper. No one can ever be sure of the message that Dunbar is

trying to relay to us. Everyone should develop their own opinion and

take this poem to heart. From my own personal experience I don’t

agree solely with what Dunbar says because people should not be

content with wearing their mask. It is not always healthy to hide

ones true self and feelings, especially if they are painful. I also feel

that if you continually ware you mask you will soon lose touch of who

you really are. It is more accepted now than when the poem was

written to share or seek help, counsel, from one. I strongly suggest

that if you have spent a lifetime behind your mask and are full of

intense feelings and emotions that you do swallow you pride and

seek professional help.

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