In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” the narrator explains the terrible ways in which people wear a mask to hide true and sincere thoughts or emotions. By characterizing the masks as fake facades meant to obstruct ones’ judgment of others, the reader is led to self-reflect on their own fidelity. The poem accentuates the struggles of restricting a being’s emotions to the boundaries of a deceitful persona by presenting the mask as a symbol of false identity and furthering the point through strong diction and hyperbole.
Throughout the poem, the mask is like a bright smile draped over a crying soul. The mask represents the common act of concealing true feelings from the potential wrath of “human guile” (3). The negative diction demonstrates the malice and gloom within the overall message of the poem. This creates a dark and gloomy mood that draws attention to the narrator’s discontent with those who “wear the mask,” (1) because doing such causes people more pain and anguish as they fight to keep up the lie.
It becomes apparent that wearing the mask is more of a burden than necessary because it forces “torn and bleeding hearts” (4) to pretend nothing is wrong; to act like they are fine and content with society when they are not. This hyperbole also serves to stress the severity of the pain the narrator, and the people like the narrator honestly feel despite the forced smiles they use to decorate their faces. By giving a morbid depiction of their true feelings the reader can better understand the attitude of the narrator.
The narrator feels a sense of obligation to wear the mask because he does not want to “let them…see” what an excruciating state (8) he is in. He does not want to trouble the world with his personal struggles and frustrations. The final stanza reveals the degree to which the people wearing masks are hurting. They only wear the mask to keep from troubling others and possibly causing problems. They hurt themselves in order to cope and “let the world dream otherwise,” (14) as if the masks were something real and authentic. They wear the mask even though it aches their very souls.
The overall meaning of the poem is established by using a mask to symbolize the trials of those limited by a fake representation of themselves when in the eyes of the world. In many ways, the mask is like a disguise for those who are secretly in pain. The negative diction and hyperbole served the purpose of conveying the author’s message to the reader in an almost depressing matter.