Who Wears the Mask?

In my Freshman year of college, I was required to memorize one poem from a Literature anthology. That poem happened to be “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem proceeds like this:

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.

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.

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!

To me, this poem is about the great lengths that humans go to in order to hide their pain. And furthermore it is about our mutual agreement to ignore the pain of ourselves and others in order to continue life in a manufactured state of “ignorant bliss.”

It was as I read the passage about Doro’s first encounter with Anyanwu where the narrator states “He was examining her face very carefully, perhaps seeking some resemblance. He would not find it. The face she was wearing was not her true face,” that this poem returned to my memory (10). Anyanwu was the embodiment of this poem. Her shape was not her own and the only subtlety that could give-away her masquerade were her “shaded” eyes.

As I read further along I began to realize that in a sense Doro fit this description as well. He was not only physically shrouded at all times by another’s body, but he had come to the ritualistic hiding of his emotional self as well. The only way that we come to see Doro’s past pains and hurts are through the omniscient narrations.

Though Doro became increasingly vindictive and controlling, I strangely found that I did not hate him. This puzzled me. But then I again returned to the poem. How much of Doro could I see in myself? Was he tolerable due to the fact that he is essentially the embodiment of the intricate dance we humans partake in to hide our true selves? Was Doro’s selfish persona a validated type of “mask” to hide the pain of living thousands of years and suffering repeated losses?

As Butler began to weave a more intricate web of Doro’s past for the reader, I indeed found myself sympathizing with Doro. His first “kill” was his mother – and his next 50 years became a blur of homicidal trauma. We all go through a process of self-preservation where the person we project doesn’t quite align with the person we truly are. To what extent can this theory of “mask wearing” apply to Doro? Can his actions be excused as self-preservation due to his inescapable past?

I’m not entirely sure of either of these, but I think that some part of me is saying “yes, Doro is redeemable” and “yes, Doro is justified,” and perhaps that is the part of me that “wears the mask that grins and lies.”

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