Comparing Emerson's Self-Reliance and Dunbar's We Wear the Mask

Comparing Emerson's Self-Reliance and Dunbar's We Wear the Mask

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Comparing Emerson's Self-Reliance and Dunbar's We Wear the Mask 

In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson condemns false appearances. Paul Laurence Dunbar's We Wear the Mask also supports this belief. However, there is a difference in the views of these two works. Emerson believes that people can shed their false social appearances and live a life true to themselves and others. Conversely, Dunbar thinks these pretenses are necessary. The authors' word choices and images support this argument.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" expresses his striving for individuality, rebellion against authority, and rejection of false social appearances. This is shown through his non-conformist writing style and ideas. On page 1034, Emerson states "Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater." To me, this image is of people giving up what they believe so they can protect themselves. "Securing" is making something safe or free from risk of loss, so "securing of his bread" could symbolize a person protecting their feelings or place in society. The price for this is "to surrender the liberty and culture." So, in order to protect themselves people must surrender or give up their liberty (freedom) and culture (beliefs).


Emerson also states that "virtues are penances...Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world"(p. 1035). Virtue is righteousness while a penance is an act to show sorrow for a wrongdoing. "Works" refer to chores or efforts at righteousness. "Apology" means regret and "extenuate" can mean to cover up. "Living in the world" could be symbolic of the lying and deceit that people do in everyday life. Therefore, people labor to appear righteous in order to make up for, or cover up, the bad things that they do.


On page 1036 Emerson says, "We come to wear one cut of face and figure." This sounds symbolically like putting on a mask or false appearance. Later, on the same page, Emerson talks about "the forced smile which we put on in company." "Forced" means to strain or produce with effort. Consequently, this "smile" we put on in public is not easily shown, as true emotions would be, but produced difficultly as if it was fake or not true.


Emerson does not subscribe to this outward falseness or the desire to appear righteous.

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"My life is for itself and not for a spectacle; I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady...What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think"(p. 1035). So Emerson would rather live a true life and have people think less of him than to live a false life and be thought of as having "goodness" or "virtue." He prefers to live life his way, not the way others think he should.


Emerson also believes that we can all shed this falseness and lying. "Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse"(p. 1042). To "check" is to stop or restrain and "lying hospitality" is false friendliness, while "lying affection" is simply false affection. "Deceived and deceiving people" refers to the people in society who embrace the outward acting and lying. So Emerson is saying that we should stop trying to impress all the false people in society and express our true feelings, not the feelings we are expected to express.


Emerson believes that people use this lying or falsehood to hide their true identity in order to protect themselves and their feelings. "We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other"(p. 1043). However, he believes that this is wrong. "Insist on yourself; never imitate"(p. 1048). Emerson also has faith that the truth will prevail if we shed our falseness and stay true to ourselves. "If we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last"(p. 1042).


Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" also condemns the deceit of society. The first stanza, on page 498, carries images that tell about the falseness with a morbid tone which exemplifies Dunbar's dislike of the lying. "We wear the mask which grins and lies,/ It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes." A mask can be a disguise or pretense. "Grins and lies" brings to mind a sinister sort of lying. The cheeks and eyes could represent our goals and feelings. When we look at the next line, "This debt we pay to human guile," shading or hiding our true self is the debt we pay for our "human guile," which means treachery or deceit. "With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/ And mouth with myriad subtleties." "Torn and bleeding hearts" is an image of inner suffering and pain. Yet still "we smile." To mouth is to speak or to move one's lips without sound. "Myriad subtleties" is innumerable acts of craftiness. Therefore, we wear a disguise to hide our true feelings and goals. Though we are torn up inside by not expressing our true selves, we still smile and carry on as we are supposed to by telling endless lies.


The first line of this stanza adds much complexity to this poem. Is the wearer of the mask lying or is it the mask itself? If the mask is lying, who is it lying to; the observer or the wearer? I think it is both. After someone tells a lie many times he can come to believe the lie himself. Looking at this stanza by itself, it seems reflective, as if it is just a statement of how things are. The next stanza takes a different approach.


The second stanza asks a question. "Why should the world be over-wise,/ in counting all our tears and sighs?" "Over-wise" can be translated as excess knowledge. "Tears and sighs" represent the pains and yearnings of those who are suffering. The next line answers the question. "Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mask." "Nay" can be seen as a way of saying "nah" or simply offering a negative response. This stanza sort of asks "why" do we do this, and then decides "nah"--we should just stay behind the mask. Why should everyone know too much about each other when we can just hide our true feelings and therefore protect them? I believe Dunbar used a question in this stanza to acknowledge the other side of the argument and show that the alternative, revealing ourselves, is worse than the deceit. This is because when revealed, our goals and emotions would be unprotected.


The third and final stanza, on pages 498-499, reviews and reaffirms the statement that we hide the truth. "We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries,/ To thee from tortured souls arise." This restates that we put on an outward appearance while inside, in our "souls," we are in pain. "We sing, but oh the clay is vile/ Beneath our feet, and long the mile." "Clay" is symbolic of the Earth, while "vile" means bad or evil. "Long the mile" represents our journey through life. So, life on Earth is tough but we put on the act and "sing" like we are expected to. "But let the world dream otherwise,/ We wear the mask!" The second to last line makes it sound like the world wants it that way, as if the world is better off if we keep our true feelings to ourselves and put up a front. The last line reemphasizes the statement that we all put on an act for the world. This final stanza sums up the poem by restating the inner pain we suffer because of our falsehood, but also reaffirms that this deceit is necessary.


It was argued in the class discussion that this poem was written as "we" being blacks in America. Paul Laurence Dunbar was black, but in the biography it says that he tried to write "raceless verse"(p. 486). I believe the poem says much about human nature in general. Everybody has seen examples of this deception in both upper and lower circles. Dunbar shows that this dishonesty in society is bad with his dismal images of "torn and bleeding hearts" and "tortured souls." He also shows that this deception is better than the alternative, revealing our true selves, with his question in the second stanza. "Why should the world be over-wise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs?"(498) Moreover, Dunbar believes the falsehood needs to continue in order to protect our feelings and goals. "But let the world dream otherwise."


These two works are as different as their authors, but they come together, somewhat, on the issue of false human appearances. Both writings deplore the falsehood. Emerson wrote about the "forced smile" and Dunbar told of "myriad subtleties." Nevertheless, the two authors differed in their views on what to do about it. Ralph Waldo Emerson came from a time when American writers were searching for an identity. He was a Harvard graduate and a minister. It was a time of much optimism and hope for the new country(p. 972-980). This may explain why, in Emerson's view, we are capable of shedding our falsehood and living genuinely. However, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the son of former Kentucky slaves and suffered the poverty and discrimination associated with it (p.486). I believe Dunbar tried to distance himself from his heritage in order to climb the social ladder and gain recognition as a serious writer. He did not wish to be known just for his black dialect. In his attempt to be free from the "tales and poems of southern life"(486) he wrote "raceless verse," and probably wore his own share of "masks." This would explain his dismal view about our "masks" and why he thinks it necessary to wear them to protect ourselves from others.


Dunbar wrote "We Wear the Mask" in direct response to Emerson's "Self-Reliance." The ideas and topics were previously stirred by Emerson's work. However, as times change and people from different backgrounds express themselves, alternate views are bound to surface. This is all part of a unique feature of human nature that allows us to adapt to our environment and to evolve.

Works Cited

Byerman, Keith. "We Wear the Mask: Deceit as Theme and Style in Slave Narratives." The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Ed. John Sekora and Darwin T. Turner. Macomb: Western Illinois University, 1982

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "We Wear the Mask." Glencoe Literature. Texas ed. Columbus, OH: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. Vol.B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

University of Dayton. The Life of Paul Laurence Dunbar. 7 June 2000. University of Dayton. 15 Jan. 2004 .

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