We Wear The Mask


by Paul Dunbar 

Throughout literature, one discovers that there are various
reoccurring themes or motifs. Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem,
"We Wear the Mask," lends itself to the motif of masks, as
do George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" and Santha Rau's
"By Any Other Name." When compared with Dunbar's poem, the
characters in the works of Orwell and Rau show that they
wear masks in order to feel accepted and to avoid
Everyone wishes to feel accepted in life, and the
characters in the works by Orwell and Rau are no exception.
They wish to fit in with their peers, so they "wear the
mask that grins and lies"(Dunbar 1). These characters will
hide what they really feel so that they may feel accepted.
In his tale, "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell wants to fit
the part of an ordinary police officer. He says to himself,
"A sahib has got to act like a sahib" (Orwell 644). He
knows he has to play the right role or people might not
accept him. He acts very brave because a "white man mustn't
be frightened in front of [the] natives" (645). Orwell
knows the importance of the Europeans appearing superior to
the natives.
However, the characters in Rau's story, "By Any Other
Name," also wear a mask in order to feel accepted. The way
her peers view her concerns the little Indian girl with the
enormous black eyes. When eating lunch, she looks longingly
at Cynthia's Indian food, but when offered some she "only
shook her head and plowed her way solemnly through her
sandwiches" (Rau 655). She does not wish to be disliked for
what her family eats, but still salivates at the sight of
it. Premila also worries about what her peers think of her.
Even though she still loves her Indian food, she suggests
to her mother, "We should take sandwiches to school
[tomorrow]" (656). Premila wishes to feel accepted by the
other children. Another character who wishes to feel
accepted is Cynthia. Cynthia looks around at the other
children's dresses and knows they "should have looked
strange" (654), but she said to herself, "I should ask my
mother if I couldn't wear a dress to school, too, instead
of my Indian clothes" (654). She does not wish to stand out
among the other children.
On the other hand, no one likes being humiliated. It is a
horrible experience and most people would do anything to
avoid it. Most would wear a mask while smiling "with torn
and bleeding hearts" (Dunbar 4). The characters in the
works of Orwell and Rau do just that. They hide their true
feelings to avoid humiliation.
In the story, "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell wears a mask
to hide his many embarrassments. He feels humiliated when
the young Buddhist priests jeer at him, but he ignores it.
Orwell will later wear a mask to avoid farther humiliation,
or to avoid "looking and feeling a fool" (Orwell 643). He
decides that, in order to prevent his humiliation, he must
shoot the elephant against his wishes. After all, he must
not let anyone laugh at him because "every white man's life
in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at"
(644). From this example, one can infer that Orwell shot
the elephant "solely to avoid looking like a fool" (647).
On the same note, the characters in Rau's story, "By Any
Other Name," also do not wish to feel humiliated. Having
the other children laugh at her for not remembering her
English name, embarrasses Cynthia. To avoid further
embarrassment, she "sat down quickly and opened [her] eyes
very wide, hoping in that way to dry them off" (Rau 654).
She did not wish for the other children to see her tears.
Premila is also wary of being humiliated. Premila is
furious after seeing Santha running towards their nanny
shouting "Ayah, Ayah" (656). She later tells Santha to
"never do that again in front of the other children" (656).
Her little sister embarrasses her.
What is more important, there is only one character who
does not wear a mask. This character is Santha, from "By
Any Other Name". She is able to distinguish herself as two
totally different characters with different beliefs and
different morals. These two characters are Cynthia(her
school time character) and herself(out of school
character). Santha says to herself, "I remember having a
certain detached and disbelieving concern in the actions of
'Cynthia,' but certainly no responsibility" (Rau 654). She
feels sympathy towards Cynthia but does not she has to
answer for her actions.
In conclusion, one uses a mask to hide behind. Whether it
be from humiliation or non-acceptance, people will use
masks to hide their true emotions. Dunbar's poem has a mask
motif. As one can see, Orwell and Rau use the mask motif to
show how their characters wish to hide their insecurities.
One can compare these tales with Dunbar's poem and
recognize the similar motifs. 


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