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Wearing the Mask

December 15, 2010

“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and “I, too, sing America,” by Langston Hughes are literary works that share common themes, such as, dehumanization, intrigue and hope. To be dehumanized is to deprive a human of his personality, his spirit and his human qualities . To be human is to live, love and make decisions that dictate our personality. We use these measures to help us to find out what it is that we mean to others and the importance that we may hold for them. Without it, we are nothing. The following analysis finds these themes in dissimilar writings that all confirm the effect of individualism in the face of those who would destroy it. Throughout time, there have been those who sit back and allow life to happen to them, and then there are artists who, through their art, bring to light the plights of the human race, effectively inciting action, discussion and eventually, relief.

In “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin sets the mood as Richards, a family friend, breaks the, twice confirmed, news of Brently Mallard’s death, reportedly from a railroad accident. In Chopin’s story, much is revealed as the family members react to the news. In order to effectively create both her setting and plot, Chopin closely analyzes Mrs. Mallard’s, Brently Mallard’s wife, telling and emotional reactions as well as smoothly transitioning between the dialogs of everyone else involved. Almost immediately, we are drawn into the anxiety in the Mallard home as Mrs. Mallard is comforted by her sister, Josephine, and Richards. It is in her moments spent alone that we truly are invited into the heart and mind of someone who is more than what we are shown on the surface.

The short story begins as Richards learns of the news at the newspaper office, where intelligence was received of the railroad accident. He checked and reconfirmed the list of the dead and set out to warn the family. Everyone seemed to know that Mrs. Mallard had a week heart. Richards must have had this in mind when he broke the news to Josephine, no doubt searching for the gentlest way to break it to Mrs. Mallard. Upon hearing the news, Mrs. Mallard collapsed into her sister’s arms and wept “with wild abandon.” When she could pull herself together, Mrs. Mallard quickly escaped to her bedroom, forbidding anyone to follow her. It is in these following moments where we get a glimpse of a different Mrs. Mallard. She immediately sank into her chair. Through an open window, she silently relishes in the newness of her environment. Through this window, she notices birds chirping, new life springing from the tops of the trees and the “delicious breath of rain” in the air.

It occurred to no one in the Mallard house that Mrs. Mallard wasn’t only mourning the passing of her husband, it seems she was secretly celebrating a rebirth of her own life; a life without Mr. Mallard. When she allowed herself, Mrs. Mallard began to be filled with excitement. She was beginning to feel “free,” but also terrified of that feeling. She reflected on her relationship with Mr. Mallard and the reader is given the impression that she feels, in a way, oppressed and that the passing of her husband is bringing her a great relief. She knew he loved her, but she was anxious for her new life; a life that she would be lived in no one’s shadow. She would be alone, and for once, living on her own power. Josephine, worried about her sister, came knocking on the door. She was afraid that Mrs. Mallard was crying herself ill. Mrs. Mallard shooed her away, promising that she wasn’t making herself sick.

In the end, Mrs. Mallard collected herself, met her sister’s persistence on the other side of the door and descended the stairs together, where Richards awaited. In that moment, someone opened the door with a key and no one was more shocked to see Brently Mallard than Mrs. Mallard. They say she died of “heart disease-of joy that kills,” however the reader knows that Mrs. Mallard died for many reasons; the death of her new life and every fresh opportunity it would have afforded her. Perhaps squeezing back into her stifling role as Mr. Mallard’s wife was so unimaginable, that she just couldn’t bear it.

Similarly, as in “The Story of an Hour,” we see the same themes in the poem “I too, sing America.” The poem describes a man, “the darker brother” and his hope for equality. We discern, through the writing, a prideful man who knows that he is worth more than the respect, or lack thereof, that he is currently being shown. In the lines: “Tomorrow,/ I’ll be at the table when company comes/ Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me,/ “Eat in the kitchen,”/ Then. – the reader discerns that the “darker brother” knows that his situation can only be a temporary one and that he is expecting retribution someday. The poem finishes with a hopeful “Besides/ They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed – I, too, am America.” The darker brother has obviously been dehumanized as he never describes himself as anything or anyone other than a shade, “the darker brother.” Undoubtedly, he is one of many who found themselves facing an inequality so unjust that one had to wonder when, and maybe even if, it would all end. Many wore a mask of contentedness, when their rights barely existed and their power to change things was even less so.

Like “The Story of an Hour” and “I, too sing, America,” “We Wear the Mask” is a poem that tells the story of a slave who, figuratively, wears a mask and suffers a measure of dehumanization and hopelessness. This slave understands that wearing this mask helps as much as it hurts the cause. While wearing this mask, the slave “grins and lies” pretending to be happy and content with a circumstance that no human should have to endure. In secret, the slave bleeds and cries as his very being is tortured and spat upon. He hopes for change but knows that, for now, he must endure. The poem is short but the message is clear: “It’s tough, but I will wait for the change that will come. “It is in these words that the author also sends the message that the slaves are undoubtedly strengthened by the situation. Their strength can only take them so far; they must continue to hide and wait – wait for freedom, wait for equality and wait for respect.

In conclusion, the most common theme of the aforementioned written works is dehumanization and hope. Through expert storytelling, a commanding mastery of the English language and well placed intrigue and suspense, thought provoking worlds were weaved. We are left to ask ourselves what we would do in these situations, if the shoes were on our feet. Would we allow ourselves to shed oppression and dream of a better future as Mrs. Mallard in “The Story of an Hour?” Would we wait patiently, nestling our dreams of freedom as in “We Wear the mask” or would we allow our dreams to explode and ooze? Perhaps it won’t be our choice at all and we will be memorialized by a government agency as a number that lived the standard, acceptable life, devoid of any personality or individualism. Hopefully, one will be encouraged by these works and by the people who came before them, albeit fictional. We should all wake up and take a look at the lives we lead lest we risk fading into a world of dehumanization, hopelessness and conformity.

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