The House of Dies Drear
by Virginia Hamilton
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The symbol of the mask is closely associated with Mayhew Skinner. He's not just an actor by profession, but by way of life. He uses acting, or putting on different masks, to solve his problems and to understand others. When the Smalls first meet Mayhew, he's wearing a Mr. Pluto mask. He's pretending to be his father, Mr. Skinner, pretending to be Mr. Pluto, the demonic role the town created for him, the role he has acted for so many years. Kind of makes your head spin doesn't it?
Before Mayhew peels away his mask he recites these lines:
"WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes…
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…
We wear the mask!" (13.83)
The lines are from the poem "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906). It's a poem that deals with how enslaved people had to smile even though they were suffering. It comments on the theme of slavery in the story, and alludes to the actors' masks, the masks of comedy and tragedy.
Speaking of acting, remember when Mayhew is playing the ghost of Dies Drear? We're told, "Never had he imagined he would play the part of a white abolitionist" (18.32). Perhaps, this moment suggests that one way to learn and understand history is by "wearing the masks" of people we don't necessarily feel like we identify with. Mr. Small definitely identifies with his role of murdered slave. After he and Thomas have hidden for hours in the dark and cold waiting for the Darrows, we learn,
[…] he began to feel as though he were a slave hiding and running. Somewhere in the back of his mind was emptiness and fear; loneliness, the way a desperate slave would feel. (18.30)
This moment helps the readers see and feel it too, though different readers react differently to the scene. How does it make you feel? What are some of the other "masks" that people in the story wear? How are they significant to the story?