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Symbol Analysis

In "If We Must Die," McKay represents the enemy in several ways, but especially as dogs. He uses the image of a vicious pack of dogs in order to stir up the instinctual fears of his readers/listeners. These dogs are hunting as a pack and cornering their prey. The dogs are first depicted as hungry (a perfectly good reason to hunt), but they seem to morph into vicious, amoral, killing beasts by the end. Throughout the poem, McKay is presenting the enemies as inhuman.

  • Line 3: The speaker describes his enemies as "mad and hungry dogs." By associating his human enemies with dogs, the speaker is using an extended metaphor. This extended metaphor gives us the message that the speaker's enemies are crazed, vicious, and less than human. The dogs also serve as a symbol of "unfair" fighting, but that shows up later.
  • Line 4: The dogs mock their prey. This might be more frightening than just plain hunting. First we thought that the dogs were hungry and needed to eat. Most people aren't freaked out by nature videos of lions hunting to feed their cute baby lion cubs, right? But these dogs are actually mocking their prey. If you're hungry, you don't cruelly play with your food.
  • Line 7: The speaker calls the enemies "monsters" – not dogs, monsters. The enemies are so terrible that wild dogs are too "human" for the speaker, and he starts portraying them as unworldly monsters.
  • Line 9: Now the enemies are called "the common foe." It seems like the speaker is trying to take a little air out of that inflated, scary image that he blew up. The enemy is a foe; that's not too scary (compared to bloodthirsty dogs or monsters). People are listening and thinking, "Hey, you know what? Maybe we can beat these guys."
  • Line 13: Though the speaker has been deflating the dog metaphor, he brings it back in the end. This time the enemy is "murderous, cowardly pack." "Pack" recalls the image of the pack of hungry dogs in line 3. By calling the enemy a "cowardly pack," our speaker has shown them as too dishonorable to fight fairly. This makes them a little more "human" if you have a low opinion of dogs; or it makes them less "human" if you have a high opinion of humanity. Nevertheless, the dog metaphor is reworked in order to show us how inhumane the enemies are.

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