Study Guide

The House of Dies Drear Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Virginia Hamilton

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Mask

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?

Doors

Doors are a fun and easy symbol to work with. Doors usually signal discovery, and they can mean either coming or going. In The House of Dies Drear doors symbolize arrival, newness, opening.

Think of the first door we encounter in the story, the front door of the house of Dies Drear. Thomas discovers that by pushing a wooden "button" (3.102) in the door this happens:

The front steps were poised about a foot off the ground and wide to the left of their proper place. Where the steps should have been was a black and jagged hole about three feet around. (3.110).

Thomas has discovered a secret passage that leads under the house. In Dies Drear's time, when a person running from slavery came to the house in the night, the button need only be pushed and they could quickly enter. Since there are doors that connect the house with its underbelly, the slaves could get in and out of the house more safely that way. For Thomas, this door is also a doorway to the past, a chance for him to learn more about abolitionists and the slaves they attempted to help.

Are there other doors in the story? What do these different doors mean? How are they similar or different to the front door? What did we leave out in our brief analysis of the front door?

The Treasure of Dies Drear

You might think of this story as a treasure hunt that has lasted over a hundred years. This hunt broke apart the Skinner family, turned the Darrows into maniacs, and destroyed the friendship of River Swift Darrow and Mr. Skinner/Mr. Pluto. But, it has also brought together Mr. Skinner his son, as well as the Skinners and the Smalls. The treasure means different things for different people at different times. As we discuss in Mayhew's "Character Analysis," he got mad when he learned his father found the treasure. He wishes his father had sold Drear's antiques and used the money to bail him and his mother out of poverty.

Similarly, the Darrows see the treasure as an escape from poverty. For Mr. Small and Mr. Pluto, the treasure is a doorway to the past. The treasure includes items that go back at least to the 1600s. There's tons of stuff: glassware, rugs, clothing, furniture, carvings, and other works of art. The treasure trove also includes ledgers and account books detailing the buying and selling of slaves. If the treasure interests you, you'll want to read the beginning of Chapter 14 carefully.

For Mr. Pluto and Mr. Small, the treasure is something to be preserved and protected so future generations can study it and understand the past. Mayhew seems to be moving over to that way of thinking too. So, what do you think? Should the treasure be preserved as history, or should it be sold to help feed hungry people. Is it possible that it could be used for both? If so, how?