Study Guide

If We Must Die Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Claude McKay

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Dogs

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.

Hogs

The dog metaphor decreased the humanity of the enemies by showing how they were neither noble hunters, nor honorable ones. McKay uses a different kind of tool to show how noble and honorable the speaker and his allies actually are: the analogy. The speaker insists that his allies not die like hogs. That is to say, he prefers that they die like men. You might not know it, but pigs don't usually die in any way that seems noble. It's enough to make you a vegetarian. Also, "hog" is a specific kind of pig. Hogs are castrated, male pigs, and castration is a symbol for powerlessness. The speaker is trying to encourage his allies to manly, noble, and brave in the face of death, and hogs are the opposite in the speaker's eyes.

  • Line 1: Hogs don't really get to choose the way they die, especially if they are being hunted by a pack of wild beasts. That's why the speaker doesn't want his allies to die like hogs.
  • Line 2: Pigs are generally kept in pigpens (fenced in areas). The downside of keeping pigs in a pen is that they can't escape predators that get into the pen. They are powerless to defend themselves and they are totally trapped. Also, pigpens are filthy places. Someone would have to think hard to name a more "inglorious spot."

Christian Imagery

Since "If We Must Die" is about dying a noble, meaningful death, it's not surprising that a bit of Christian imagery pops up. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is a prime example of death made meaningful – though he was killed by his enemies, his death is seen as a noble sacrifice through which all Christians are redeemed from sin.

  • Lines 6-7: The speaker says that he doesn't want his allies' "precious blood" to be "shed / In vain. "[P]recious blood" sounds a bit like biblical language, and brings to mind images of Jesus Christ being crucified.