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Masks mean many different things to many people. They are used at parties, ceremonies, rituals, sports, and so many other things. Most people eventually take masks off, revealing who they really are. However, some people put masks on to conceal who they really are, shielding them from the world. The poems The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens and The Harlem Dancer by Claude McKay both demonstrate the theme of façade in different ways. The women depicted in the poems are completely different, however they both felt as if they needed to use a mask to go on with their lives in society.
The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens portrays a woman who has passed away and the wake that is held for her. It is implied that she is nothing but a common woman who had no real achievements in her life. Her social status is revealed in the second stanza:
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
It can be understood from reading that her dresser is "lacking the three glass knobs" that the dresser is old and possibly falling apart, implying that this woman does not have the money to afford a new one. The sheet that was placed over her body also came from atop of the dresser. She had also "embroidered fantails once." When someone does not have a lot of money, it makes them thrifty. She must have embroidered the birds onto the sheet to make it look nicer. Making herself appear to have more wealth and status seems like something she did often. However, when her "horny feet" are revealed her masquerade is over. Her callused feet reveal that she has had hardship and has done a lot of hard work in her life to just survive. The size of the sheet that covers her is also very telling. The fact that the sheet was not large enough to cover her entire body reveals that she was not quite what she let people think she was. It is as if the sheet covered the part of her that she showed to the world and in her passing revealed the part of her that she really was. Her death has finally revealed that she was just an ordinary woman who tried to make her life seem better by tweaking a few things to live her façade.
The first part of the poem is also very telling about how the people who knew her perceive her now as she lays deceased in her bedroom.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be the finale of seem.
The people that are attending her wake seem to be dressed in ordinary clothing. They seem unbothered by the fact that they are at a wake of a woman that they possibly know. They are "in such dress as they are used to wear" which means that this event is not of major importance to them. The boys also brought flowers that are wrapped "in last month's newspapers." The woman's wake was not even important enough for them to wrap the flowers in something nicer than "last month's newspapers." Both the girls and the boys who attended her wake did not think it was important enough to do anything special.
The most telling line of the first stanza is, "Let be be the finale of seem." The "finale of seem" represents the finality of the mask of what the woman wanted people to perceive when they looked at her. The line is saying that it is time to let fall the mask that the woman put on for a large portion of her life. This line alone sums up the theme of façade in this poem. The façade that this woman has worked so hard to maintain is lifted and even as she is dead, she is left pathetic and in her true form. The people who knew her used her death as an occasion to eat ice cream, to relieve some of their own troubles.
Another poem that explores the theme of façade is the poem The Harlem Dancer by Claude McKay. This poem is in the form of a sonnet, unlike the other poem which was free verse except a rhyming couplet at the end of each stanza. This poem captures what life was like for an African American woman during the 1920s. Being a woman in the 1920s was hard enough. When this poem was written women were given the right to vote two years prior, so tensions were still high. To add to the tension, an African American woman would have been given a harder time. Although no longer slaves, the tension between whites and African Americans still existed and would continue to exist until the Civil Rights Movement. This is the time that Claude McKay lived in. McKay used his experiences as a Harlem Renaissance writer to depict what an African American woman during the 1920s might have done in order to get by.
The mask that the woman wears in The Harlem Dancer is much different than the mask the woman wears in The Emperor of Ice Cream. The mask the woman uses in The Harlem Dancer is used to protect her and save what little dignity she has left.
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
The woman in this poem is not being herself as she dances for the people throwing money at her. She had taken herself completely away mentally from the situation she is presently in and has put herself somewhere more comforting. She put on a mask to protect herself, instead of trying to make herself appear better than she really is. She uses her mask as a shield, making sure that no one will ever be able to get to the shred of pride and dignity in herself that she has left. It is obvious that this woman does not like dancing for money for these people that treat her terribly and ridicule her. It can be said that this is one of the few things that she is able to do to make ends meet. In order to support herself and possibly others, this is probably the profession that is the most lucrative for her during this time. The sad part of this is that she is not even earning much money. This is revealed in the line, "Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise." She is only earning petty coins and nothing of real monetary value that could be of use to her.
Another part of the poem is also very telling about how resilient this woman is because of how she maintains her façade.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
The woman seems to be weathered and has also gone through hardship much like the woman in the first poem. She has gone through things that have made her stronger in mind and body. It seems that because she has gone through such hardship, it has made her even more beautiful than she was. What has helped this woman become so strong and able to get through the tough times is that she can separate herself from the profession that she has to do any her actual self. It is akin to a victim of a murder or a rape that as it is happening, they block it out and put themselves somewhere else in their mind so they can get through the terrible experience. This woman is putting her mask on once again to get through her degrading job so she can support herself and possibly others. Her strength gives way to the hope that she will be able to stop dancing and be successful.
The façade presented in the poem The Emperor of Ice Cream has more to do with concealing and hiding away what the woman really was from the rest of the world. Her mask was like a security blanket, making sure that no one would ever see that she was just an ordinary woman with nothing to show of her existence. However, the façade in the second poem The Harlem Dancer is more like a defense-mechanism. The woman in the second poem puts on the façade to protect her dignity and to also transport herself away from the trauma. This façade is used as a necessity whereas the façade used in the first poem was a matter of pride for the woman. The women in both poems have seen many hardships and both struggle to survive in the world. They try to better themselves in hopes of living happily. The woman in the first poem hoped that the mask she put on would someday be who she really was. The woman in the second poem hoped that she would not have to wear a mask any longer. By using a façade, both women hid their true selves from the world.