I have just begun reading the script for the play Overtones (1915) by Alice Gerstenberg. https://www.one-act-plays.com/dramas/overtones.html At the beginning of the play, there are two characters on stage. Harriet and her primitive alter ego, Hetty. I have trouble understanding the author's reason for using the definite article before the word 'mask' in Hetty's fifth line.

HETTY: My passions are deeper than yours. I can't keep on the mask as you do. I'm crude and real, you are my appearance in the world.

The mask Hetty talks about here is not a physical mask but a false persona. And there has not been a remark about any mask or persona by anyone before this line in the play. I have visited many English grammar sites to conclude that the definite article before the noun either specifies the object or idea represented by the noun or makes the noun represent a generic group. Could anyone kindly let me know which of the two cases apply to the use of 'the' before mask in Hetty's speech above and explain to me the reason?

  • It seems to me that it would mean the same if you replaced the with a.
    – mdewey
    Feb 20, 2022 at 16:10
  • Thank you for the comment. From what I have read in English grammar sites, if we say ‘a mask’ in this sentence, it probably means any mask in the world. So Hetty is talking about masks in general in this case. If the sentence thus replaced with ‘a mask’ means the same as the original one, then logically, the latter was referring to masks in general as well. This sounds valid to me, except that it is contradictory to Ahmad’s explanation which also sounds valid to me.
    – Ryo
    Feb 23, 2022 at 6:22
  • Could this be a case where the intention of the combination of the indefinite article + a singular noun was left accidentally ambiguous as to whether the noun was referred to as a group or a specific object?
    – Ryo
    Feb 23, 2022 at 6:23

1 Answer 1


'The mask' refers to a specific mask.

'I can't keep on the mask as you do.'

Harriet keeps on a mask. The mask is specified. We understand that there is only one mask here. There is a particular mask. So the definite article the has been used before mask. HETTY can't keep on the mask which Harriet keeps on.

  • Thank you very much for your answer. So you are explaining to me that because of the words 'as you do' after 'the mask,' the mask in this sentence gets limited to the specific one worn by Harriet. Am I getting your point correctly?
    – Ryo
    Feb 20, 2022 at 15:32
  • You're welcome. Yes, you're right. Feb 20, 2022 at 15:41
  • Thank you for your quick confirmation. One thing is I kind of thought the reason why Hetty cannot wear the mask was because of her honest and primitive character. I believe that were it not for her wild character, she could probably put on the same mask even if it is on Harriet because it is a symbolic one, a persona.
    – Ryo
    Feb 20, 2022 at 16:13
  • @Ryo I think you are missing the point. The purpose of the "mask" put on by Harriet is to hide Hetty from the world. The mask is not merely a persona, but a persona who denies the very existence of Hetty. It is because of the antagonistic nature of the mask that Hetty cannot wear it. Jul 25, 2022 at 18:35

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