Fences | Themes
In Fences, death is a character. Rather than the elusive unknown, death becomes an object that Troy attempts to battle. The unfinished fence that Troy is building around his home is completed only when Troy feels threatened by death. In one of the stories he tells, Troy relates how he once wrestled with death and won. When the simmering conflict between Troy and Cory finally erupts and the boy leaves his father’s house for good, it is death that Troy calls upon to do battle. And in the last scene, it is death that unites the family and helps bring resolution to their lives. When the family meets again at Troy’s funeral, they are finally given a chance to bury the pain and disappointments of their lives.
Duty and Responsibility
Troy Maxson is a man who assumes the responsibilities of father, husband, and provider. In addition, he looks after his disabled brother, Gabriel. Though he faces these responsibilities, he is also overwhelmed by them, seeking escape when it is offered to him. When it is revealed that Alberta, the other woman that Troy has been seeing, is pregnant, Troy responds that he is not ducking the responsibility of what he has done. He accepts the obligation he owes to both his wife and his mistress.
When Rose asks why Troy needed another woman, his reply is that Alberta was an escape from his responsibilities. She did not have a roof that needed fixing; her house was a place where he could forget that he was someone’s husband, someone’s father, someone’s employee. Troy feels the weight of responsibility so heavily that he can see only endless weeks of labor, endless paychecks to be cashed, endless Fridays blending into one another. When Alberta dies giving birth, Troy assumes responsibility for the infant and brings her to his home. In turn, Rose agrees to raise and care for the child. In the end it is the responsibility each member of the family feels toward the others that brings resolution to the story.
Fences represent many different things in Wilson’s drama. Rose thinks the partially built fence around the house will keep her loved ones safe inside. But for Troy, the fence is a way to keep unwanted intruders out. After Alberta’s death, he completes the fence as a means to keep death from entering and hurting his loved ones. When Troy played baseball, he was never content to hit the ball into the stands. His hits always had to go over the fence. And yet, Troy builds a fence around Cory to keep him from his goals and desires. Troy’s efforts at controlling his son create an imaginary fence that keeps the boy separate from his family for seven years. There are similar fences between Troy and his loved ones; in one way or another he has kept them separated from a part of himself.
When Troy tells his life story, it is a tale of penitentiary walls behind which he was a prisoner for fifteen years. Bono was also confined within these walls. By Act II, the walls of a mental hospital will separate Gabriel from his family. Troy also sees white America having a fence that keeps blacks contained, apart from the good life that whites enjoy. It is the fence that kept him from realizing his dreams and the fence that makes blacks garbage collectors while whites advance to better positions such as driver.
In the sense of physical setting, the fence around Troy’s house also contains the action of the play. Everything takes place in the yard; all of the scenes and the dialogue occur within the boundaries of the fence.
The friendship between Troy and Bono is the first relationship shown in the play. Their conversations provide a glimpse into Troy’s thoughts. Bono has been following Troy’s lead since they met in prison more than thirty years earlier. Troy has been a role model for Bono, but Bono serves as a conscience for Troy. It is Bono who first alerts the audience to Troy’s extramarital affair, and it is Bono who questions the wisdom of Troy’s actions. The friendship is tested when Troy is promoted to driver and put on another route. When questioned about his absence from Troy’s house, Bono replies that it is the new job that keeps them apart. But there is also a hint that Troy’s betrayal of Rose has changed the dynamics of their friendship.
Limitations and Opportunities
At the heart of Troy’s unhappiness is his disappointment at not being able to play professional baseball. Troy became an accomplished ball player while in prison. He was good enough to play in the Negro leagues, but his true desire was to play major league ball. Troy felt he was excluded because, at the time, black players were still not accepted, but the story is more complex than Troy wants to believe. The fifteen years that Troy spent in prison made him too old for the major leagues. Troy ignores this argument, since to acknowledge that he was too old is to accept partial responsibility for not being able to play; it was his own actions that led to a fifteen year prison term, a period during which his youth slipped away. It is easier for Troy to blame a system that discriminates against black players than to admit that he lacked either the talent or the youth to play major league baseball.
Troy’s son, Cory, also has the opportunity for a better life through athletics. But Troy is so bitter over his own lack of opportunity that he holds his son back from any success he might achieve. When Cory is recruited for a college football scholarship, it is his father who forbids Cory to play. Troy is unable to accept that his son might succeed where he had failedâ€”and Cory accuses his father of just such a motivation. But it is more than a desire to control Cory’s success that is at the heart of Troy’s actions. He truly fails to see that the world has changed in the past twenty years. Black men are now playing professional sports with white men. The restrictions that kept the two races apart athletically have eased. A football scholarship would mean more than playing a sport; it would be an opportunity for education and a chance to advance to a better world.
Race and Racism
In a story that Troy tells in the play, the devil is represented as a white business owner who takes advantage of his black customers. The setting for Fences is just before the racial tensions of the 1960s erupt. Troy is a garbage man. He has noticed that only white men are promoted to driver, and, although he possesses no driver’s license, Troy complains about the injustice of a system that favors one race while excluding another. Because he has complained, Troy is promoted, but the result is that he no longer works with his friends and the camaraderie of the workplace is lost. Troy also feels that his dream to play professional baseball was destroyed because he was a black player in a white world. Because he has spent a lifetime being excluded, Troy cannot see any advantage for his son when college recruiters come to watch Cory play football. Troy cannot trust the white man, the devil, and so, he forbids his son to play football.
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