August Wilson Fences Essay

Winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Tony Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, Fences is among the most honored plays by any American of August Wilson’s generation. Set in 1957, it is one entry in Wilson’s cycle of ten plays representing the African American struggle during the ten decades of the twentieth century. Wilson wrote as a self-proclaimed Black Nationalist, but his mature plays were enthusiastically received by multiracial audiences, and Wilson recorded the pleasure he experienced when an eighty-seven-year-old Yugoslavian man spoke of his identification with Wilson’s characters. Wilson’s work delved so deeply into the world he knew that what he found there spoke far beyond his particular experience.

Certainly an awareness of the history of the oppression and exploitation suffered by African Americans plays a significant part in Wilson’s work. In Fences, the white baseball owners who have denied Troy and others their opportunity to play in the major leagues and the sanitation department officials who reserve the driving jobs for whites impose limits on black aspirations. Wilson refuses, however, to grant the oppressors and exploiters a place at the heart of African American life. Beyond question, they often place limiting external conditions upon that life. Wilson is concerned, though, not with the surrounding conditions of African American life but with the life itself. African Americans have, in Wilson’s eyes, their own identity, dignity, and significance. Troy Maxson is not defined by the limits that are imposed on him by a white-dominated society. His struggle is in part against those limits, to be sure. It is also, however, a struggle against his own demons. In the course of that struggle, he finds his strength. That is why his failure has the force of tragedy.

  • 1

    Why does Gabriel carry a trumpet around his neck?

    Because of a head injury, Gabriel believes that he is the angel Gabriel and that he is able to open the gates of heaven with his trumpet. While the audience knows that this is not literally true, the final scene shows that Gabe becomes the play's figure of redemption. He unsuccessfully tries to blow his trumpet and when that does not work, dances his brother into heaven. Troy does not have the play's last word; instead, it is the fool, the representation of innocence, that finally offers Troy deliverance.

  • 2

    Why is the setting of the play important?

    The setting of the play is important because the 1950's represents a time of great upheaval in race relations in the United States. Troy Maxson represents a previous generation that now watches the world move on around them. They have been maligned by white transgression in the past and yet have been able to procure a small portion of the country's booming wealth for themselves. Troy dies, however, in 1965, the year of the greatest legislative triumph of the Civil Rights era. He is not able to enjoy the victory that he helped bring about.

  • 3

    Why is Troy Maxson considered an "everyman" character?

    Troy Maxson is a character of universal type. Though his life is dictated by the particulars of the African American experience of the early twentieth century, his failings as a man as well as his small measures of redemption are applicable to all people. Wilson deftly creates a character who is a flawed and identifiable hero, through his responsibilities to family and his inabilities to live up to his own high expectations. His battles with his sons resonate across racial and cultural lines as universal human experiences.

  • 4

    Explain the play's principal metaphor of the fence.

    Jim Bono best sums up the play's overarching metaphor by explaining to Troy, "Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.” Both Troy and Rose Maxson attempt to build emotional fences throughout the play. Rose attempts to keep her family within her fence by being a good and faithful wife. Troy is more concerned with an emotional fence that never permits his sons to understand his love for them.

  • 5

    Is Rose's character an example of feminism or an example of the repressed role of women in society?

    Scholars have been divided on Rose's role in the play. Some have seen Rose as the prototypical 1950s housewife, disappearing into her husband and leaving no room for her own self to flourish. Others, however, have seen Rose as occupying a feminist position; she does remain a housewife and mother but only because she makes the choice for herself. No one forces motherhood on her. She admits that when Troy takes pieces of her, it is because she gives those pieces out of her own choice. But then, what other choice does she have?

  • 6

    Discuss the role of the blues in Fences.

    Troy's blues song for his dog, Old Blue, is an example of Wilson's use of blues music in the play. Troy takes on the role of an archetypal blues character who has seen his world taken away from him for his transgressions. The blues also acts as a form of aural tradition. Cory and Raynell sing Troy's blues song as they bury him, representing pieces of Troy that pass down through generations.

  • 7

    Discuss the meaning of baseball in the play.

    Troy uses baseball as a metaphor for his own life, yet the audience comes to understand that the game Troy plays is not necessarily the one in which he sees himself. Troy remembers himself as a star in the Negro Leagues, but he was never given a chance to prove himself. His relationship with Alberta, and the selfishness that it inculcates in him, is his chance to please himself in a way that he never could while playing baseball. Troy, however, fails at his own game. His failures in his relationships with his wife and son represent two strikes in his life. The inevitability of his death is his third and final strike.

  • 8

    What traits make Troy Maxson an unlikable protagonist?

    Troy is seen as an unsympathetic character for much of the play because of the emotional fence he builds to keep his sons and wife from seeing and accepting his underlying love for them. This is best observed when Cory asks Troy why Troy does not like him. Instead of offering a reassuring remark, Troy shames his son by telling him that there is no law that says he must like him. The fence that Troy puts up to keep his sons from accepting him also acts as a fence to keep the audience from sympathizing with Troy.

  • 9

    What traits make Troy Maxson a redeemed protagonist?

    For all of his faults, Troy Maxson is ultimately redeemed. This is accomplished through the small glimpses of care and affection that his children remember in the play's final scene. Raynell tells Cory that Troy always called her room "Cory's room" and that he never threw out Cory's football equipment. They close the play by singing Troy's old blues song about his dog. It is inevitable that fathers pass on pieces of themselves to their children. Through this process, Troy becomes a redeemed character and a flawed hero, but a hero nevertheless.

  • 10

    Discuss the cycle of father-son relationships in the play.

    In the play, sons become outraged at the actions of their fathers. This outrage turns into hate, and yet the sons cannot help but bear a resemblance to their fathers. For Troy, this happens when he assaults Cory and kicks him out of the house. Troy believes that he is protecting Cory from a life of failure in football, yet Troy has become the same man that his father had been. The final scene sees Cory struggling with this same dynamic. He seeks to reject his father, but he cannot completely leave Troy - he carries his memory, influence, and song with him.

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