Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
August Wilson has said that the creative process that led him to write Fences was set in motion not by an idea for a plot, or even for a character, but by an image: the image of a black man holding a baby. The work of the playwright, then, was to come to know who this black man was and to discover and expose the particulars of his situation. In hands less assured than those of Wilson, the image might have yielded a sentimental caricature. Wilson, however, had no desire to create a plaster saint. The many flaws that Troy Maxson acquired in the course of coming into being do not finally cancel out the strength that Wilson must have responded to in the initial image. Whatever else may be true of Troy, he is a man who will not abandon a child. Troy stands at the center of Fences, one of the handful of great dramatic characters that have so far emerged in African American theater. The challenge this character represents to an actor seeking to portray him constitutes the surest guarantee that the play will continue to hold the stage.
That Troy Maxson is a hard man is one of the most immediately evident things about him, and one way to uncover the meanings of the play is through an examination of the origins, the limits, and the consequences of his hardness. The origins of Troy’s hardness are to be found in his personal history. His clearest early model of manhood was the father he was forced to reject. On his own at fourteen, Troy had to harden himself against a world at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to his desires. Released from prison to a world that defined itself in the limits it places on his aspirations, he made his bargain. He married, fathered a child, and he worked hard. Prison drove him to stop committing robberies. To a painful degree, however, life has driven him to stop hoping. A man can perhaps advance himself in small ways if he is willing to stand and fight; thus, Troy can improve his position in the workplace. Big dreams, like Troy’s dreams of baseball glory, lead only to frustration and despair. Troy has looked death in the face and survived. He will not let himself be vulnerable.
No man who retains his humanity, however, can be merely hard, and Troy’s hardness has its limits....
(The entire section is 915 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
Fences explores how and why people construct barriers to protect their inner selves. As Troy Maxson discovers, once a fence is built, not only is it hard to pull it down, but it also intensifies one’s feeling of confinement. Throughout the play, fences are treated both literally and metaphorically to explain the conflicts between Troy Maxson and his family. In many respects, all the characters build fences around themselves to keep from being hurt by others. The construction of barriers between people leads inevitably to repeated confrontations. Troy Maxson feels constricted both by his family and by his past. Symbolic of his suppressed rage over being denied the chance to play baseball in the major leagues because of his color, Troy, throughout the play, angrily swings his bat at a baseball which hangs from a cord in his back yard. Troy’s bitter feelings about his experiences affect his feelings toward Cory. The mixture of jealousy and protectiveness that Troy feels toward Cory is marked by Troy’s anger; it becomes the boundary that limits positive interaction between father and son.
Fences puts forth the idea that when fences are psychological and metaphorical, rather than actual and physical, the result of crossing the borders they define can be catastrophic. In plain sight through most of the play, the unfinished physical fence is an inescapable visual reminder of intentional barriers, as well as of incompleteness and,...
(The entire section is 455 words.)