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...
(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.)
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...
(The entire section is 1241 words.)