At the heart of Fences is a question that transcends race: "What does a man owe to his family, and how much can a man...permit himself to ignore duty in order to pursue more self-interested objectives?" What is our responsibility to ourselves versus families and society?

In August Wilson's Fences, our responsibility to ourselves versus families and society is represented through Troy, who struggles to balance his duties to his wife with his personal desires. The audience watches as Troy slides into infidelity to Rose, putting himself before his loyalty to her, causing her great pain.

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Throughout August Wilson's Fences, Troy struggles with this complex question: What does a man owe to his family, and how much can he permit himself to ignore duty in order to pursue more self-interested objectives? For Troy, the question plays out in his slide into infidelity to his wife, Rose.

We catch our first glimpse of Troy's struggle when Bono challenges him in act 1, scene 1. Bono has noticed that Troy has been “eyeing” Alberta and even buying her drinks. To Bono, this suggests that something is beginning between Troy and Alberta, something that could lead to Troy cheating on Rose. Troy denies it at this point, downplaying his actions as just being “polite” and forcing Bono to admit that he hasn't seen Troy chase after another woman since he has been married to Rose.

But Bono can't quite accept Troy's excuses, and he wonders why Troy is always walking around up at Alberta's house. Again, Troy says it doesn't mean anything, but he does admit to admiring Alberta's “big healthy” physique. We audience members are left to wonder what Troy is really doing, for at that moment, Rose interrupts the conversation, but we get a hint that Troy is starting to let his duty to his wife slide to pursue some of his own interests.

The next time we get a hint of Troy's struggle, we might conclude that he is losing the battle. After Troy gets promoted to driver, Bono challenges him again, saying,

I see you run right down to Taylors' and told that Alberta gal (act 1, scene 4).

Again, Troy downplays his action, saying that he told everyone and only went up there to cash his check, but with Bono, we're left to question why Troy would run to tell Alberta the good news before going home to let Rose know. Troy seems to be choosing his own interests over his family more and more.

A little later in the same scene, Rose, who does not yet know what is going on between Troy and Alberta, reminds Troy of what he once told her, saying,

Baby, you know you'll always be number one with me (act 1, scene 4),

yet we have a strong idea that is no longer completely true. Bono seems to think the same, and tells Troy,

Rose'll keep you straight. You get off the track, she'll straighten you up.

He is reminding Troy that his first duty is to Rose.

Bono tries to get through to Troy one more time in act 2, scene 1. He reminds Troy that Rose is a good woman and that she loves Troy. Troy gets defensive, yet we hear him admit for the first time that he is “seeing” Alberta. Bono explains,

I'm just trying to say I don't want to see you mess up.

He loves both Troy and Rose, and he doesn't want to see their marriage disintegrate. But Troy tries to excuse himself.

I wasn't out there looking for nothing...but seems like this woman [Alberta] just stuck onto me where I can't shake her loose. I done wrestled with it, tried to throw her off me...but she just stuck on tighter. Now she's stuck on for good.

Bono doesn't buy that for an instant. “You's in control,” he reminds Troy. “You responsible for what you do.” Yet Troy has an answer for this, too: what he is doing feels right in his heart. He loves Rose and doesn't want to do her “no bad turn,” but he refuses to admit that is exactly what he is doing by putting his own desires before his duty to her and cheating on her with Alberta. Bono warns him that eventually Troy will have to drop one woman or the other if he tries to juggle them both.

When Alberta becomes pregnant, Troy decides he has to tell Rose. Needless to say, she does not appreciate his infidelity or his excuses. When he tries to explain how he becomes a “different man” with Alberta and how he leaves behind all his “pressures and problems” and just laughs and feels good, Rose isn't accepting any of it. She asks him,

Don't you think I ever wanted other things? Don't you think I had dreams and hopes?...that I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I feel good? (act 2, scene 1)

Rose, too, has made a choice. Unlike Troy, she has chosen to put her duty and loyalty to her husband and family before her own desires. She has denied herself to stand with Troy, to hold tightly to him, even in the most difficult of times. She had expected him to do the same, but he failed her, and their marriage suffers greatly for does Rose.

So we audience members are left to ponder another important question: how do we balance our responsibility toward others, toward our families and society, with our responsibility toward ourselves? There is no easy answer, but Fences strongly suggests that following our own selfish desires rather than loyally fulfilling our duty to those we love and those we must care for can bring great pain to others and to ourselves.

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