In different works of literature, it is often depicted as an act of betrayal. Friends and family may be betrayed as a protagonist. Can you analyze the nature of an act of betrayal in August Wilson's Fences and show how it contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole?
August Wilson’s play Fences takes place in 1957 in a northern industrial city presumed to be Pittsburgh (presumed, by virtue of Wilson’s hometown and its steel industry-driven culture and economy). Wilson’s opening comments emphasize that the timing evokes a period between the beginning of the end of segregation and the struggle for civil rights and the politically and socially turbulent period yet to come in the 1960s. While the institutionalized segregation of the Deep South may not have existed in Pittsburgh, opportunities for African Americans remained extremely limited. Wilson’s instructions for establishing the setting of his play notes the burgeoning economy, propelled by the steel mills, and the opening arms with which this city welcomed the European (read: white) immigrants who would establish communities and prosper with the city’s growth. The situation for African Americans, however, was less welcoming:
“The descendants of African slaves were offered no such welcome or participation. . . They came strong, eager, searching. The city rejected them and they fled and settled along the river banks and under the bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar paper.”
August Wilson work, particularly his so-called “Pittsburgh Cycle,” are replete with instances of betrayal, both large and small, and Fences is no exception. In fact, Wilson viewed betrayal, as well as other emotions and beliefs, central to the human condition. In an oft-cited 1999 interview with Paris Review, Wilson was quoted as saying with respect to the universal condition reflected in his plays:
“I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics. Here in America whites have a particular view of blacks. I think my plays offer them a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
Troy, Wilson’s “protagonist,” represents both sides of betrayal, as well as of love, honor, and duty. A garbage man by trade, Troy had aspired to a career playing professional baseball, but his youth had passed by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Like many other gifted athletes who toiled anonymously in the Negro Leagues, Troy can now only sit and watch. Early in the play, Troy’s friend Bono tells him, “Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early.” As Wilson’s stage instructions note, the city that rejected African Americans was but a microcosm of the broader societal betrayals experienced by blacks who worked just as hard and stood to accomplish just as much. Troy is a victim of those betrayals. As he and Bono sit on the porch discussing the times through the prism of baseball, the American pastime, the incongruities of their existence continue to be revealed. Noting the mediocrity of Yankee’s outfielder George Selkirk, Troy compares this white player’s marginal statistics with his own from when he played and, especially, with the legacy of Josh Gibson, one of the greatest baseball players of any color:
“Selkirk! That’s it! Batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! . . . I saw Josh Gibson’s daughter yesterday. She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now, I bet you Selkirk’s daughter ain’t walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet.”
Troy has been betrayed, but he is also a betrayer of those who trusted him most. He has cheated on his wife, Rose. And, he betrays his son, Cory, by sabotaging the young man’s dreams of playing professional football, although his motivations in the latter case stems from his love for his son – an emotion he can’t bring himself to acknowledge except in the form of an expression of “duty.” Responding to Cory’s confusion regarding the nature of their relationship and his father’s obligations and feelings towards him, Troy cries out:
“Like you?. . .It’s my job my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. . .You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you.”
After Cory discovers that Troy told the football coach to keep his son off the field, Cory feels betrayed. Football is his dream, and he has worked hard in school to get the kind of grades needed for a scholarship – an ambition inching closer when Coach Zellman informs Cory that a recruiter from North Carolina is going to visit. Cory’s discovery that his father has betrayed him, which occurs at the end of Act I, Scene IV, Troy can’t bring himself to explain the true motivations for his actions – that he is afraid Cory will be hurt playing a violent game. Instead, Troy rationalizes his actions on the basis of Cory’s having quit his job, which the young man did in order to be able to play football. His dreams of playing the sport dashed, Cory will carry the anger of his father’s betrayal for years to come.
Betrayal is at the heart of Fences. It is a central theme, irrespective of the underlying motives behind the individual act. It informs Wilson’s body of work, and constitutes the heart of his main character, a father betrayed by racism and time.