August Wilson entitles his play “Fences” in order to establish ambiguity as to which fences are truly the most detrimental to his characters’ ability to cope with everyday life. He explores a number of themes throughout the work, all of which hearken back to the barriers these fences provide against the self-realization of his characters, and their ability (or inability) to break their own internal patterns of entrapment and dependency. These themes include inner-city poverty, racism, patriarchy, and the pursuit of one’s dreams, and all serve to reinforce the omnipresent nature of fences and the need to overcome them.
The most obvious example of such metaphorical fences is revealed in Troy himself, who, through his excessive miserliness and authoritarian ways with his friends and family, effectively isolates himself from all those people who otherwise care deeply for him. Wilson’s fences, however, also convey a deeper sense of his character's internal reticence in overcoming their own self-doubts and insufficiencies. Troy’s wife, Rose, exemplifies this inner conflict well. Specifically, Rose’s fences are revealed in act 2, scene 1, when she confronts Troy regarding her own unfulfilled desires in life:
I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me. Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good? You not the only one who’s got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom.
This dialogue is made more salient given Troy’s interactions with Rose up to that point, in which he often confirmed his own opinions by claiming that his wife agreed with him. In conversation, Troy often remarks, “Rose’ll tell you.” His expectation for submissiveness in his wife, combined Rose’s own awareness of her unrealized dreams, exemplifies the internal fences that she ultimately failed to ever overcome.
Cory, Troy’s younger son, also exhibits an inability to break away from his father’s suffocating control over his life. Adamant about training to play college football, Cory nevertheless submits when his father demands that, rather than devoting energy to working toward his football scholarship, he spend his time making money at a local grocery store. Thus, Troy’s orders squander Cory’s natural talent, and it is not until the end of the play that Cory is able to overcome his own internal fences, stand up for himself, and leave his family home to pursue a more meaningful life. When Troy says that he will put Cory’s things on the other side of the fence, it symbolically represents his son’s liberation from the fences he had created for himself, and the new opportunities that await him on the other side.
There are various physical fences in this play, but there are also metaphorical fences. The physical fences include the fence that Rose wants Troy to put up around their house. Though this is a literal fence, it still stands for something more. Rose wants to keep her family in. She wants to build a fence around them to protect them and keep them together.
Troy's personal fences act more as a barrier to keep people out. He pushes his wife away by having an affair with Alberta. He pushes his son away by forcing him to quit football and focus on working instead.
Fences in baseball are also referenced. Baseball is a common theme in the play, as Troy was too old to play when blacks started to be allowed, and he is still bitter about this. He references hitting it out of the fence, which is how he applies himself to most aspects of his life. He cares so much about being a provider for his family that there isn't enough left in him to love them.
The racism that is prevalent in the play is a fence between different social groups. They keep people apart and keep them from understanding each other.
The play uses actual fences to symbolize the various fences we use in a personal and societal level. Each person has his or her own personal fence which acts to either keep people close or keep them away, just as the characters in Fences have their fences that serve their various functions.