There are a number of examples of symbolism in August Wilson’s Fences.
The most prominent example of symbolism comes in the repeated use of fences (variously literal and metaphorical) in the play. Other examples include Troy’s symbolically meaningful habit of swinging at a baseball on a string and Gabriel’s trumpet.
The idea of a fence is given several iterations in the play. Fences are connected to Troy’s baseball career, to his time in prison and to his life with Rose.
Rose wants Troy to build a fence around the property where they live in order to keep the family together. Outside forces (such as other women) will be symbolically kept at bay by this fence. Until the fence is built, those outside forces prey upon the integrity of the family.
In addition to symbolizing a means of maintaining the family unit, fences also symbolize limitations. Troy is almost constantly struggling to overcome what he perceives to be limitations put on his freedom and potential. He rails against the racial boundaries that he feels kept him out of professional baseball and he complains about the racial bias that keeps him from becoming a driver at his place of work. Just as he is a home-run hitter in the prison baseball league, Troy is a person seeking to exceed these outwardly imposed limitations. And sometimes he succeeds.
The connection of limitations to Troy’s time in prison is resonant with similar meanings behind the fence symbol. Troy’s attitude of constant struggle against perceived constraint leads him to break the law and to be imprisoned, suggesting a self-perpetuated cycle. Acting rashly in defiance of constraining limitations, Troy repeatedly undermines his prospects for a happy life.
We can see his affair in this light too.
“His relationship with Alberta is in its own way a confession of his limitations: He must find some kind of escape or crack under the strain.” (eNotes)
Fences, then, function as a symbol of limitations and protections, with each of these ideas appearing as complex, interrelated themes within the story.
Troy’s baseball on a string is symbolic of his cyclical character arc as Troy wants to hit home-runs and so metaphorically attain some level of emancipation from constraint and thus find glory or transcendence. Yet he plays with a ball on a string, metaphorically acknowledging the notion that he cannot see the true nature of the game he is playing. (Troy himself is a limited figure, unable or unwilling to admit to certain truths.)
He lacks the perspective that both Cory and Rose seem to have insofar as they can see the destructive side of Troy’s inner struggle (especially as it is vented outwardly in their direction). They can see that his need for some glorious transcendence saps away his real strength.
“If Troy has been fenced in by the rules and conventions of a racist society, he has also created his own fences, which are both barriers to the understanding and affection of his son and obstacles to Troy’s own spiritual expansion.” (eNotes)
Being so conflicted, the glory that Troy seems to achieve is that which is celebrated by Gabriel with his broken trumpet.
Gabriel performs a cryptic rite and “the gates of heaven stand as wide open as God’s closet” for Troy. In this strangely powerful ending, Gabriel’s silent horn becomes a symbolic representation of the emotional reality that anchored many of the struggles Troy faced. His constraints were sometimes real and sometimes only emotional projections of a self-exempting and selfish sense that he is, in himself, a person with limitations who is unable to face those limitations head-on. Whether the constraints he faced were actual or fabricated, Troy's struggle was real just as Gabriel's trumpet is silent and actual and, somehow, capable of bridging the distance between outer and inner realities.