What are the themes of Fences?

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I would say that love is another theme in Fences--not merely the obvious expression of love between Troy and Rose, or that which Troy expresses toward Raynell in her infancy, but also the perceived scarcity of love and how that perception affects the characters' behavior.

Troy does not demonstrate love to his son Cory, prompting Cory to ask if Troy loves him. Troy is too frustrated by his circumstances to think of anything beyond bare necessities. He is angered by the question and says that, if he did not love his son, he would not work to feed and clothe him. In Troy's mind, there is no time or need for emotive expression, only for the performance of duty, which, in Troy's mind, suffices. His own father had not performed his duty of caring for or guiding his son. Troy recalls a disturbing instance on the Southern plantation of his youth when his father takes Troy's thirteen-year-old girlfriend for himself. 

Troy is not much different toward Lyons, though his relationship with his eldest son is characterized more by tolerance than the resentment he directs at Cory. Lyons pursues his art--jazz--because it is something that he loves and it brings him joy. However, his pursuit of jazz causes him to rely on Troy for money. Troy, frustrated by his own unfulfilled ambitions and dreams, tries to dissuade his sons from the pursuit of their own. His inability to love his sons fully makes him unwilling to support their ambitions, despite his failures.


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In Fences, Wilson is showing how each member of the play is a victim of segregation and institutionalization (fenced off from society and the family) as a result of lack of opportunities due to of race, gender, social class, economics, education, work, real estate, or mental health in the pre-Civil Rights, pre-feminist U.S.

  • Troy, for example, is institutionalized by prison, the union, by alcohol (the bar), and by the uber-male culture at large.
  • Bono, too, was institutionalized by prison and the union, though not so much by the bar and the macho culture.
  • Cory is institutionalized by the military.
  • Gabriel is literally institutionalized at a mental hospital.  Formerly, he was institutionalized by the military.
  • Lyons is institutionalized by the jazz culture, probably the drug culture too.
  • Rose is institutionalized by the church.

The only one who is not institutionalized is Raynell.  She is Troy's legacy and symbolic of the family's hopes and dreams.  Perhaps she will have an opportunity to live free from institutions and become a self-sufficient student, employee, and future matriarch of the family.

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I think that there are several themes to Wilson's play.  One has to be how dreams can be sources of inspiration as well as sources of repression.  We can see this in the interplay between Troy and Cory, father and son.  Troy has become a gutted shell on the part of his own dreams being suppressed by a combination of race and class dimensions.  In conjunction with his own father being unable to properly assist him, Troy has become beaten down by life and has allowed the weight of "dreams deferred" to color his own vision of consciousness.  This bitterness is contrasted with his own son's hopeful vision and pursuit of dreams.  Cory believes in his dreams, and does not take his father's view towards them.  What his father dismisses, Cory finds as a source of animation.  In the end, examining how both characters perceive dreams and whether or not reality is a condemning state of affairs or one where liberation and redemption are possible ends becomes one of the fundamental themes of the play.

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