What is Gabriel's role in the play, his fixation with Judgement Day, his actions in the final scene, and his "frightful realization"? Why might the "Gates of Heaven" only open after this realization?

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Gabriel is one of the most endearing and confusing characters in August Wilson's Fences, and he stands as a sharp contrast to Troy both in his personality and in his acceptance of life.

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Gabriel is either one of the most confusing characters in August Wilson's Fences, or one of the most endearing—or perhaps a bit of both.

Gabriel is endearing because of his innocence. After being injured in World War II, with half his head blown away, Gabriel becomes what people used to call “simple.” His brain no longer functions normally, but that doesn't bother him a bit. In fact, he's quite happy. When we first meet him, he enters the scene carrying his trumpet and a basket of fruit and vegetables that he tries to sell (act 1, scene 2). He is singing about plums. He doesn't actually have any, but that doesn't bother him either. He simply likes the sound of the words. He's also pleased to have two quarters all of his own. Like a small child, Gabriel innocently takes life as it comes and enjoys what he has.

But there is one thing that bothers Gabriel throughout the play. Unable to understand the attitudes and struggles of his brother, Troy, Gabriel worries that Troy is mad at him, especially since Gabriel has moved out of Troy's house into a small place of his own. Gabriel is thrilled to have his own two rooms, his own door, and his very own key. He proclaims proudly, “Ain't nobody else got a key like that,” showing his happiness with having his own space (act 1, scene 2). But Gabriel still worries that his brother is mad at him even though Troy assures him that he's not. Gabriel asks again in act 2, scene 1, “Troy, you ain't mad at me is you?” This time the question comes after Gabriel gets arrested for disturbing the peace and Troy has to bail him out. Again, like a small child, Gabriel innocently wants to please his brother and fears that his brother will be angry or not like him anymore. He cannot quite understand or “read” Troy, and that concerns him.

For all his innocence, however, Gabriel can be a confusing character. Because of his brain damage, he is quite convinced that he is actually the Archangel Gabriel and that he has already died and gone to heaven. As a part of that belief he now thinks he has the task of chasing hellhounds and getting ready to blow his trumpet on Judgment Day to help St. Peter open Heaven's gates (act 1, scene 2). Gabriel also declares that he has seen his brother's name in St. Peter's book and knows that Rose's name is there, too. This can possibly seem "crazy" to the play's audience, who may not understand Gabriel's purpose in the play.

Their confusion might even increase in the final scene when Gabriel tries to blow his trumpet—which lacks a mouthpiece—after over twenty years of waiting to do so. No sound comes out. Gabriel blows again. Still no sound emits. A “frightful realization” dawns on Gabriel: he is not the Archangel after all! But his innocence saves him. He begins to dance and howl, strangely acting out some atavistic, ancient, ancestral rite that restores his balance and helps him cope with the new reality he has just discovered. And the gates of Heaven open for him, at least in his mind, so he can send his brother Troy home.

Throughout the play Gabriel stands as a contrast to Troy. While Troy constantly struggles with himself and his responsibilities, Gabriel accepts himself and his life without question or difficulty. While Troy is constantly searching for something else, Gabriel is content with who he is and what he has. While Troy fails to adapt well to changes and rails against anything or anyone who opposes him, Gabriel adapts, even to the “frightful realization” that his trumpet has failed to sound. He dances instead, and he is satisfied with his new reality.

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