Student Question

What does Wilson's characterization of Rose in Fences suggest about the options, conflicts, and stereotypes faced by African American women in the 1950s?

Quick answer:

Rose, the main female character in August Wilson's Fences, is strong, wise, and loyal, and her life reveals many of the options and challenges faced by African-American women in the 1950s.

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Let's focus our attention on Rose's character. Wilson presents Rose as a strong, wise, and loyal woman. First, she is strong. Nearly every time we see Rose, she is working at something, hanging clothes on the line, cooking meals, mothering children, or keeping her husband in line. She is the backbone of the Maxson household, the one who keeps it running, and the one who manages the money, and to do all that, she has to be strong, especially to face the challenges life has thrown at her. After all, she is the wife of an ex-felon garbage collector who lives in a rather run-down house, yet she meets life head-on and does what she must to help her family survive.

Notice, too, how Rose never hesitates to stand up to Troy. She refuses to let him intimidate her, and she tells him exactly what is on her mind. In act one, scene one, for instance, when Troy claims to have seen the devil, Rose immediately pipes up,

You ain't seen no devil. I done told you that man ain't had nothing to do with the devil. Anything you can't understand, you want to call it the devil.

Later, when Rose discovers that Troy has cheated on her with another woman, she tells Troy exactly how she feels without any hesitation, reminding him how she has stood beside him for eighteen years, giving up her own dreams and hopes to support him, no matter how hard life might be (act 2, scene 1). Troy may not understood what Rose is saying, but she is strong enough to say it alt the same.

This shows a second element of her character, wisdom. Rose understands life, and she understands people. When Troy tries to justify his affair by saying that he has been trying to be someone else for a while after “standing in the same place for eighteen years,” Rose returns,

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 (act 2, scene 1).

She continues by asking him if he didn't ever think that maybe sometimes she wanted to go away somewhere and forget all of her responsibilities, that she might want to laugh, too, and have someone think about her wants and needs. She continues,

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. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never going to bloom.

In her wisdom, Rose knows Troy far better than he knows himself, and she also understands herself and her life, her choices and motives, and her disappointments and heartaches.

Rose shows that wisdom to her child and stepchildren as well. In the last scene of the play, Rose responds to Cory's decision not to attend his father's funeral. She tells her son,

Whatever was between you and your daddy...the time has come to put it aside. Just take it and set it over there on the shelf and forget about it. Disrespecting your daddy ain't gonna make you a man, Cory. You got to find a way to come to that on your own (act two, scene five).

She goes on to explain to Cory that the shadow he always thought was his father looming over him was really “nothing but you growing into yourself. You either got to grow into it or cut it down to fit you. But that's all you got to make life with.” Again, Rose, in her wisdom, knows her son far better than he knows himself.

Finally, Rose is loyal. She is loyal to Troy, standing beside him through the good and the bad for eighteen years and even remaining with him after he cheats on her. But she is also loyal to herself. She knows that her relationship with Troy will never be the same after his betrayal. How can she trust him again? So she distances herself from him, even as, loyal to her principles, she agrees to raise his new daughter, the child of another woman, for as she says,

...she's innocent...and you can't visit the sins of the father upon the child. A motherless child has got a hard time (act two, scene three).

Rose becomes a mother to the little girl, raising her as her own. And in the end, Rose again shows her loyalty to Troy when she defends him, with qualifications, to Cory.

Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn't...and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don't know if he was right or wrong...but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm,

she tells her son, helping him see, as she has come to realize, that Troy may have been far from perfect but that he tried to live his life and raise his family the best he knew how.

Let's think for a moment, also, about what Fences shows us about the options and challenges African-American women faced in the 1950s. Like Rose, many of these women lived from paycheck to paycheck, barely having enough money to care for their families. Like Rose, these women faced difficult choices about how to live their lives both day by day and in the long term. Like Rose, these women lived with discrimination, the effects and after effects of violence (think about how Troy was affected by his father's abuse). Like Rose, these women had to be strong, wise, and loyal as they navigated a world that was difficult, unfair, and sometimes downright brutal.

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