August Wilson has said that the creative process that led him to write Fences was set in motion not by an idea for a plot, or even for a character, but by an image: the image of a black man holding a baby. The work of the playwright, then, was to come to know who this black man was and to discover and expose the particulars of his situation. In hands less assured than those of Wilson, the image might have yielded a sentimental caricature. Wilson, however, had no desire to create a plaster saint. The many flaws that Troy Maxson acquired in the course of coming into being do not finally cancel out the strength that Wilson must have responded to in the initial image. Whatever else may be true of Troy, he is a man who will not abandon a child. Troy stands at the center of Fences, one of the handful of great dramatic characters that have so far emerged in African American theater. The challenge this character represents to an actor seeking to portray him constitutes the surest guarantee that the play will continue to hold the stage.
That Troy Maxson is a hard man is one of the most immediately evident things about him, and one way to uncover the meanings of the play is through an examination of the origins, the limits, and the consequences of his hardness. The origins of Troy’s hardness are to be found in his personal history. His clearest early model of manhood was the father he was forced to reject. On his own at fourteen, Troy had to harden himself against a world at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to his desires. Released from prison to a world that defined itself in the limits it places on his aspirations, he made his bargain. He married, fathered a child, and he worked hard. Prison drove him to stop committing robberies. To a painful degree, however, life has driven him to stop hoping. A man can perhaps advance himself in small ways if he is willing to stand and fight; thus, Troy can improve his position in the workplace. Big dreams, like Troy’s dreams of baseball glory, lead only to frustration and despair. Troy has looked death in the face and survived. He will not let himself be vulnerable.
No man who retains his humanity, however, can be merely hard, and Troy’s hardness has its limits. He is not hard toward Rose, toward his friend Bono, or toward his brother Gabe—although in one way or another betray he betrays all three. 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.
The consequences of the hardening process are seen most dramatically in Troy’s conflict with his son. It is ironic how near Troy approaches to repeating his own father’s behavior. The approach remains partial, however, representing a small victory for the character. When Cory asks for love, Troy answers with responsibility. One may understand Troy’s response and respect it, yet still feel it is a hard answer for a father to give his son. Part of the trouble arises out of Troy’s failure to find anything of substance in his son’s dreams. It is as though Troy’s own rejected dreams have returned to haunt him. Troy, though, has hardened himself against the lure of possibility. Times have changed, Rose and Cory insist; Troy, however, does not believe—perhaps will not permit himself to believe—that the time has come when a young black man can move confidently in the direction of his dream.
The consequences of Troy’s hardness are by no means all negative. At its best—for example, in his sense of responsibility and in his affirmation of his own human worth against the outrages of prejudice—that very hardness comes to look strikingly like strength. If Cory may represent the hope of moving beyond what Troy stands for, Rose nevertheless wants Cory to see that hope as founded on the struggles of men like Troy.
Of the symbols that further articulate the play’s meanings, two stand out. Baseball serves not only as the focus of Troy’s dream and disappointment, but also as his metaphor for what he sees as the essentially combative nature of life itself. The “fences” of the title suggest the importance of looking beyond the literal fence that Troy is working on through most of the play. That fence is itself a rich symbol, as the focus of interaction among the three principal characters. It points as well to invisible fences, created in the desire to hold in and to keep out. 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. Ironically, none of the fences proves strong enough to withstand the catastrophe brought on by Troy’s wandering.
Finally, the meaning of this play arises from the audience’s experience of its central character in all his complexity. Wilson has determined that no simple judgment of Troy Maxson can be adequate. He has created a character so rich and vital that, in the effort to evaluate the man and his actions, audiences discover what their own values are.
Fences explores how and why people construct barriers to protect their inner selves. As Troy Maxson discovers, once a fence is built, not only is it hard to pull it down, but it also intensifies one’s feeling of confinement. Throughout the play, fences are treated both literally and metaphorically to explain the conflicts between Troy Maxson and his family. In many respects, all the characters build fences around themselves to keep from being hurt by others. The construction of barriers between people leads inevitably to repeated confrontations. Troy Maxson feels constricted both by his family and by his past. Symbolic of his suppressed rage over being denied the chance to play baseball in the major leagues because of his color, Troy, throughout the play, angrily swings his bat at a baseball which hangs from a cord in his back yard. Troy’s bitter feelings about his experiences affect his feelings toward Cory. The mixture of jealousy and protectiveness that Troy feels toward Cory is marked by Troy’s anger; it becomes the boundary that limits positive interaction between father and son.
Fences puts forth the idea that when fences are psychological and metaphorical, rather than actual and physical, the result of crossing the borders they define can be catastrophic. In plain sight through most of the play, the unfinished physical fence is an inescapable visual reminder of intentional barriers, as well as of incompleteness and, ultimately, of lack of control. The fence stands for something different for Rose than for Troy. Rose frequently nags Troy about completing the fence that he is building around their back yard. Rose’s desire to fence in her yard is symbolic of her psychological need to ensure her family’s safety by protecting them with her love and warmth. When Troy tells Rose of his unfaithfulness, it is the threat that Troy’s violation poses to the security of her family that causes Rose to lose her grip on reality: Her whole world is shattered when Troy crosses this border.
The conflicts portrayed in Fences are underscored by the barriers the characters construct to articulate difference, protection of self or identity. The meaning of Fences grows out of August Wilson’s use of a literal fence to symbolize both the limits of established paths and the psychological pressures caused by the constricting feelings of confinement. When people, however, ignore the boundaries set by those who insist on the recognition between mine and yours, confrontation is certain to result. While Wilson suggests that the challenging of boundaries is necessary for the growth of a character such as Cory, he also shows that these challenges represent crucial battlegrounds for a character with a past as painful as Troy Maxson’s.