The main themes in Fences are race, barriers, and responsibility and love.
- Race: Racism has had a profound effect on Troy’s life, and it is his fear that racism will prevent Cory from achieving success that leads to Troy irreparably damaging his relationship with his son.
- Barriers: Troy enacts barriers between himself and his family throughout the play, and he considers the fence he is building for Rose to be a barrier between himself and Death.
- Responsibility and love: Troy recognizes his responsibility to Rose and Cory but fails to understand the importance of treating them with love.
Last Updated on March 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810
It is of vital importance to the character of Troy that he is a black man. Readers are told this in the opening stage direction, and Troy's first conversation with Bono indicates that he is keenly aware of the presence of racism in his life and of the unfairness of it. In certain parts of his world, he is willing and able to fight for his own rights as a black man; he takes his boss, Mr. Rand, to task over his rule that black men can only work on the backs of garbage trucks, not drive them, and is victorious in his appeal. However, in other areas of his life, he allows the fear of institutional racism to hold him and his family back and does not accept, as Rose does, that the world is changing—and even that he himself may be part of this change. He believes that his own opportunities as a baseball player were limited because of his race and that black sports professionals are expected to be twice as good as white ones if they expect to be allowed to play. It is, in part, out of a desire to protect Cory from the effects of systemic racism that he tries to prevent him playing college football. He wants Cory to understand that the world he is living in is one which sees him as a lesser being, but he does not recognize that by insisting upon this, he is preventing Cory from living a life less curtailed, or fenced-in, by racism than his father's was.
The title of the play, Fences, underlines the overwhelming thematic and symbolic importance of the fence which Troy is trying, and largely failing, to build around his house for the majority of the play. He questions why his wife, Rose, wants to build a fence at all, and his friend Bono acutely observes that while some people build fences to keep people out, Rose is doing it to keep people in. She senses that she is losing her husband and wants to build a fence in order to keep the people she loves within its bounds. Later in the play, Troy uses the fence as a barrier in a different sense: he says that he will put Cory's things on the outside of it, suggesting that Cory is now outside of the love of the family. Troy also uses the barrier as a layer of security between himself and Death: the fence is keeping Death away from Troy.
Other barriers of various kinds are set up between the characters in this play. Rather than turning to his wife when he feels an emotional need, Troy goes to Alberta—significantly, often instead of building the physical barrier that Rose believes will keep her family together. He uses Alberta to widen the divide between himself and Rose. There is also the question of the barriers to entry that Troy believes hampered his own sports career and will subsequently hamper that of his son Cory. An emotionally shuttered man, Troy also sets up barriers between himself and his sons, treating them harshly rather than lovingly because he feels that this will encourage them to become their own men.
Responsibility and Love
Responsibility, in this play, is set up almost in opposition to loving happiness. When Cory asks his father why he has never liked him, Troy argues that there was never any suggestion that he should like his son, so long as he provided for him, which he has done. He has spent his life working to keep a roof over Cory's head. He recognizes that his responsibility to his wife includes keeping her properly fed and housed. He seems to believe that this is love; but when Troy tells the story of his own childhood, we realize that his father, too, never shirked his responsibility to his family, even when his wife abandoned their children. However, he was a very abusive father, and Troy ran away from him when he was fourteen. Troy does not seem to recognize that this story illustrates how very little responsibility sometimes has to do with love.
When Troy begins having an affair with Alberta, he sees her as an escape from his responsibilities. She represents somebody he can laugh with, a safe space within which he can be himself because he is freed from responsibility. He loves her, and therefore he associates her with freedom. When she dies and leaves behind an infant daughter, Troy begs his wife, Rose, to take the child, unable to take on a responsibility from a quarter he once felt to be free of obligation. He also signs over his brother, Gabriel, to an institution (though he claims he believed the paperwork he signed was a release form), abdicating this responsibility as well as he becomes an increasingly broken man.