The overarching theme of the play, alluded to in the title, is the idea of the creation of order - a fence is not a barrier in this reading, but a way to compartmentalize the world into understandable, manageable chunks. Troy Maxson is chiefly responsible for this desire for order, though for a different reason his wife Rose also craves it. Troy is caught in a world in which he feels he does not belong. He carries with him the scars, oppression, and disorder of his Southern childhood, the abuse of his father, and an unwelcome Pittsburgh. On the other hand, he is also a part of the growing African American middle class. He is promoted for a job he feels he does not deserve and he is unable to accept the idea that his children might have the freedom to create their own lives. For Troy, a fence is a way to section off part of the world as his own - his desire for a fence is a desire to find his place in the time and culture of twentieth century America.
The American Dream
Troy Maxson is the embodiment of an African-American generation, growing up in the post-World War II era, that finds itself finally able to realize the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Troy has become more successful than his father, who remained a poor sharecropper and never owned his own land or property but, instead, paid all his wages and his life to an unjust land owner. Troy has bought his own house (though he feels guilty about the methods of payment). And in his sexual relationships he has embodied the freedom of a man to follow his own desires in a pursuit of happiness. Troy Maxson embraces his desire to be an individual.
This pursuit of the American Dream, however, is not without conflict. Troy cannot envision a generation doing more than his own accomplished. He cannot imagine his son achieving an even greater dream, and he cannot imagine a life unburdened by responsibility to family. In this way, Troy remains chained to his expectations of what a man can accomplish in the world.
African American Difference
In Fences, as well in his other plays, August Wilson seeks to point out the idea of difference between races and culture more than the monocultural ideal of sameness. The Civil Rights era of the 1960's and '70's can be broadly construed as African American's struggle for the same rights as whites. By the 1980's, Wilson saw this struggle for equality morphing into a culture that was attempting to erase the differences between races and peoples. African Americans, according to Wilson, were different than whites or any other races. They have their own distinct culture, history, and society. No people should have to become part of the majority culture just to enjoy the majority's rights and privileges.
Maintaining this difference is painful, and often destructive, as Fences shows. In his son Corey, Troy sees a generation that not only aspires for their own success in the world but also seeks to fold themselves into the white culture of the day. Sports is a metaphor for this; while Troy is bitter at losing his chance to play in an integrated Major Leagues, he still idealizes the Negro Leagues as symbol of African American pride. When Corey seeks a college scholarship to play football, Troy fears that his son will lose the difference of his race in his drive for success. This conflict of difference ultimately, and perhaps necessarily, destroys their relationship.
The Ideal of Responsibility
Troy Maxson is a man who takes seriously his responsibility for his family. His seriousness also becomes his greatest liability. Troy is a man caught between his own desire for freedom, embodied in his affair with Alberta and his fathering of an illegitimate child, and his fierce sense of loyalty to his wife, children, and brother.
Troy's sense of responsibility comes from his own father's bitter care for him and his siblings. His father's loyalty to his family can be seen as poisonous; his father's betrayal poisons his own relationship with Corey. Ultimately, Troy becomes his father. He abandons Rose for another woman and stubbornly refuses to repent for his sins. He also abandons his own brother and son, severing his relationships in his own quest for freedom. Troy demonstrates the idea that responsibility becomes as much a liability as a virtue.
Troy's brother Gabriel is a symbol of the personal apocalypse of Troy Maxson. Apocalypse, in its original meaning, connotes a revelation, or an understanding of the world that brings about some kind of ending. In Fences, Troy's struggles with his family and with his sense of purpose reveal to him the nature of death and the impermanence of his own life. Gabriel, thinking that he is the literal angel Gabriel, foretells this revelation in Troy's life. He insists that Troy's life is written in St. Peter's book, though his mortality is not a concept of which Troy can conceive. The tragedies of Troy's life serve as a series of death events; the abandonment by his father, his own abandonment of his son, the death of his lover, and ultimately the end of his own life all remind Troy that he is not in control of his own life, even as he attempts to control everyone around him.
Changing African American Culture
August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" portrays African American life in Pittsburgh during each decade of the twentieth century. Fences resonated with audiences partly because it so accurately captured the unique situation of African Americans during the 1950's and '60's. This was a time of great change for African American culture. The Civil Rights movement was in its nascent stages. African Americans were slowly moving into a respectable middle class and out of the destitute poverty of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The post-World War II generation was first embracing the ideal of personal freedom.
There are several instances of this changing culture in Fences. One is Troy's own advancement in his job. Troy is a trash collector, a seemingly undesirable job, yet his promotion to truck driver bestows on him a level of authority and purpose that he feels he has otherwise not achieved in his life. His discomfort with his own advancement is seen in his desire to retire shortly after getting his raise. This changing culture also creates bitterness in Troy. This is seen in his love/hate relationship with the game of baseball. On the one hand, Troy loves the game for the identity that it once gave him; on the other hand, he despises the game for its segregation and for robbing him of his chance at greatness. Troy is caught in the changing culture and represents a generation lost in their understanding of the world around them.
Freedom vs. Protection
The fence in August Wilson's play serves as a symbol of conflicting desires. In one sense, Troy and Rose seek to build a fence to keep the world out of their lives. Rose's desire for a fence symbolizes the way in which she seeks to protect her family. She knows that Troy's checkered past is always there and that he is, perhaps, only moments away from making decisions that forever affect her and her child. Rose's fence seeks to keep the family in and the dangerous world out. It is a symbol of protection.
Though Troy seeks to protect his family and his way of life, the fence also becomes a symbol of discontent in his own life. In his confrontation with Rose, Troy exclaims that he has spent his whole life providing for the family. He has been the protector and defender of a quiet, normal life. The fence, therefore, does not protect Troy but instead keeps him from achieving his ultimate desire for individuality and self actualization.
Fences Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fences is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.