See a list of themes which are evident in the book, Fences written by August Wilson. This page will explain the subject matters treated in the book by the author.
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Fences Themes by August Wilson
List of themes in the play, Fences by August Wilson:
- Blackness and Race Relations
- Practicality, Idealism, and Race
- Manhood and Fathers
- Family, Duty, and Betrayal
Each of these themes will be explained below.
1. Blackness and Race Relations
Fences is a play that is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and examines the experience of one black family living during the time of segregation and the beginning of the black civil rights movement. It does this by revealing, at the core of its characters’ psyches, a dynamic that exists between the inner world of a black community and the vast expanse of white power that surrounds it. Fences was written by August Wilson and directed by August Wilson.
The fence which Troy gradually builds in front of his house serves as a symbol of segregation, as well as the overall psychological impulse to build a fortress where a black ‘inside’ or interior may separate itself off from the white-dominated society around it. From one aspect, the barrier depicts the spatial implications of segregation in general: the fencing-off of blacks, the formation of ethnic insularity in some districts, and it is a memorial to this basic social divide caused by white economic and political supremacy. Yet Troy also builds the fence himself; it’s mainly his own creation, though Rose first tasks him with creating it. Rose desires the fence so that she and her family can be cut off from the rest of the world. She does this so that she and her family can protect a private interior of their experience — a lived, black experience — from an outside world that threatens to invade it and from the polarizing effects that white power has on society. The division brought about by Troy’s fence is one of protection and an affirmation of the world that lies within it, in contrast to the division brought about by the latter, which seeks to control and limit the prosperity and power of black people.
As the play progresses, we witness how the characters are obliged to describe their reality in terms of how it is constrained by a racist system of white social and economic supremacy. This is something that we observe throughout the play. We find that Troy’s job, for instance, is organized according to a racial hierarchy privileging whites, since exclusively white men are hired to run the company’s garbage trucks, while black males are only hired as garbage collectors. In addition, a significant portion of the characters’ dialogue is predicated on elaborating on their status as people of color in order to explain their place in relation to the authority held by white people.
Wilson’s play consequently, in part, concerned itself with illustrating how racism regulates and structures the everyday lives of its characters, in order to expose—through the concrete experiences of one family—racism’s numerous repercussions on the black American community of the 1950s at large. The purpose behind and need for the fence, and the play’s depiction of a black world in many ways characterized by its tyranny, are a caustic denunciation of the divide and agony given by white supremacy. Fences provides a concrete realism to the abstract mechanisms of racism and white power—it depicts the anguish of, as well as the aspirations and chances barred from, its black protagonists. Wilson portrays the psychological intricacy as well as the immensely tiresome and tasking nature of navigating a racist world that is primarily divided between white and black through the framing of pain as being at the heart of practically all of his characters’ lives. At the same time, he exposes how that barrier divides blacks themselves by the agony it inflicts upon them (such as Troy’s battle with Cory over his desire to play football, since Troy’s parenting is inspired by his past experience of prejudice in the world of sports).
2. Practicality, Idealism, and Race
When it comes to professional aspirations and long-term objectives, the novel Fences delves into the divergent points of view held by a few of its main characters regarding what is doable, attainable, and useful, as well as what might provide a meaningful and fulfilling existence. When compared to what Troy considers to be more practical trades, the careers that his sons hope to have are ones that he perceives as more idealistic, and so, he disapproves of their choices. The primary source of Troy’s dissatisfaction, especially with regard to Cory’s situation, is his own life as a black child growing up in America. Cory’s youth, as well as the fact that he grew up in a different era of history, allows him to have a more holistic perspective of what the future may have in store for him, as well as the professional opportunities that are available to him as a young black male. As a direct result of this, he has a unique comprehension of the characteristics that constitute realistic and achievable goals.
Cory should not pursue a career in football, in Troy’s opinion, since he believes that there are barriers in place that prevent black people from achieving success in the predominantly white world of sports. The fact that Troy grew up in a sharecropping community in the South, as well as the fact that he was a talented baseball player whose career was unable to take off due to discrimination, have all shaped his perspective on black life and the opportunities available to black people in the world around him. Because of this history, Troy has the impression that Cory’s aim is unrealistic, not based in reality, and not established in any practical considerations. In addition, despite the fact that Lyons believes that music is an important part of life, Troy views Lyons’ way of life as an avoidance of the responsibility and the laborious work that Troy considers to be associated with a man’s “legitimate” vocation. Although Lyons claims that he cherishes becoming a musician for reasons that are inherent to the profession, Troy is primarily concerned with financial matters and thinks that Lyons’ goals are unrealistic. Despite the fact that Lyons’s lifestyle does not provide for him in a sufficient manner, he continues to pursue music rather than a more secure line of work.
Does the novel Fences imply that the idealism displayed by Cory and Lyons is preferable to the practicality displayed by Troy? Even while Troy’s existence is ultimately written off by Wilson at the end of the play with an air of failure, dissatisfaction, wrath, and betrayal, it may be overly simplistic to suggest that this is a gesture of critique on Wilson’s part and that Wilson rejects Troy’s reality in its whole. In addition, the fact that Wilson’s sons appear to be more empathetic, level-headed, and hopeful as human beings is not sufficient grounds to conclude that Wilson values his kids’ idealism more than Troy’s pragmatism. Wilson seems more concerned with showing us how the social world of white power and racism, and how it changes and evolves through time, forms its characters’ perceptions of idealism and practicality—how, to a great extent, especially as disenfranchised black men, Troy and his sons’ perceptions of idealism and practicality are molded by the white power outside and around them. In other words, rather than taking a position on either, Wilson seems more concerned with showing us how the social world of white power and racism
Troy’s pragmatism, which was influenced by his perception that he had been unsuccessful as a result of racial discrimination, ultimately leads to him becoming a resentful man who withholds affection from those around him and who is unable to see beyond his own horizon when it comes to thinking about the futures of his sons. However, it’s possible that Wilson intends to demonstrate to us that people like Troy exist because they’ve been injured and shaped by an unfair world, and that the anguish that racism inflicts on such people is passed down to the generation that they bring up. Wilson does not appear to want to discredit Troy as a human being by implying that his practicality is something that he personally invented; rather, he seems to want to educate a white audience, and give a voice to a black audience, about the suffering that exists in people like Troy, why it exists, and how it is passed on.
In a similar manner, Wilson does not treat Cory and Lyons as a choice in an ethical decision between idealism and practicality; rather, he treats them as two views of a racially divided world that are informed by a different, more progressive, but still grossly regressive social atmosphere. This is due to the fact that Cory and Lyons have unique personal histories in comparison to Troy. Wilson demonstrates once more, through the competition between Troy, Cory, and Lyons, how white power not only differentiates itself from blackness but also differentiates and divides black people among themselves. Wilson positions the play from the standpoint of a more historical perspective about how these sides are formed and how they shape future generations. At the same time, he grounds that higher perspective in a family’s day-to-day lived experience. Despite the fact that he does not take a position, Wilson positions the play from this historical viewpoint.
3. Manhood and Fathers
The tumultuous relationship that Troy has with his children, and in especially his relationship with Cory, takes up a significant amount of the play’s plot. There is a conflict between the power that Troy feels as a father and Cory’s desire to pick his own path in life and assert his own manhood. In addition, Troy believes that everything that will be beneficial and healthy for the success of his kid goes against all that Cory aspires to do.
In the course of the play, Cory goes from being petrified of his father to ultimately breaking his links with him in a display of’masculine’ hubris. In the beginning of the play, Cory cowers in fear of his father. In spite of the fact that fear caused Cory to behave in a manner that was extremely subservient and passive toward his father throughout his childhood, he eventually began to act in his own self-interest (such as by pursuing football) when he was in his later teens. Cory’s attempts to define and pursue his own goals are deliberately mocked by Troy, who believes that as long as Cory resides in his home, he has the right to demand that Cory submit completely to his will and believes that Cory is bound to do so. But in the end, this is what motivates Cory to run away from home and resent his father for the way he treated both him and his mother. In an earlier part of the play, Troy describes a circumstance with his own father while he was growing up that was very similar to this one. According to Troy, even though his father was a difficult person to get along with, he made sure to take care of his children. But after getting into a heated argument with his father one day, Troy eventually uprooted himself and moved out on his own, treating his father as if he were his own son.
In an effort to shield Cory from experiencing the same challenges that he faced in leading a stable life as an independent man, Troy appears to have come to the conclusion that Cory’s desire to make his own decisions runs counter to the fundamental nature of their relationship as father and son. Perhaps this is a symptom of Troy’s own struggles to lead a stable life as an independent man. It seems as if, in order for Cory to mature into a man, which would obviously include accepting independence from his father’s command, he must necessarily be in conflict with his father. This is because becoming a man would involve assuming independence from his father’s authority.
In addition, it seems that Wilson is showing us one type of “masculinity,” one method in which it is built and defined, as well as the ways in which the building of this “masculinity” is reliant on the social world around it as well as the characters’ individual histories. In this instance, the masculinity is that of Troy, who has the potential to be viewed as something of an archetype of a specific kind of black parent who was employed throughout the 50s.
This type of masculinity is defined by the fact that the individual has, at some point in the past, disobeyed their father, suffered through poverty that was maintained by a racist society, and failed to follow their dreams, but that they have, despite all of these challenges, survived, stayed alive, and kept going. Since their needs had been met in full up until they reached adulthood, their father considers Cory and Lyons to have led rather privileged lives up until this point in their lives. This, however, is not sufficient in the eyes of Troy’s boys, most specifically Cory. Cory does not get the impression that his father loves him, and he is unable to see how his father’s strictness is in any way a symptom of something that is bigger than him and outside of his control. The play seeks to highlight, once more, how two different worldviews collide in the context of the relationship between a father and son. Perhaps it shouldn’t be taken as taking a side with the way Troy treats his children and the decisions he makes in raising them.
It would appear that Wilson does not provide a clear-cut answer to the question of how guys like Troy and their fathers may break the cycle of miscommunication, anger, and living in the past that plagues their relationships. He demonstrates, however, how they may wield a great amount of power in determining the destinies of their children and, by extension, the generation that will come after them because of decisions like denying Cory the opportunity to attend college. In addition, Wilson demonstrates how challenging it may be to break free from the influence of a father like that without completely severing ties with him.
In the end, Wilson’s decision to make the conflict between the father and the son the central pivot of the play underscores his desire to show how abstract forces of history—particularly white social and economic power—manifest themselves, through their racist exertion on people’s lives, in real, concrete, and everyday lived experiences of black people. It is one of the most personal places for those more macroscopic forces, and as such, the microscopic, psychological interaction between a father and his son is quite strong to see. It is also a venue that has the capacity to educate white audiences, so it is incredibly powerful to witness.
4. Family, Duty, and Betrayal
Fences is a portrayal of family life, specifically of how the characters view their roles as individual members of the family and how they each define their commitment or duty to the family; it also examines how betrayal can break the familial bond. Fences was written by August Wilson and directed by August Wilson and August Wilson.
Instead of telling Cory that he loves him, Troy informs Cory that he just acts toward him as a son out of responsibility, and that there’s no reason that love necessarily needs to be included in the relationship. Troy is adamant that he will not tell Cory that he loves him. For Troy, duty is the cornerstone of family, but his perspective on professional duty is almost indistinguishable from this (Troy sees professional duty as an act that one is obligated to perform regardless of how one personally feels about one’s employer; for example, he refers to Mr. Rand in this manner). If love isn’t a component that distinguishes family from profession — if family is merely a contractual commitment — then Troy must not find very much about family life to be particularly fulfilling or unique. If family is just a contractual obligation, then family life is just a job.
The fact that Troy is having an affair with Alberta does not contradict his view that family is based on responsibilities. When it comes to his commitment and relationship to his family, Troy is only concerned with money, and nothing else. Furthermore, Troy’s betrayal of Rose ultimately reveals how the ties of families like his are fundamentally based upon the relationship between the two spouses who create it—in this case, a black man and woman raising a family in relative poverty—and upon whose union, which isn’t guaranteed, the survival of those ties depend. This is because the ties of families like Troy’s are fundamentally based upon the relationship between the two spouses who create it, and because the survival of families The fact that the concept of a family as a reliably defined, pre-existing structure of human experience and development is quite problematic is brought to light as a result of Troy’s betrayal, which reveals a fissure at the very core of the institution of family life. Because Troy has violated his agreement with Rose, his family is beginning to come apart.
In addition, the incorporation of Raynell, Troy’s daughter from his relationship with Alberta, into the Maxson family after Alberta’s passing causes Rose to take on the role of Raynell’s adoptive mother, which further complicates the notion of what the Maxson family actually ‘is’. As a result, it becomes clear that the family is actually a system of pledges and vows, which means that it is subject to change and can develop through time. This sense of pledging is emphasized by Rose’s response to Troy when he admits to having an affair. In her response, Rose emphasizes the intense sacrifices she has made for her relationship with Troy. She tells Troy that there were definitely times when she wanted to pursue more fun and satisfaction by being with other men, but that she refused to do so because of her vows. Rose also emphasizes the intense sacrifices she has made for her relationship with Troy.
In addition, Rose supports her concept of the importance and inviolability of family by insisting that Cory attend the funeral of his father, despite the fact that he expressed his desire to skip the event. While Cory believes that he is distinct from his father, Rose emphasizes the importance of family as something that should take precedence above individual distinctions. Nevertheless, at the same time, this does not constitute an invocation of the kind of obligation that Troy has. Rose views her family as something more than a legal obligation. She explains to Troy that she felt a dedication to him that was founded on a moral sacrifice of her own, personal longings. This is a sacrifice that infidelity destroys and betrays. Adultery, on the other hand, interferes with Rose’s sense of moral duty in a way that obligation does not for Troy.
Rose does not agree with Troy’s view that his adultery is something that should be tolerated and that she ought to be able to accept and make sense of it because of all the sacrifices that he has made to provide for the family. However, Rose does not accept this viewpoint. She acknowledges that she, too, has made sacrifices; but, these sacrifices go beyond those that are done solely for the sake of earning money and fulfilling one’s role as a provider by putting food on the table and keeping the house in order. Instead, Rose’s so-called “job” is to keep the family together and guard the ties that bind them, ties that she, once more, considers to be something that can never be severed.
The subject of death is discussed in a number of different contexts throughout the play. This is due to the fact that two of the characters, Troy and Alberta, pass away in real life, as well as the fact that Troy’s brother Gabriel is obsessed with the afterlife from a Christian perspective.
Throughout the course of the performance, Troy tells a story about how he and the Grim Reaper (also known as “Mr. Death”) once engaged in a wrestling match. It appears that Troy is of the opinion that even if death is an unavoidable destiny, one should make every effort to die with honor. Troy claims that he was aware that Death had the upper hand in their conflict, but that he nevertheless made it his goal to make it as challenging as possible for Death to take his life. In addition, one could see the fence as a barricade against the inexorable approach of death. Troy explains that he is constructing the barrier as a means of preventing Death from entering his life.
Gabriel, who is continually thinking about the day of judgment, may have an obsession with death that is just as intense as that of his brother. Gabriel’s fixation, on the other hand, is more audible and obvious due to the fact that it is represented in his irrational and crazy views about the claimed supernatural powers he possesses. Troy’s pride in having survived against all the odds — his father, terrible poverty, and personal failure — relies on Troy’s fixation with death in order to fuel itself. Troy’s preoccupation with death is possibly just as strong, however, because in a manner it maintains him.
Gabriel makes this proclamation on the day of Troy’s burial, stating that Troy has arrived safely through the portals of paradise. It is possible that the sentiments of the other characters in the play are not indicated by this proclamation; yet, the play is concluded with it, and it is the last word on Troy’s death. The announcement made by Gabriel is consequently both timely and ambivalent; the play concludes with the gates of heaven opening onto and usurping Troy’s fenced-off existence. The drama comes to a close when death wipes off the in/out distinction brought about by a fence, and Troy’s negative status as a result of his adultery brings about his death in an unfavorable state.
Therefore, it would appear that Wilson is challenging Troy’s perspective on death, as well as the way in which he applies this perspective to his own life and the lives of those around him. If we take Troy’s assertion that death is an adversarial force that must be fought against at all costs, to the extent that one must give up on taking any risks (such as Cory’s football ambitions, in his mind), and even sacrifice one’s capacity to show love and compassion to one’s own family members as a result of that fight, then Wilson appears to speak against this notion.
Wilson alludes to a few concepts by ensuring that Troy’s life was not fulfilled and that he died in a morally reprehensible state. To begin, when it comes to Troy’s infidelity, he did in fact take a risk; however, it was a risk for himself, and it put his family in danger, rather than a risk that at least attempted to be an investment in his family (like letting Cory try out football and attend college, despite his uncertainty about its promise). Because Troy allows the strain of death to eat away at him to such an extent, he wants to find satisfaction in life (to reject and thwart that pressure) in an extreme manner, somewhere other than the space he has created and fenced off for his family. Second, as a result of Troy’s decision to seek fulfillment outside of his fence, he winds up ruining his relationship with Rose and causing Alberta’s untimely death as a result of the child they had together as a result of Troy’s sexual misconduct with Alberta. This argues that Troy’s ongoing fight to defy death and win out against it, or at the very least his specific means of doing so, is something that ultimately fails, and that this failure harms everyone who is affected by that failure.