Analysis of Fences by August Wilson
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Three Big Ideas in Fences
The notion of pride is treated with complexity in August Wilson’s Fences. Troy often speaks well of himself, boasting of his abilities and his conquests (past and present). He also clearly takes pride in both his willingness and his insistence to provide for his family and for his new baby. A positive self-image seems to help Troy maintain a strength of spirit, which is admired by Bono and Rose and might thus be seen as a source of strength that spreads to the whole family.
The positive side of Troy’s pride is counter-balanced by a certain degree of arrogance. He bitterly rejoices in recalling the conflict he had with his father over a young girl. Troy’s father was proud too and banished Troy from his house after that episode. In his own pride, Troy tyrannizes his son, Cory, and refuses to yield in his demands that Cory quit the football team. Here, Troy’s self-assurance becomes a source of division and implicates pride as a potentially damaging personal trait.
Additionally, the argument can be made that pride is central to the conflicts that arise within the family. Like his father and grandfather, Cory demonstrates a strong sense of pride. He chooses not to quit the football team and even comes to blows with Troy in his defiance. In leaving home, Cory ‘s tendency to give in to his own sense of pride effectively continues a generational cycle of conflict between Maxdon fathers and sons.
Deceit, Deception and Delusion
Intentional deceit appears in Fences alongside more subtle and complicated examples of self-deception, questionable memories and outright delusion. Troy’s affair and his lies about it are rather straight-forward when compared to his stories about his potential to play professional baseball. Although racial discrimination certainly kept many African Americans from playing major league baseball, Rose points out that Troy spent his prime years serving a deserved prison sentence and so was too old to later to play professional baseball, regardless of racial policies in the sport.
Elsewhere, Troy’s complaint to the management of his company about racist promotion policies becomes complicated when the fact is revealed that Troy does not have a driver’s license. His claim that only white men are promoted to become drivers is partly undermined by this revelation, although his larger social point remains intact. When Cory chooses to lie to his father about quitting the football team, his deception can be seen in a similar light. Any protests of innocence on his part are undone by his choice to lie, yet Troy’s absolute impositions on Cory are unchanged insofar as Cory feels he has still been wronged by his father’s strict decision.
Notably, the moral substance of these characters is not cast negatively as a result of their deceit. Rather, Cory and Troy are shown to be flawed while remaining sympathetic. They are not intended to be seen as entirely immoral characters. Their strengths instead become contextualized by their weaknesses. Also, the choices they face become weighted with the possibility that either side of their characters might win out.
Delusion is an important theme (and also a motif) in Fences. Gabriel believes that he is the archangel Gabriel who will blow the trumpet to announce the opening of the gates of heaven. This belief runs parallel to Troy’s repeated argument that he was kept out of major league baseball as the result of racism. The text of the play does not express any final conclusions on either of these points of view, yet there is reason to doubt both. As deceit helps Troy and Cory continue to effectively act as they please, delusion may help Troy and Gabriel to cope with the difficulties that their lives pose for them.
Duty and Generosity
The complications of family life present the characters in Fences with many opportunities to explore the notion of duty in the play. What is Troy’s obligation to his grown son, Lyons, who comes asking for money and who has been known to be shiftless and lazy? Should Rose take in a child that is not her own due to a sense of duty stems from a bountiful sense of justice and humanity? Should she raise the child out of her duty to her husband? Should she feel any obligation whatsoever toward the baby? Is Cory constrained to follow his father’s orders when Troy demands that he quit the football team? When Cory returns home, is he duty-bound to forgive his father?
The answer to these questions is affirmative, for the most part. Generosity and a binding sense of duty can be identified in the character’s responses to these difficult questions. As in many of the thematic areas of the play, Troy’s behavior complicates the idea of duty and generosity. Where he gives in to Lyon’s requests for money and always provides for his family (according to his sense of duty), Troy does not relent with Cory and refuses to consider forgiving his son. In holding onto a grudge against his own father, Troy demonstrates a schism in the pattern of generosity of spirit.
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