Fences looks like a simple title, but by the time you get to the end to the play, you just might see that it has lots of meanings. On the surface, it seems pretty obvious where the play's title comes from – Troy and Cory spend a lot of time building a fence. Over the course of the play, we see the fence gradually reach completion. Of course, this fence is much more than just a fence – it's a complex symbol that pretty much sums up the whole play.
First of all, part of the reason the fence takes the whole play to be completed is because Troy has been neglecting its construction. He fusses at Cory for not being around to work on it, but Cory points out that Troy, "don't never do nothing, but go down to Taylors'" (1.3.5). By this point in the play, it seems pretty obvious that anytime Troy "goes to Taylors'," he's going to see his mistress, Alberta. Therefore, you could say that the neglected fence is a symbol of Troy's neglect of his family.
The fence can also be seen as symbolic of the things Troy wants to keep out, the things he separates himself from. This symbolism is pretty obvious with the last dialogue we get between Troy and Cory:
Cory: "Tell Mama I'll be back for my things."
Troy: "They'll be on the other side of that fence." (2.4.110-2.4.111)
Here Troy clearly establishes the fence as a dividing line between him and his son – an actual, physical barrier that separates them. By winning the climactic fight with Cory, Troy establishes that he's still the alpha male. The fence now marks the boundaries of Troy's territory; he is still the king of the castle, and his son is no longer welcome within its walls. While the fence is now a literal barrier between the two, you can also see it as representing the emotional barrier that Troy places between them.
The fence also becomes symbolic of the barrier that Troy tries to put between himself and Death. After Troy learns that Alberta has died in childbirth, he cries out:
"All right . . . Mr. Death. See now . . . I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I'm gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side." (2.2.55)
Troy realizes that he'll eventually lose his battle with Death. But here we see that the fence has come to symbolize to Troy the fact that he's not going down without a fight. Troy declares that he'll resist death up until his last breath. In a lot of ways, Troy's struggle with Death humanizes him. When Troy completes the construction of the fence after this declaration, you could see it as his trying to protect himself and the rest of his family.
While Troy is constantly trying to keep things out, his wife, Rose, is trying to keep things in. The fence actually comes to symbolize this difference between the two characters. Check out this bit of dialogue:
Cory: "I don't see why Mama want a fence around the yard noways."
Troy: "Damn if I know either. What the hell she keeping out with it? She ain't got nothing nobody want."
Bono: "Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you." (2.1.30-2.1.32)
It seems like the fence becomes a symbol here of the difference between Rose and Troy's personalities. Because of his combative nature, Troy assumes the fence is meant to keep something out. It takes Bono to make Troy see that a fence can have the opposite effect. It's possible that Rose asked Troy and Cory to build the fence as attempt to help the two to bond. She feels the distance growing between them and is trying to keep her family together. Rose may instinctually feel that her family is disintegrating, and the fence is her way of trying to symbolically hold it together.
Lastly, the fence could be seen as symbolizing all the barriers that our protagonist, Troy, has had to face in his life. First it was his cruel and abusive father. Then it was poverty and homelessness. Next it was the racism that kept him from the professional baseball career that he rightly deserved. The tragedy of the play is that Troy lets his history of being confronted with barriers separate him from his friends and family. In the end, though, the biggest fence of all opens for Troy. This occurs in the play's final moments, when Gabriel dances a dance that opens the gates of heaven itself. We're left with the feeling that somewhere out there Troy may just have found forgiveness and peace.
Did you notice that the play is called Fences (plural) and not Fence? Even though there's only one literal fence onstage, there are many metaphorical fences throughout the play. There are probably even some that we missed. What do you think? Can you find any other types of fences in the play?