Though Troy Maxson definitely wouldn't win any awards for congeniality, he's widely considered to be one of the greatest characters of the American stage. He's often cited as a perfect example of a modern-day tragic hero, right up there with Arthur Miller's Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Some critics even place Maxson on the same level as classical tragic heroes like Oedipus and Macbeth (read more). Wow, that's pretty highfalutin company. Our question is: how does Troy manage to play on the same team as these guys?
For one thing, like every tragic hero, Troy has a clear-cut case of hamartia. This word is commonly translated from the Greek as "tragic flaw"; however, a more direct translation is "missing of the mark."
That's a perfect way to describe almost everything Troy Maxson does. Though he used be able to knock a baseball out of the park like it was nothing, he constantly "misses the mark" in his personal life. Like most tragic heroes, Troy does whatever he thinks is right. Even though the people around him warn him that the things he's doing may have tragic consequences, he stubbornly pursues his own course of action.
Troy's relationship with his son Cory is good example of how he misses the mark. Cory is overjoyed because he's been selected for a college football scholarship. Like his father, Cory loves sports, and this is his one chance to go to college. Troy, however, is dead-set against Cory going off to play football.
One of the greatest sources of disappointment in Troy's life is the fact that he wasn't allowed to play pro baseball. Though he was a homerun king of the Negro Leagues, he couldn't graduate to the majors because of racial discrimination. Troy refuses to let his son play football, claiming that he doesn't want Cory to suffer from the same sort of heartache.
Everyone around Troy tries to make him see that times have changed, and that Cory will have a better chance. His wife Rose tells him, "They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football" (1.1.76). Troy's best friend, Bono, says, "Times have changed, Troy, you just come along too early" (1.1.77). Cory points out to his father several current black baseball players, like the famous Hank Aaron. Troy dismisses all of this and tells his son, "The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway" (1.3.78).
Troy can't acknowledge that times have changed. Much like Oedipus, he refuses to heed the warning signs. Instead of giving in to what everyone around him says, he chooses his own course of action, based on his own delusions. Instead of allowing his son to pursue football and college, Troy destroys his son's dreams, refusing to sign the permission paper and preventing the college recruiter from coming.
Cory accuses his father of doing this out of jealousy, saying, "You just scared I'm gonna be better than you, that's all" (1.4.166). On some level, this may be true. Troy never admits this, though. He tells Rose, "I got sense enough not to let my boy get hurt playing no sports" (1.3.123). In Troy's mind, he doesn't halt Cory's sports career out of jealousy, but out of a fatherly urge to protect his son. We have a feeling that Troy puts an end to Cory's football dreams out of both his own bitterness and an urge to protect his son. It's just these sorts of incongruous collisions inside characters that make them complex.
In the end, Troy loses his son forever. Like his tragic hero teammates, Troy dedicates himself to a course of action that he thinks is right, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Troy misses the mark by doing the wrong thing for what he thinks are the right reasons. This tragic case of hamartia simultaneously destroys his family and creates a place for Troy on a very select team of tragic heroes.