Study Guide

Fences Analysis

  • Tone

    Heightened, Colloquial, Universal

    August Wilson's voice is a unique blend of African-American dialect and heightened poetry. The tone of Fences and the other plays manages to be incredibly approachable and lofty at the same time. Wilson's characters are somehow bigger than themselves. They seem to represent not just themselves, but all African Americans, and all people.

  • Genre

    Drama, Family Drama, Coming of Age, Tragedy

    The fact that this is a play makes it by definition a drama, a piece of literature meant to be spoken by actors in front of a live audience. This particular drama focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Maxson family, making it a family drama. You could also view the play as a coming-of-age story, because it ends with Troy's son Cory advancing into manhood. Though it doesn't fit all the definitions of tragedy, it definitely meets many of the requirements. Check out our "Booker's Seven Basic Plots" entry for more.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The final moments of Fences are pretty darn awesome. On the day of Troy's funeral, his brother Gabriel returns to open the gates of heaven for him...and succeeds. Gabriel suffered a head wound during World War II and now has a metal plate in his head. The man thinks he is the archangel Gabriel. Throughout the play he's gone around talking about judgment day. Gabriel always carries around a trumpet and says St. Peter told him to blow the horn when it's time to open heaven's gates for the day of judgment.

    So Gabriel decides that the day of his brother's funeral is the day of judgment for everybody. He triumphantly raises the trumpet to his mouth and blows as hard as he can. Sadly, nothing comes out. Stage directions tell us that "There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization" (2.5.113). We're not told exactly what this realization might be, but we suspect Gabriel may have just realized that he's not actually an angel.

    Then an amazing and beautiful thing happens. We're told that Gabriel begins "A slow, strange dance, eerie, and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual" (2.5.113). Whoa, big word alert! In case you didn't know, "atavistic" means "reverting to or suggesting the characteristics of a remote ancestor or primitive type" ( source). The word "primitive," and even "atavistic," can have offensive or racist connotations when it refers to race. But we don't think Wilson means anything like that, we think he means something closer to "the return of a trait or recurrence of a previous behavior after a period of absence" (source). So what makes this strange dance so atavistic?

    Of course, the play doesn't say specifically, so we can only speculate. However, our theory is that the behavior refers to Gabriel's essential African-ness. Notice that in his mind he has become a Christian figure – the archangel Gabriel. He spends his days lost in a fantasy world based on Christian figures and places, like St. Peter and Heaven. It's important to note, though, that when Africans were first brought to America as slaves they weren't Christian. They had a diverse background of beliefs that were completely separate from the European Christian tradition of their white slave masters. Over time, many of these tribal rituals and beliefs were lost as the slaves were indoctrinated into European culture.

    When Gabriel's trumpet fails to make a sound, you could interpret it as Christianity itself failing him. When Gabriel begins his dance, he reaches within himself and finds a dance hidden inside him, a dance buried by centuries of white oppression. This idea that African Americans should reach beyond the Christian tradition they grew up in and find the strength of their African-ness is found in many of Wilson's plays. In The Piano Lesson, for example, a woman calls on the sprits of her ancestors to exorcise a ghost when the local preacher's attempt fails. In Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a man exorcises his personal demons by ritualistically reliving the middle passage, which took some many slaves across the Atlantic.

    Gabriel caps off his tribal dance with a wild and howling song. By the time he's finished, we're told that the "the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God's closet" (1.5.113). It looks like Gabriel has opened the way for his brother by finding the place in himself that's still connected in some instinctual way to Africa. It's quite powerful that Wilson chooses to end his mostly realistic play with this moment of magic. In the play's final seconds, the characters reach beyond their hard-scrabble lives and briefly touch the divine.

  • Setting

    The play is set in the dirt yard of the Maxson house. We're told that it's a two-story brick house, set off a back alley. Two junky chairs sit on a porch that's in bad need of a paint job. All this seems to communicate that the Maxsons aren't exactly the richest folks. The set reminds us that money is a constant concern for Troy and his family. They're getting by on Troy's garbage collector salary, but just barely.

    Though we never actually hear the word "Pittsburgh," the play is definitely set there. Pittsburgh was August Wilson's hometown, and almost all of the plays in his ten-play cycle take place there. The play also directly mentions many Pittsburgh landmarks, like the Strip District, a popular market area.

    The setting of Pittsburgh seems to be particularly important because of what it and other Northern industrial cities represented for many black people. In the decades following the Civil War, many African Americans migrated north to escape the poverty and racial discrimination of the South. They hoped to find work in the factories, but were often disappointed. Troy discusses not being able to find work when he first came to Pittsburgh. He ended up living in a shack and resorted to crime to survive. In some ways, Pittsburgh represents promise and promises broken.

    The play's time period, the 1950s, is also important to think about. Some progress had been made in terms of race relations since Troy was younger. Probably the most significant bit of progress to the play is that pro sports teams had begun to be integrated. Of course, this seems to only piss Troy off more, because it rubs the racial discrimination he experienced as baseball player in his face.

    It's important to note that even though progress had been made by this point in American history, there was still a long way to go. Keep in mind that this was before the days of the Civil Rights Movement. The South was still officially segregated, and in the North many African Americans faced unofficial racial barriers. The racial tensions of the time definitely fuel the conflicts of the play.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Fences is a very accessible play. It's a realistic drama that's both funny and heartbreaking. Though its characters are complex, they're quite easy to relate to. The dialogue manages to sound like everyday speech, while at the same time being incredibly beautiful and poetic. Fences is a great entry point for anyone looking to explore August Wilson's ten-play cycle.

  • Writing Style

    Poetic Realism

    August Wilson's plays are almost always "realistic"; they have to do with everyday people in everyday situations. Almost all of his characters are black, and they speak in an African-American dialect similar to the one spoken in Wilson's native Pittsburgh. Of course, Wilson's plays also have an incredibly poetic quality to them. His characters have the ability to speak in ways that are far more heightened than you'd typically find in everyday speech. For this reason, we say the play is an example of poetic realism. Many great American playwrights wrote in a similar style: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O'Neill to name a few.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Baseball

    Fences is chock full of baseball imagery, which takes on a lot of symbolic meaning. Troy was robbed of a professional baseball career because of his race. The shadow of this injustice has weighed on him for years and made him a bitter man.

    Troy often thinks about life and death in terms of baseball. He describes Death as "a fastball on the outside corner" (1.1.82) and claims he could always hit a homerun off this kind of pitch back in his heyday. Here he uses the idea of baseball to almost taunt Death, daring it to come for him.

    Troy also tries to explain his affair with another woman in baseball terms. He tells his wife that when he found her and had Cory he felt like he was "safe" (2.1.116). But after eighteen years of that he saw Alberta and wanted "to steal second" (2.1.118). Rose isn't too impressed with Troy's metaphors and tells him, "We not talking about baseball! We're talking about you going off to lay in bed with another woman" (2.1.121).

    There are also actual physical representations of baseball on stage: a baseball bat and rag ball tied to a tree. The fact that the ball is made of rags could be seen as representing Troy's poverty and his tattered dreams. It also shows that after all these years Troy is still trying to hold onto his glory days.

    The baseball bat is especially important in the climactic scene between Cory and Troy, becoming a weapon the two threaten each other with. It seems pretty symbolic that Cory and Troy fight each other with a bat, since Troy's inability to play baseball due to racism is what motivated him to sabotage his son's sports career. Now the two do battle with a symbolic representation of this dream deferred.

    Raynell's Garden

    In the final scene of the play, a seven-year-old Raynell runs out in her nightgown to see if her garden has grown. It hasn't. Of course, this isn't much of a surprise, since the girl just planted it the day before. Rose assures her, "You just have to give it a chance. It'll grow" (2.5.12). We're guessing this literal garden might just have some symbolic meaning.

    For one thing, Raynell runs out to check her garden on the day of her father's funeral. Perhaps the garden represents the promise of new life in the face of death. Raynell herself is the flower that has sprung from Troy's seeds.

    We can't help but notice that Raynell is looking at the garden just when another of Troy's offspring, Cory, enters. Cory is struggling desperately to escape the shadow of his father. Later in the scene, Cory's interaction with Raynell helps him come to terms with his father's memory. You could see Raynell's garden as representing the possibility that Cory will grow beyond the shadow of his father.

    Fences

    The fence that Troy and Cory build around the yard has all kinds of symbolic meanings. Check out "What's up with the Title?" for a thorough discussion of these.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation

      Troy is dissatisfied with his life

      In the opening scenes of the play, we see that Troy is deeply dissatisfied with his life. Racial discrimination put a stop to his dreams of being a professional baseball player when he was young. For the past eighteen years he's been stuck being a garbage man. This leads to tension with his son, Cory, who has been offered a college football scholarship. Troy has convinced himself that his son will only suffer the same sort of discrimination and is determined to stop him. We also get hints early on that Troy may be having an affair, showing that he's dissatisfied in his marriage as well.

      Dream Stage

      Things are looking up

      Troy has challenged the fact that only white men are allowed to drive garbage trucks. He scores a victory when he becomes the first black driver. We also get more hints that his affair has picked up steam. Troy seems to think this is no big deal. For the moment, at least, it seems that Troy is a bit happier.

      Frustration Stage

      Problems with Cory

      Tensions erupt when Cory returns home, announcing that Troy went to the football coach and said he couldn't play anymore. Cory is furious at his father because this now means he won't have a chance to go to college. Troy doesn't back down from his decision, though, and tells his son to watch himself.

      Nightmare Stage

      Troy deserted

      Things begin to go really badly for Troy. His mistress, Alberta, dies giving birth to his illegitimate daughter, Raynell. Rose, Troy's wife, agrees to raise the girl, but says that she's no longer Troy's woman. On top of that, Troy's best friend Bono doesn't hang out with him anymore. This is probably because he's disappointed in Troy for having an affair. Troy is also lonely in his new job as a driver, because there's no one to talk to sitting up front.

      Destruction or Death Wish Stage

      Father/son battle

      Things come to a head for Troy when he gets in an all-out fight with Cory. The two go at each other with a baseball bat. Troy wins the fight but loses his son forever. The play peaks with Troy not wishing for death, but challenging Death to come take him. The play's final scene ends on a hopeful note, breaking the usual tragic formula. In the closing moments, we see that Cory may be on the path to forgiving his father. The young man may just possibly escape making the same mistakes as Troy.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      The life of a garbage man

      In the play's opening scenes, we get a peek into the world of Troy Maxson. He's a hardworking garbage man dedicated to providing for his family. However, we learn that Troy just may have some flaws – one of which is that he's cheating on his dedicated wife, Rose.

      Conflict

      Father versus son

      The play's main conflict becomes clear when Troy's son Cory arrives on the scene. Troy is determined to keep Cory from going to college on a football scholarship. He claims Cory will only be discriminated against, just like Troy was during his baseball days.

      Complication

      Troy crushes Cory's football dreams

      A major complication arises when we learn that Troy has gone to Cory's coach and told him that Cory can't play football anymore. Now Cory's one chance at going to college is destroyed. Understandably, Cory is really angry with his dad and accuses him of holding him back out of jealousy.

      Climax

      Troy and Cory duke it out

      Tensions swiftly build. The truth of Troy's affair comes out when his mistress, Alberta, becomes pregnant. After Alberta dies in childbirth, Troy's wife Rose agrees to raise the child but declares that she's no longer Troy's woman. All this instability at home leads to an all-out fight between Troy and Cory. Troy wins the battle and kicks Cory out of the house for good.

      Suspense

      Cory considers not going the funeral

      The play picks back up years later, on the day of Troy's funeral. Cory arrives back home but tells his mother that he won't be going to the funeral. Rose goes off on him, saying that being disrespectful to his father isn't going to make him a man.

      Denouement

      Cory and Raynell sing a song

      The play's tensions wind down as Cory and Raynell together sing a song that their father used to sing. Though the song is about a dog named Blue it seems clear that the two are singing it in honor of Troy. We're left with the impression that Cory is on the road to coming to terms with his father.

      Conclusion

      Gabriel opens the gates

      In the final moments of the play, Troy's brother Gabriel shows up. He's determined to blow his trumpet so St. Peter will know to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out of the horn, Gabriel chants and performs a ritualistic dance. The play concludes with the gates of heaven opening wide for Troy.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      The first act introduces us to all the major conflicts of the play. Troy is challenging racial discrimination at work. Bono, Troy's best friend, is suspicious that he might be having an affair. Gabriel, Troy's brother, is crazy from a head wound. Most important, Troy doesn't approve of his son's potential football scholarship.

      Act II

      As the next act opens, we learn that Troy has broken the racial barrier at work to become the first black garbage-truck driver. We get more hints that Troy is having an affair. Gabe comes by talking about Armageddon. We also hear Troy and Bono talk a bit about their fathers. The tension crackles when Cory confronts Troy for telling Coach Zellman that he can't play football anymore. The act comes to a close with Troy threatening his resentful son.

      Act III

      Plenty of things come to a head in the final act of the play. Troy ends up committing his brother to a mental hospital. Troy's mistress, Alberta, has his illegitimate child and dies giving childbirth. Rose, Troy's wife, agrees to raise the child, but declares that she's no longer his woman. Tensions erupt between Cory and Troy. The two get into a fight with a baseball bat. In the end, Troy wins and kicks Cory out of the house. The play draws to a close years later on the day of Troy's funeral. In the concluding moments, we watch Cory struggle to come to terms with the shadow of his father.