Study Guide

Fences Themes

  • Race

    Most of Fences is set in the 1950s. There had been some progress made on race relations by this time, such as the integration of pro sports teams. However, on a whole, America had a really long way to go. Slavery has been gone from America for over seventy years, but its shadow still presses down on the country. All the characters in the play are African American, and they must deal with racism everyday. The South is still officially segregated and much of the North is unofficially. Keep in mind that the play takes place before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Fences shows what it was like in the decade before the movement caused such radical change in America. Some of the characters seem to sense that progress is in the air, while others are still trapped in America's troubled past.

    Questions About Race

    1. What evidence of racial discrimination is seen in the play?
    2. What advancements have been made in race relations from Troy's youth to the time the play is set (the 1950s)? In what ways have things stayed the same?
    3. How do issues of race affect Troy's perception of the world? How about his relationship with his family?
    4. What is the key difference between the way Cory and Troy see the world in terms of race?

    Chew on This

    Fences shows the way in which racial discrimination can place strain on African-American families.

    Troy Maxson refuses to see that race relations have gotten better since he was young.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Fences is often thought of as a father-son play. The main conflict centers around the tension between Troy Maxson and his son Cory. The play shows how Troy in many ways repeats the mistakes of his own father while raising Cory. By the end, we're left with the hope that Cory will be able to break the cycle. Fences also questions what it is to be a man. Throughout the play we are forced to ask what it takes to be a good man. Is it duty to your family? Is it following your heart? Check out "Quotes" and see what you take from the play.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. In Troy's mind, what makes a man?
    2. In what ways can Fences be seen as a father-son play?
    3. How do Troy's and Lyons's opinions of what make a man differ? How are they similar?
    4. Would Troy be proud of the man Cory has become by the end of the play? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Troy's idea of manhood is based on the harsh example set by his father.

    By the end of Fences, Cory is on the road to becoming his own man by taking the best of his father and leaving the negative qualities behind him.

  • Mortality

    Though there are only two actual deaths in Fences, mortality is a constant theme. Troy Maxson kicks it off by telling a story where he literally wrestled with Death and won. We get several monologues throughout the play where he taunts Death, almost daring Him to try and take him again. In the end, Death does take Troy, but we're left with the impression that Troy doesn't go down without a fight. Fences seems to view human mortality as both a dark inevitability and our ultimate chance for peace. When the gates of heaven open for Troy at the end of the play, we're left with the impression that he's found rest in the afterlife.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How would you describe Troy's attitude toward Death?
    2. Wilson chose not to show the audience the actual scene where Troy dies. Why might he do this? How might this omission affect an audience's experience of watching the play?
    3. What is the significance of Troy describing Death as having white robes?

    Chew on This

    Troy's death allows his family, especially Cory, to heal.

    Troy triumphs over Death because he never lets fear of it control his life.

  • Dreams, Hopes, Plans

    Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences, has had his dreams taken from him. He wanted more than anything to be a pro baseball player, but his career was stopped because of racial discrimination. The central conflict of Fences centers around Troy's refusal to let his son Cory play football, which destroys Cory's chances of going to college. In this way, Fences explores how the damaged dreams of one generation can damage the dreams of the next. By the end of the play, Cory must find a way to form new dreams out the ashes of the ones he's lost.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, Plans

    1. Does Troy put a stop to Cory's dreams out of love or bitterness? Why do you think so?
    2. In what ways has Rose compromised her dreams for Troy?
    3. What are Gabriel's dreams? Lyons's? Bono's?

    Chew on This

    Troy always wanted more than he could actually achieve, which left him a bitter man.

    Bono never had dreams of his own, causing him to live vicariously through Troy.

  • Family

    Revolving around the trials and tribulations of the Maxson family, Fences is a great example of a family drama. We watch Troy struggle to fulfill his role as father to his son and husband to his wife. You could say that Troy doesn't do such a great job in either role; before his death, his family has all but disintegrated due of his failures. However, by the end of the play, we see that the family has also grown by his example. Fences depicts the complex dynamics that both tear families apart and hold them together.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Troy repeat the patterns of the family he grew up in? How does he escape them?
    2. Do you think Cory will repeat the same patterns with the family he is about to begin? Why, or why not?
    3. What is Rose's role in the family?

    Chew on This

    Fences is the story of a family's disintegration and rebirth.

    The play uses a family as a microcosm to explore larger issues.

  • Betrayal

    Fences explores many different types of betrayal. Troy Maxson manages to betray just about everyone in his life: his son, his wife, his brother, and his best friend. Pretty much every character in the play is betrayed by Troy in some way. Of course, the play does go deeper than that. Though many of the characters are hurt by Troy's actions, the final scene shows that they also have respect for him. Perhaps they see that, in some ways, Troy never betrayed them in his heart. Troy never apologizes for anything he does in the play. It could be that this is why the other characters respect him by the end. Though they were all disappointed by the things he did, Troy always did what he thought was right. You could say then that Troy never once betrayed himself.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. How does Troy justify cheating on Rose?
    2. Is it a betrayal when Troy signs Gabriel into the mental hospital? Why or why not?
    3. In what ways does Troy betray Cory?
    4. Do you think Bono feels betrayed by Troy? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Troy betrays everyone in the play but himself.

    In his own mind, Troy never betrays any of the other characters.

  • Duty

    There's lots of discussion about duty in Fences. Most of this involves the duty of a father to his family. Troy Maxson, the play's protagonist, seems to think that a father's only real duty is to provide food and shelter. He doesn't think it's important for a father to show love to his son, and he doesn't feel his duties to his wife include fidelity. Troy has an affair, but doesn't believe it's necessarily wrong. He's provided for his wife and loves her, but his love now includes someone else. Though Troy fulfills his own idea of his duties to his family, others may question this. What do you think? What does a father and husband owe his family? What is he required to give?

    Questions About Duty

    1. What does Troy see as his central duty to his family?
    2. Does Troy fail in his duties? Why or why not?
    3. What does Troy see as his family's duties to him? What does he expect of Cory? Of Rose?

    Chew on This

    Troy inherited his sense of familial duty from his father.

    Troy doesn't feel any duty to love his children.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Dissatisfaction causes lots of trouble in Fences. The play's protagonist, Troy Maxson, is dissatisfied with his life. He's unhappy that his pro baseball dreams were stopped by racial discrimination. He feels trapped and unfulfilled in his job as a garbage collector. His son constantly disappoints him by not seeing the value of work. And even though he loves his wife, Troy finds a new love in another woman's arms. Fences explores how dissatisfaction can lead to behavior that destroys a person's life and the lives of those around them.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. What are Troy's major dissatisfactions in life?
    2. Are the other characters as dissatisfied as Troy? If so, what are they upset about? If not, why are they more satisfied than Troy?
    3. How does Troy's dissatisfaction affect the action of the play?

    Chew on This

    Even if Troy had gotten everything he wanted in life, he would still be dissatisfied, because dissatisfaction is just part of his nature.

    Though it will be a struggle, Cory won't let the dissatisfaction of his father poison his own life.