"Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner."
Early in the first scene of Act One, Troy weaves a tall-tale, or Uncle Remus story in the African American tradition, about his supposed encounter with different forms of death. With these words, Troy compares death to an easy pitch, perfect for hitting a homerun. Therefore, Troy portrays himself as invincible and immortal to Bono and Rose. With this language, August Wilson creates the impression that Troy is strong, passionate for life, and fearless. This hyperbolic depiction of Troy, so early in the play, helps to establish Troy's character.
The fastball/death metaphor serves two purposes in the dramatization of Troy's character. Troy no longer plays baseball, but he continues to approach life as if his identity never changed. Wilson's use of the fastball/death metaphor depicts Troy as a common man capable of thinking with the heroism of a mythical figure. More significantly, Troy's metaphor foreshadows an inevitable fall into the role of a tragic figure. When a man thinks he can beat death, the inevitable discovery of that feat's impossibility awaits him. If Troy maintains an indiscriminate outlook on death, eventually he'll reveal his weaknesses. In the first scene, we do not yet know how the humorous, stalwart, and jovial version of Troy topples, but we get a sense that Troy's ability to control his own fate diminishes during the play.
"You got to take the crookeds with the straights. That's what Papa used to say."
In the last scene of the play, Act Two, Scene Five, Lyons recalls to Cory this statement that Troy used to say. When Lyons says the phrase, he sees his own life from a similar perspective that Troy saw in his own life. It is the first time in the play that Lyons sees eye to eye with Troy. This is a melancholy moment. With this line, Lyons recognizes that though he decidedly took a different approach to life than Troy, Lyons could not fulfill his own dreams or hold onto what meant the most to him—just like Troy. This phrase means that in life you have to accept misfortune just as much as you accept good fortune. Troy's philosophy here is that misfortune is inevitable, it is a part of life and one must experience it. The phrase also implies a defeatist attitude in the word choice of "crookeds with the straights. Troy's phrase implies a belief that the inevitable bad experience darkens any good situation. Or, conversely, that any positive experience has its negative counterpart or sacrifice. The phrase refers to Troy's own life and how he accepts his suffering in his relationship with his father, his attempts at survival when he first moved north, his time in jail and his inability to make a living by playing ball. By this point in the play, "crookeds" also refer to Troy's loss of Alberta, his loss of Rose, his mistake with Gabe's papers and his rejection of Cory. Troy's philosophy reflects a life of joy and pain and a once strong, pragmatic outlook on survival.
"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."
In the first scene of Act Two, Bono explains to Cory and Troy why Rose wants a fence built around their dirt yard. Neither Cory nor Troy understands why Rose insists that they complete the fence. It takes an outsider of the family, Bono, to observe why this project is so important to Rose, and what the fence represents. The first part of Bono's explanation sheds light on the behavior of his best friend, Troy, standing before him and the second part describes the woman he loves. By this point in the second act, the audience observes as Bono describes the first type of fence builder. Troy keeps people out of his life by negating their decisions, like his first son, Lyons' decision to play jazz. Troy keeps Rose away through betrayal and holds back Cory from a promising future. And Troy's brother, Gabriel, recently chose to leave Troy's house for an ambiguous reason related to Troy that probably relates to the fact that Troy used Gabe's money to buy himself the house. Bono's words provide insight into the Maxson family tensions and warns Troy that Bono disproves of Troy's extramarital affair by emphasizing Rose's love.
The metaphor also refers historically to the American practice of keeping black people bound within the fences of slavery. Bono highlights the dual purpose a fence can have, depending on the way one looks at its purpose. By alluding to slavery, Bono conjures the historical conditions following slavery's abolishment that significantly impacted Troy's fate. Troy's hardships in life directly relate to the conditions in the United States for black men and women living during the aftermath of Reconstruction, and the height of Jim Crow segregation. Bono expresses compassion with this reading of Rose's fence because he condemns Troy for his behavior of shutting out his loved ones but also empathizes with the reason why he reacts violently, in anger and in fear.
"You can't visit the sins of the father upon the child."
Rose takes in Troy's illegitimate child as her own with these words in Act Two, Scene Three. Rose's decision is based on a similar line in the Bible. Rose, a religious woman, believes that children are born innocent and with these words, she says to Troy that she refrains from blaming the baby for any of the faults of the father, her adulterous husband. Rose agrees to raise the child without bias, with unconditional love that she no longer feels towards Troy.
Cycles of black fathers acting as the source of pain in their children's lives is a repeated theme in Fences and here it appears again. This thought exemplifies Rose's disbelief in the cycle. She displays this philosophy at other times in the play, for example, with her son Cory, who she sees as having chances in life that Troy never had. This theory of Rose's about fathers' sins gets proven and disproved several times in the play. Rose believes the pain of one generation stops there and each new generation can get more out of life than the one before, whereas Troy sees life as always staying the same way he experienced it. That shortsightedness is the reason why the opportunity to have a relationship with Alberta, means so much to Troy. Troy's view of life is that men like him, burdened by the sins of his forefathers and the American forefathers who put blacks into slavery, sets up his generation and subsequent generations like Cory's to a life of inequality—the reason why Troy cannot accept Cory's choice to pursue sports over work. Cory, like Troy, leaves home before he is man, and in doing so, becomes one.
"That's the way that goes."
The last line of the play, spoken by Gabriel, concludes the story on a half note. The ending feels like a major and minor chord, simultaneously. After a disappointing attempt to open the heavens for Troy with his broken trumpet, Gabriel makes up another way to open the heavens. He dances, refuses help or comfort, and cries out. In this moment, Gabriel represents the African American tradition of improvisation. Despite overwhelming sadness, the loss of his brother, his placement in an asylum and his trumpet's inability to help him believe, Gabriel creates a new way of opening the gates of heavens by using methods rooted in African traditions. The dance and cry Wilson describes for Gabriel to perform, imply a return to a time when blacks were free of the limitations brought on by slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. Gabriel, in his dance and cry, reminds us that the possibility exists to create beauty and joy out of pain and suffering. He reflects the music, religion, dancing and other cultural traditions that African Americans ingeniously invented within the bonds of slavery to survive and to keep hopeful. Gabriel's comment after his improvised dance and cry is a bit of advice to Raynell, the youngest Maxson. Gabe lost part of his mind in battle while fighting for a country that treated blacks at the time like second-class citizens. With these words, he tells Raynell that life is full of disappointment, but one can improvise and change an obstacle into a creative impulse for change. It doesn't surprise Gabriel that at a time as meaningful as this, his first chance to become the angel of Gabriel that he imagines himself to be, something will go wrong, and he has to pick up the pieces and carry on with a different approach. This line and the action before it combines to form a metaphor of Wilson's view on African American survival in America, physicalized and vocalized on stage, usually to a powerful effect.
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Fences is a 1985 play by American playwright August Wilson. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle". I would even read it again if I had time for this. Recommend!
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