Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Coming of Age Within the Cycle of Damaged Black Manhood
Both Troy and Bono relate stories of their childhood in the south and tales of their relationships with difficult fathers to Lyons in Act One, scene four. Their often-painful memories provide a context for understanding the similarities and differences of the generations separating Troy and Bono from Lyons and Cory. Troy's father, like many blacks after the abolishment of slavery was a failed sharecropper. Troy claims that his father was so evil that no woman stayed with him for very long, so Troy grew up mostly motherless. When Troy was fourteen, his father noticed that the mule Troy was supposedly taking care of had wandered off. Troy's father found Troy with a girl Troy had a crush on and severely beat Troy with leather reins. Troy thought his father was just angry at Troy for his disobedience, but proving Troy's father was even more despicable, his father then raped the girl. Troy was afraid of his father until that moment.
At that moment, however, Troy believes he became a man. He could no longer live under the roof with a man that would commit these unacceptable acts, so he left home to be on his own, though he was homeless and broke, with no ties or family elsewhere. Manhood, to Troy, meant separating from his father because of conflict and abuse. The one attribute Troy respected and proudly inherited was a sense of responsibility. Troy's father provided for eleven children, and Troy too became the sole breadwinner for his family.
Bono however, remembers a different type of father. Bono's father was equally depressed about life as Troy's father, but unlike Troy's father, Bono's dad never provided a fathering or providing role to Bono and his family. Bono describes his father as having, "The Walking Blues," a condition that prevented his father from staying in one place for long and moving frequently from one woman to the next. Bono could barely recognize his father and knew little about him. Bono says his father, like many other African Americans of his father's generation, were "searching out The New Land." As blacks were freed from slavery and wanted to escape the often slavery-like conditions of sharecropping, many walked north in what history calls The Great Migration, to pursue a better life in the north, particularly in urban centers. Because of Bono's father's unreliable personality, Bono chose not to father children, to insure he would not abandon a child like his father. But, contrary to Bono's fears, his father's personality was not a family trait, but a choice he made to cope with his particular circumstances. Bono has been loyal to his wife, Lucille for almost eighteen years.
Lyons and Cory had very different upbringings, though their development into men does not fall too far from the tree of their father's experience. Lyons spent his entire childhood growing up with only one parent, his mother, while Troy was in jail. Lyons feels he has the right to make his own life decisions and pursue his own dreams in music because he had more familial support and fewer hardships than Troy. Troy was not around to mold him into a responsible person, so Lyons tends to need to borrow money, though he does pay Troy back respectfully. Cory ends up leaving home in a similar conflict with Troy that Troy had with Cory's paternal grandfather. To Troy and Cory, becoming a man comes to mean leaving the man that raised you because of a violent conflict. This painful process of coming of age is confusing. For both Troy and Cory, the creation of their own identity when their role model is a creature of duality—part responsible and loyal, the other side, hurtful, selfish and abusive, proves a difficult model with which to mold their own identity as grown men with a more promising future than the father who threatens their livelihood.
Interpreting and Inheriting History
Much of the conflict in Wilson's plays, including Fences, arises because the characters are at odds with the way they see the past and what they want to do with the future. For example, Troy Maxson and his son, Cory see Cory's future differently because of the way they interpret history. Troy does not want Cory to experience the hardship and disappointment Troy felt trying to become a professional sports player, so he demands that Cory work after school instead of practicing with the football team. Cory, however, sees that times changed since baseball rejected a player as talented as Troy because of the color of his skin. Cory knows the possibility exists that the professional sports world will include, not exclude him. In Act One, Scene Three, Cory provides examples of successful African American athletes to Troy. Cory says, "The Braves got Hank Aaron and Wes Covington. Hank Aaron hit two home runs today. That makes forty-three." Troy responds, "Hank Aaron ain't nobody." Cory's sport, football, integrated its players years before baseball. For Troy to accept this change in the world would cause Troy to accept the death of his own dreams. Troy refuses to see Cory's potential because it would mean accepting his own misfortune. Troy and Cory see history in a way that benefits their worldview. Unfortunately this conflict pushes father and son away from each other. Troy, who learned a responsible work ethic from his otherwise abusive father, means well when he insists that Cory return to work at the A&P because he sees the job as fair, honest work that isn't at the mercy of powerful whites' sometimes arbitrary decisions, as in Major League baseball. But by attempting to insure Cory of a harmless future, Troy stifles his son's potential and prevents Cory from having a promising future.
Troy's perception of what is right and what is wrong for Cory, based on Troy's refusal to perceive a historical change in the acceptance of blacks, tragically causes Cory to experience a disappointing fate similar to Troy's. Troy passes his personal history on to his family in other ways throughout the play with sayings that represent his philosophies of life like, "You gotta take the crookeds with the straights." His children also inherit Troy's past by learning songs he sings like, "Hear It Ring! Hear It Ring!" a song Troy's own father taught him. Cory tells Rose in Act Two, scene five, "Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere." Troy's songs and sayings link his family to the difficult life in the south that his generation was free to run away from, though penniless and without roots in the north. Troy's purposefully and inadvertently passes on his life experience to his children and family, for better and for worse.
The Choice Between Pragmatism and Illusions as Survival Mechanisms
Troy and Rose choose divergent coping methods to survive their stagnant lives. Their choices directly correspond to the opposite perspectives from which they perceive their mutual world. In Act Two, scene one, Troy and Rose say that they both feel as if they have been stuck in the same place since their relationship began eighteen years ago. However, Rose and Troy handle their frustration and disappointment with their intertwined lives differently. This difference in their viewpoints is evident early on in the play. In Act One, scene one, Troy proves through his story about his battle with Death that he is a dreamer and a believer in self-created illusions. To Troy, his struggle with Death was an actual wrestling match with a physical being. Rose, on the other hand, swiftly attempts to bring Troy back to reality, explaining that Troy's story is based on an episode of pneumonia he had in July, 1941. Troy ignores Rose's pragmatic, realistic perception of his fight with death. Troy brags about his wrestling match with Death. Rose unsuccessfully refutes his story by mentioning that every time he tells the story he changes the details. Troy is unmoved by Rose's evidence against his illusion. Rose, as pacifier of the Maxson family, relents, making a final comment, "Troy, don't nobody wanna be hearing all that stuff." Later, when Troy weaves a story about encountering the devil, Rose buttons his long account with two simple words, "Troy lying."
The one impractical activity Rose takes part in is playing numbers. She has dreams and hopes for the future, like Lyons who also plays the numbers and wants to be successful in a difficult profession, jazz music. In Act One, scene two, "Troy says to Rose, "You ain't doing nothing but throwing your money away." And when Cory proposes that they buy a television in Act one, scene three, Troy makes an excuse that they need to spend the money on a new roof. When it comes to other characters' impractical decisions, Troy suddenly becomes a realist, selfishly reserving the right to dream for him only. This response comes across hypocritically from a man who later, in the same scene, will refuse to admit Hank Aaron gets enough playing time or when Cory proves a point about Sandy Koufax, Troy's futile response is, "I ain't thinking of no Sandy Koufax," as if not thinking about him will make Koufax nonexistent.
Later, in Act Two, scene one, Troy admits his affair with Alberta to Rose, excusing his behavior by expressing to Rose that spending time with Alberta allowed him to provide an illusion of accomplishment and escape from responsibility. Troy says, "Then when I saw that gal I got to thinking that if I tried I just might be able to steal second." Troy perceives his relationship with Alberta as a laudable move in a baseball game, as a personal accomplishment. Rose sees Troy's lies and deception about the affair as simple and straightforward self-absorbed betrayal. She says, "We're not talking about baseball! We're talking about you going off to lay in bed with another woman [w]e ain't talking about no baseball." In the final scene, Rose copes with the death of Troy with her typically pragmatic view. " I do know he meant to do more good than harm." Troy dies, swinging a baseball bat, still attached to unfulfilled dreams of his past while Rose serves as peacemaker and practitioner of love with her family while they grapple with Troy's confrontational legacy.
Death and Baseball
In Act one, scene one, Troy Maxson declares, "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner." With this line, the former Negro League slugger merges his past experience as a ballplayer with his philosophy. Troy, Bono, and Rose argue about the quality of the Major League black ballplayer compared to Troy when he was in his prime. A fastball on the outside corner was homerun material for Troy. Though Troy feels beleaguered from work and deeply troubled by coming along too early to play in the Major Leagues because they were still segregated when he was in top form, Troy believes he is unconquerable and almost immortal when it come to issues of life and death. Troy knows he overcame pneumonia ten years ago, survived an abusive father and treacherous conditions in his adaptation to surviving in an urban environment when he walked north to live in Pittsburgh, and jail. Baseball is what Troy is most proud of and knows he conquered on his own. In this first scene of the play, Troy is afraid of nothing, values his life, and feels in control. Troy's attitude toward death is proud and nonchalant. Troy says, "Ain't nothing wrong with talking about death. That's part of life. Everybody gonna die. You gonna die, I'm gonna die. Bono's gonna die. Hell, we all gonna die." He has not recently experienced a personal loss so great that it humbles and weakens his spirit. In the same scene, Troy compares Death to an army that marched towards him in July, 1941, when he had pneumonia. He describes Death as an army, an icy touch on the shoulder, a grinning face. Troy claims he spoke to Death. Troy thinks he constantly has to be on guard against Death's army. He claims he saw Death standing with a sickle in his hand, spoke to Death and wrestled Death for three days and three nights. After the wrestling match, Troy saw Death put on a white robe with a hood on it and leave to look for his sickle.
Troy admits, "Death ain't nothing to play with. And I know he's gonna get me," but he refuses to succumb to Death easily. Troy follows the Bible quotation, "Be ever vigilant," in his attitude towards Death. In his perception of Death, Troy mutates the form of Death many times, from fastball, to a sickle-carrying, devil-like figure and finally composting the devil into a Ku Klux Klan member in his white hood ceremony regalia. His image of Death being composed of a marching army or leading an army transforms into this KKK leader image that has camp followers.
As the play progresses, Troy repeatedly merges his baseball metaphors with his Death rhetoric. In the last lines of numerous scenes Troy speaks to Death out- loud, taunting Death to try to come after him and/or warns Cory that his behavior is causing him to strike out. Cory makes three mistakes in Troy's eyes and when he strikes out, Troy kicks him out of the house. Troy's death and baseball metaphors are inextricably linked. Admitting that he was too old to play baseball when the Major Leagues integrated would kill Troy's belief that he was directly cheated out of a special life that he deserved and earned. To Troy, it is enough of an injury that the Major Leagues were segregated during his prime. He sees baseball as the best time of his life, but also the death of his dreams and hopes. When Cory was born, Troy promised he would not allow his son to experience the same disappointment he was subjected to in baseball. So, Troy equates Cory's pursuit of a dream as strong as his father's as mistakes worthy of warning and punishment or "strikes" that Troy believes will prevent Cory from reaching the same fate as Troy did.
Seeds and Growth
Characters in Fences literally and figuratively employ the motif of seeds, flowers, plants, and related actions like growing, taking root, planting, and gestation—in both their language and actions. Like August Wilson's mother whose name is Daisy, Rose has the name of a flower. Rose is a typical African American 1950's housewife and, as the caretaker of the family and home, she represents loving care and nurturing, attributes also frequently used to grow plants. Like the characteristics of the flower after which she is named, Rose is a beautiful soul who protects her family and protects herself when Troy hurts her. In Act Two, scene, five, Rose demonstrates to Raynell that seeds take time to grow. Rose says, "You just have to give it a chance. It'll grow." She exemplifies patience and generosity in her relationships with everyone in the play. For instance when she sides with Cory on his decision to play football, her compassion and concern for Gabriel when he is arrested and her acceptance of Raynell as her own child when Alberta dies. When Troy complains in Act Two, scene one that he needs to escape to Alberta's bed because he feels as if he has been in the same place for sixteen years, Rose replies, "I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy." Rose is sedentary, like the flower, growing upward in the same spot. She relates her decision to live life invested in her husband's life even though she knows he will never be as successful as they once hoped. In Act Two, scene one Rose's description of her life is a metaphor of planting. She says, "I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom. But I held on to you, Troy." Rose lessens the rocky and hard nature of Troy with her love and compassion, providing shelter to her children from their father's destructive behavior and legacy. She has raised Cory lovingly and teaches Raynell about loving, a hopeful future and forgiveness.
August Wilson says he uses the language and attitude of blues songs to inspire his plays and play characters. The blues is a melancholy song created by black people in the United States that tends to repeat a twelve bar phrase of music and a 3-line stanza that repeats the first line in the second line. A blues song usually contains several blue, or minor, notes in the melody and harmony.
Fences is structured somewhat like a blues song. The play all takes place in one place like a key of music and the characters each have their own rhythm and melody that Wilson riffs off of around the common locale. Characters repeat phrases, or pass phrases around, like a blues band with a line of melody. Similar to the role of repeated lyrics and melody of a blues song, Wilson's characters display changes in their life and a changed attitude toward life by repeating scenarios in which they act. For instance, Friday, Troy's payday, is the setting of three scenes. By mirroring the situation in which events in the play take place, we can observe the change that occurs from one instance to the next. For instance in Act One, Scene one, Troy and Bono come home after payday as best friends worried about Troy's future. In Act One, Scene Four, Troy and Bono celebrate after payday because Troy won his discrimination case, but Bono is more concerned that Troy will ruin his life with his extramarital affair. Troy comes home after payday in Act Two, Scene Four, estranged from Bono and his family. He drinks and sings to comfort himself. By now, the good days of the play's first scene seem far-gone. This is a way playwrights manipulate the sense of time in a play, but for Wilson in particular, the repeated events and language of the play are in keeping what he calls a "blues aesthetic."
Wilson's plays are extensions of the history of blues in African American culture, and thus, in American culture in general. Troy sings two blues songs, one, in Act Two, scene three, "Please Mr. Engineer let a man ride the line," and in Act Two, scene four, "Hear it Ring! Hear it Ring!" Rose also sings a song in Act One, scene two, "Jesus be a fence all around me every day." Wilson invented these lyrics but based them on themes and symbols in African American traditional, spiritual, gospel, and blues songs. Rose's song is a religious song so hers might have more roots in the gospel tradition. Troy's songs are truly from the blues tradition. His song, "Hear it Ring Hear it Ring!" was passed on to him by his father and in the last scene of the play, we witness Cory and Raynell singing the song together after Troy's death. The blues in Fences connects generations together and keeps alive a family's roots and history beyond the grave.
Troy brings his illegitimate baby, Raynell home for the first time at the beginning of the Act Two, Scene Three of Fences. Troy sits with his motherless baby on a porch where he once reigned, but now is an unwanted presence. Then, Troy sings the song, "Please Mr. Engineer, let a man ride the line," which echoes the pleas of a man begging a train engineer to let him ride, in hiding, for free. Especially during the Harlem Renaissance (the flourishing of African American artists, writers, poets, etc. in the first half of the Twentieth Century) and during slavery times, respectively, trains were common literary devices in African American literature and music. A character that rides a train or talks of trains, or even goes to a train station came to represent change. Trains represent the coming or arrival of a major change in a character's life. In Fences, Troy identifies with the blues song about riding the train. By singing this particular song, Troy's acknowledges that his actions caused the upheaval in the lives of his loved ones. Troy sings, "Please Mr. Engineer let a man ride the line," but in other words he is crying out to his wife, Rose to let him back into her home. Like the voice in the song, Troy is homeless and has nothing to offer the one he needs something from in order to keep going. Especially with a baby in hand, Troy has no future without his wife. In order to come back into her life, Troy knows he is asking Rose to give him a free ride of forgiveness. If she does take him back, Troy knows life with her will never return to the life they once had together because he lost her trust and respect when he committed adultery. The train song also connotes the time Troy and many other men of his generation spent wandering North during the Great Migration. He sings, "I ain't got no ticket, please let me ride the blinds," which represents the poverty the released slaves and the failed sharecroppers experienced in Troy's father's generation. Troy sings the song to his newborn daughter, passing on a song that tells an important story of her past and links that past to the present. Troy's song exemplifies the tradition in African American history to make something from nothing-like the song. Troy hopes his love for his daughter and her innocence will change Rose's heart and allow Troy another chance at fatherhood and marriage.
August Wilson did not name his play, Fences, simply because the dramatic action depends strongly on the building of a fence in the Maxson's backyard. Rather, the characters lives change around the fence-building project which serves as both a literal and a figurative device, representing the relationships that bond and break in the arena of the backyard. The fact that Rose wants the fence built adds meaning to her character because she sees the fence as something positive and necessary. Bono observes that Rose wants the fence built to hold in her loved ones. To Rose, a fence is a symbol of her love and her desire for a fence indicates that Rose represents love and nurturing. Troy and Cory on the other hand think the fence is a drag and reluctantly work on finishing Rose's project. Bono also observes that to some people, fences keep people out and push people away. Bono indicates that Troy pushes Rose away from him by cheating on her. Troy's lack of commitment to finishing the fence parallels his lack of commitment in his marriage. The fence appears finished only in the final scene of the play, when Troy dies and the family reunites. The wholeness of the fence comes to mean the strength of the Maxson family and ironically the strength of the man who tore them apart, who also brings them together one more time, in death.
Troy casts the Devil as the main character of his exaggerated stories that entertain, bewilder and frustrate his family and friends. Eventually, Troy's association of the Devil as a harbinger of death comes to represent his struggle to survive the trials of his life. Many scenes in the play end with Troy speaking a soliloquy to Death and the Devil. In Act One, Scene One, Troy spins a long yarn, or tale about his fight for several days with the Devil. The story of the Devil endears Troy to audiences early on by revealing his capability to imagine and believe in the absurd. In another story, Troy turns a white salesman into a Devil. Troy calls a man the Devil who tried to sell Troy furniture in exchange for monthly payments by mail. Again, providing the pragmatic version of the story, Rose explains why Troy invents stories about the Devil. "Anything you don't understand, you call the Devil." Troy observes door-to-door salesmen and the process of layaway for the first time and in his ignorance, turns a modern occurrence into a mythical story.
Troy also describes the Devil's appearance as a man in a white hood. Wilson conjures the image of KKK members in KKK regalia with this description. Troy imagines the Devil, not just as an airy spirit from hell but also as a living human being. To Troy, the Devil sometimes symbolizes the aggression and cowardice of bigotry. Troy's stories about the Devil show that Troy sees himself as a man winning a fight against injustice and hatred. Troy's courage in overcoming racism is also suggested by Troy's complaint against the Sanitation Department that eventually hires Troy as the first black man to drive a trash truck. However, as the play progresses and Troy loses the love of his family and inadvertently betrays his brother, Gabriel, the less we believe in Troy's ability to win in his struggle to overcome the bad luck of his fate and the demons he carries within that become even greater forces than the racism that curtailed his dreams.
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