Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

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.

Read more about a symbolic use of plants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.


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.

Read about how jazz music functions similarly as a motif in Toni Morrison’s Jazz.