Despite his acknowledged personal failings, Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences (1987)—August Wilson’s celebrated drama of the mid-twentieth century black American experience—emerges as a heroic figure: one who does the best he can under untenable circumstances. Having been driven from home at fourteen after sustaining a brutal beating from his abusive father, Troy recuperates his filial connection to the man who knocked him senseless, resolving his ambivalence towards him through the perpetuation of his song. The song, which celebrates the virtues of the hound dog Blue, is classic masculinist sentiment in its memorialization of the unconditional devotion and obedience of the creature so commonly styled “man’s best friend.” When Cory and Raynell, two of Troy’s three children, sing the song together after Troy’s death, they are not only connecting to one another through a shared childhood memory of their own father, they are also remembering and reifying his value of the characteristics, exhibited through the idealized attributes of Blue, that bolster Troy’s sense of himself as a man.
Blue’s song sentimentalizes the symbiotic dynamic between a country-dwelling man and his faithful dog, a dynamic that comes to typify the sort of hierarchical partnership men would like to replicate in their other relationships. Troy’s wife Rose censures his hypermasculine prerogative of treating her like a dog, a pattern of conduct he mockingly invalidates by pretending to expect her to respond as a dog ideally would when he calls her, but her playful banter functions as a tacit acceptance of the paternal bequest of characteristics and behavioral tendencies that eventually undermine the sanctity of their marriage. The song of Blue, then, functions as symbolic of the Maxson legacy and of the preservation of core masculine values, refined through the generations as the social climate enables a fuller range of outlets for black male subjectivity. Blue’s song thus entails a theatrical response to a two-fold anxiety: it serves as a means of reinscribing and reinforcing tradition, and simultaneously represents modes of honoring that tradition while resisting its detrimental implications.
The song, a paean upon the beloved Blue, praises the dog’s reliability as a hunting partner: Blue skillfully chases a possum up into a tree, desiring nothing more than approval in return for the faithful performance of his duty. The lyrics of the song then envision Blue gleefully trapping more possums in trees within the biblical settings of the Promised Land and on Noah’s Ark. This idealized image of canine delight in being of service to his master contrasts sharply with Troy’s insinuation that Rose resists such devoted attentiveness in the fourth scene of Act One:
TROY: (Calling.) Hey Rose! (To BONO.) I told everybody. Hey, Rose! I went down there to cash my check.
ROSE: (Entering from the house.) Hush all that hollering, man! I know you out here. What they say down there at the Commissioner’s office?
TROY: You supposed to come when I call you, woman. Bono’ll tell you that.
Don’t Lucille come when you call her?
ROSE: Man, hush your mouth. I ain’t no dog . . . talk about “come when you call me.”
TROY: (Puts his arm around ROSE.) You hear this, Bono? I had me an old dog used to get uppity like that. You say, “C’mere, Blue!” . . . and he just lay there and look at you. End up getting a stick and chasing him away trying to make him come.
ROSE: I ain’t studying you and your dog. I remember you used to sing that old song. (1.4)
This customary triangulated exchange among Rose, Troy, and Troy’s best friend/co-worker Bono exhibits a number of issues meriting exploration. Foremost, Troy opens this excerpt by defensively repudiating Bono’s preceding observation that Troy had singled out Alberta, later revealed to be the mother of his illegitimate child, to boast of his professional triumph in securing a promotion from garbage collector to truck driver. Troy claims that he “told everybody,” not just Alberta, and that his primary reason for going to the neighborhood watering hole she frequents was simply to cash his weekly paycheck. Regardless of whether or not Troy is being truthful, the fact remains that he does not choose his wife as the first person with whom to share his successful challenge of the segregationist hiring policy. Instead, his first impulse is to use the news to impress his girlfriend. Next, Troy attempts to enlist the support of his best friend to establish the appropriate ground rules for interplay between husband and wife. Electing to mediate his feigned dissatisfaction with Rose’s objection to being summoned like a house pet through Bono, instead of addressing his wife directly, removes the dispute from the realm of marital discord to the arena of competitive male bravado. Troy is not openly taking issue with his wife’s behavior, so much as displaying to Bono the control he exerts, as he believes every man should, over his “woman.” Finally, Troy compares Rose’s spirited resistance to the “uppity” attitude of a recalcitrant dog.
When Troy suggests that his fruitless efforts to make Blue comply with his will ultimately result in his becoming enraged and “chasing him away,” it makes for a provocative analogue to his conduct towards Rose: Troy’s frustration with his compromised control as breadwinner and responsible patriarch results in his subconscious anger and retaliation against the people who demonstrate unconditional devotion to him. Troy’s perception of the assault on his masculine authority makes him lash out all-inclusively—he distances himself from Bono in becoming a driver isolated from the camaraderie of the men at the back of the truck; he ridicules his eldest son Lyons for being childishly unable to establish a steady means of self-support; he betrays his younger brother Gabe—a combat veteran wounded in World War II—by authorizing his being committed to a mental institution; he undercuts his son Cory’s ambition by refusing to permit the youth to be considered for an athletic scholarship to college and then kicking him out of the house; he indelibly wounds Rose by first having a clandestine extramarital affair and then callously continuing it for months after he can no longer avoid informing her of Alberta’s pregnancy.
Rose takes issue with the way in which Troy satisfies his own needs at her expense—the accusation she hurls at her husband is “You take . . . and don’t even know nobody’s giving!” (2.1). Rose’s words are doubly painful to Troy because of the secondary significance of her deceptively straightforward claim: not only is she saying that Troy is emotionally insensitive to her needs as a person apart from her function as his wife, but she is telling him that he is a self-serving and insensitive sexual partner, and this cuts to the heart of how Troy defines his masculinity. Troy, however, chooses to understand her allegation only in material terms, and he responds in similar fashion to when he takes Cory to task for imagining that he provides for his son primarily because he “likes” the boy (1.3). Troy cannot abide any insinuation that he shirks his financial obligation to ensure that his family has a comfortable home and enough to eat, so he insists that Rose retract: “You say I take and don’t give! [. . .] I done give you everything I got. Don’t you tell that lie on me” (2.1). Willfully or not, Troy misunderstands Rose completely; she never says that he does not give, but only that he also takes, and does so without fully appreciating the harm he does to those from whom he takes—specifically, she herself. Troy’s failure to listen to his wife in this instance is emblematic of the divide between them. Rose’s clear articulation of her recognition that she is being taken for granted serves as the basis of her emotional withdrawal from their marriage.
The conflict that alienates the Maxsons from one another is rooted precisely in their failure to recognize and come to terms in a mutually affirmative manner with the painful ghosts of their pasts. Wilson’s philosophical epigraph to the play provides a guide to the life lesson encoded within:
When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.
Neither Troy nor Rose recognizes the “sins of [their] fathers” for what they are; as a result, they fall victim to the conviction that they can prevent the “visit” from occurring in the first place. Rose’s preoccupation with the fence for which the play is named is symptomatic of her desire to construct a barrier the “sins” cannot permeate; the healing that would result from “banish[ing] them with forgiveness” is never undertaken. Instead, Troy and Rose use their relationship as a means of escape from the aspects of their ancestral legacy they have been indoctrinated to believe are constitutively flawed.
Wilson perceived the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences as a departure from his own artistic vision of “ensemble murals” in which no single character emerges as the principal (Watlington 89). According to Wilson himself, “Fences was the odd man out, in the sense that it was not the kind of play I wanted to write. But all of these people who were used to theater kept trying to tell me my work should be something different” (qtd. in Watlington 88). “Something different” entailed what Dennis Watlington describes as “a more commercial, conventional play, with one main character and others supporting him” (88). In Wilson’s conformity to what he regarded as a prescribed Eurocentric form by virtue of his abandonment of the ensemble theatrical approach that felt natural to him, he becomes a kindred spirit to Rose Maxson, who abandons her rootedness in the Africanist extended family network of her childhood in order to embrace a Eurocentric model of nuclear familial relations. Like the playwright who imagined her, Rose adopts an unfamiliar, externally endorsed paradigm to achieve an illusory, externally defined success. When she ultimately takes Troy to task for bringing her the unwelcome news that he has conceived a child with another woman, Rose is uncharacteristically emphatic in her repudiation of the household organization of her youth:
And you know I ain’t never wanted no half nothing in my family. My whole family is half. Everybody got different fathers and mothers . . . my two sisters and my brother. Can’t hardly tell who’s who. Can’t never sit down and talk about Papa and Mama. It’s your papa and your mama and my papa and my mama. . . [. . .] I ain’t never wanted that for none of my children. (2.1)
Rose perceives such irregularities of parentage as undesirable, something from which she would like to protect her own children, yet she elects to become a second wife to a man who already has a son in his late teens when she marries him—a decision that effectively contradicts her ostensible objective. This disconnect between what Rose claims to want in her life and the choices she makes in actual practice illustrate both Rose’s subconscious attraction to the familiar and the play’s endorsement of her receptiveness to what she had been conditioned to regard as improper. Much of the action of the play can be understood as the aftermath of the violence performed on the black family by the effort to adhere to cultural values imposed by white hegemony. Even Troy’s infidelity, in his mind, results from the restiveness born of prolonged conformity to the inflexible expectations placed upon the male head of household. Fences depicts the Maxson family fracturing under the pressure of the attempt to manifest the standardized outcomes of middle America despite the lack of access to comparable resources.
The familial fracture is healed only after the death of Troy, who, as Kim Marra observes, remains stolidly unrepentant of his affair and its progeny. Troy’s defiant insistence that “‘A man’s got to do what’s right for him. I ain’t sorry for nothing I done. It felt right in my heart’ (86) . . . reflects his utter self-absorption in his desperate and futile quest for manhood and inability to take the hand that Rose tried to extend to him across the now gaping gender divide” (Marra 149). Rose’s strength and insight emerge at the resolution of the play because she alone, “who has suffered so much because of her husband’s cruelty, infidelity and thoughtlessness, understands the true nature of the relationship between father and son. Like her creator [Wilson], Rose recognizes the necessity of acknowledging the pain of the past in order to embrace the future” (Gordon 24). The restoration of the Maxson family happens through Rose’s justification of Troy to their son Cory, who has just returned home on the morning of Troy’s funeral after a protracted seven-year absence, and through the resurrection of Troy’s song, his own father’s legacy to him, when Cory and Raynell—who shared a home for no more than a couple of months in Raynell’s infancy—forge a bond by singing it together before they leave for their father’s service. Rose’s agency in mending fences, so to speak, between her son and his dead father reinforces her significance in holding their family together. She counsels Cory to release the residual resentment poisoning his life: “Whatever was between you and your daddy . . . the time has come to put it aside. Just take it and set it over there on the shelf and forget about it. Disrespecting your daddy ain’t gonna make you a man, Cory. You gotta find a way to come to that on your own” (2.5). Rose challenges the masculine protocol, one to which Troy had wholeheartedly subscribed, that demands triumph over an adversary in order to demonstrate masculine self-worth. Troy’s violent altercation with his son that precipitates Cory’s expulsion from the family home effectively reenacts his own adolescent physical struggle with his father that precipitated his 200-mile trek to Mobile, Alabama, upon his recognition that “the time had come for me to leave my daddy’s house” (1.4). In a performative display of his acknowledgment to his elder son Lyons that despite his father’s deeply problematic interpersonal skills, “he felt a responsibility toward us,” Troy recuperates his connection to his father through the perpetuation of his song (1.4).
Both Troy and Rose admit to conceiving of a conventional marriage as a site of refuge from the more uncertain and potentially annihilating outcomes that might have befallen them otherwise. Rose encounters Troy when she is thirty, relatively late in her life by the standards of the era she inhabits, and only after she “had done seen [her] share of men” (2.5); she willfully overlooks his shortcomings in order to secure her dream of marital and maternal fulfillment. Troy reveals, however, that his life’s dream does not necessarily accord with Rose’s idealized vision of domestic security through home and family. Reverting to the familiar device of his baseball idiom, Troy declares in his defense of his sustained affair with Alberta that he thinks of the nearly two decades he has spent with his wife as commensurate with developmental stagnation—he tells Rose that his relationship with her was secured when he “bunted” to achieve a respectable life without testing the limits of his capability, and that before becoming involved with Alberta, he had “stood on first base for eighteen years” (2.1). The disintegration of their nuclear family is complete when Rose and Troy become estranged in the house they continue to share after the revelation of his infidelity, and when Troy replicates the life-altering event of being physically assaulted by his own enraged father by forcibly driving his seventeen-year-old son Cory out of the house’s front yard and telling him that when he comes back to collect his belongings, “They’ll be on the other side of that fence” (2.4). Troy violates Rose’s desire to construct a safe and welcoming space within which her loved ones can dwell, accepted unconditionally, when he demarcates the boundary of his own domain by exiling their son outside of the constructed barrier.
Their different appreciations of the significance of the fence represent a fundamental conceptual division between Rose and Troy: while Rose yearns for a protective symbol of mainstream domestic stability—the quintessential white picket fence of the American suburban ideal—Troy strives to create an aggressively enduring testament to his masculine power to conquer and leave an indelible mark on the world in which he lives—demonstrated by his insistence on using weather-resistant “outside wood” rather than the soft pine Bono recommends (2.1). As Missy Dehn Kubitschek has noted in her discussion of the oppositional gender roles dividing the couple, the disconnect underlying the emblematic conflict between Troy and Rose is “derived from their unconscious acceptance of an implicitly Eurocentric view of separate male and female spheres” (184). Troy’s appropriation of the male domains of work, competitive sport, and the public space of the local watering hole conditions him to believe that his movement within those spaces is exempt from Rose’s scrutiny and influence.
The psychological distance from home and family Troy develops as a result creates a situation in which, as Michael Awkward observes in his discussion of Troy’s repudiation of Cory’s complaint that his father never seemed to “like” him (1.3), “Troy’s economics of duty . . . leaves him poorly equipped to deal with the emotional demands of intimate personal relations. ‘[D]oing right,’ in such relations, is not merely providing clean sheets and nourishing foods, but also demonstrating an intense concern about the psychic welfare of those for whom one has assumed responsibility” (220). Such intensity of concern is not within Troy’s capacity, as he acknowledges when he admits that the defining moment of his life was when he “got to the place where [he] could feel [his father] kicking in [his] blood and knew that the only thing that separated [them] was the matter of a few years” (1.4). Such a recognition of affinity means that Troy is not “banishing” the sins of his father, in Wilson’s parlance, but absolutely “playing host.” On the other hand, what Rose advises Cory to do in the final scene of the play demonstrates the potential of banishing those sins with forgiveness. After affirming that Cory’s character replicates that of his father, that Cory is “Troy Maxson all over again,” she insists that whatever his faults may have been, Troy meant to bequeath to Cory the “best of what [was] in [him]” (2.5). When Cory sings Blue’s song and it develops into a duet with his half-sister—the fruit of Troy’s infidelity—he demonstrates his coming to terms with that painful betrayal, forgiving Troy, and celebrating the memory of what was best in him. By purging the anger against his father rather than allowing it to serve as an excuse to concede to a perceived irresistible fate, as Troy did, Cory models a progressive version of masculinity, making productive use of his patrilineal legacy.
Awkward, Michael. “’The Crookeds with the Straights’: Fences, Race, and the Politics of Adaptation.” Nadel, pp. 205-29.
Elkins, Marilyn, editor. August Wilson: A Casebook. Garland, 1994.
Gordon, Joanne. “Wilson and Fugard: Politics and Art.” Elkins, pp. 17-29.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “August Wilson’s Gender Lesson.” Nadel, pp. 183-99.
Marra, Kim. “Ma Rainey and the Boyz: Gender Ideology in August Wilson’s Broadway Canon.” Elkins, pp. 123-60.
Nadel, Alan, editor. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Watlington, Dennis. “Hurdling Fences.” 1989. Conversations with August Wilson, edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig, University Press of Mississippi, 2006, pp. 80-89.
Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Penguin, 1986.