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Symbolic Criticism in ‘Fences’ by August Wilson Essay

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Updated: Dec 23rd, 2021

The focal point of this paper is to present a symbolic criticism of the play “Fences” by August Wilson with a special emphasis on the significance of Gabriel in the play. This play by August Wilson can be described as a loose autobiographical saga where African American lives are portrayed under the social structure of legalized discrimination during the late 1950s where the setting is mainly Troy’s house in Pittsburg.

The basic story of the play is based on the ramification of black manhood where the protagonist tries to mend matters from going bad to worse by his means. This story is an effort from the protagonist’s point of view to formulate a survival strategy living within the framework of an otherwise unwanted system with the help of illusions and pragmatism. This mechanism of survival strategy against a discriminating society is the basic theme of the play where Gabriel acts as an alter ego of Troy (Zimmerman 143).

Gabriel is unaware of all these social complexities and evokes a blissful aura that, as per the play is the gift of shrapnel in Gabriel’s head during the Second World War. Gabriel is insane and thinks of himself as angel Gabriel. This insanity acts as a counterpoint to Troy’s reality and makes existence and survival easier juxtaposed between reality and fallacy. This play can also be seen as a social criticism of the black community with enough care to depict the actual cause, reasons, and effects of the prevailing social misgivings among the community.

The playwright analyses the cause of a degraded livelihood of the black community and traces the actual reason to the days of the slavery through the story of Troy’s father who led an utterly depressing life and unlike Troy’s illusions he had no back ally to fall back and searched for salvation what he understood most with his perceptions- women. And thus ramifications of the present state of affairs could well be linked with racial discrimination and misfortune.

Another depressed character from the former generation to that of Troy was Bono’s father whom he narrated as walking blues. This person was also induced by women but his main objective was traveling far and wide. He was also a dejected character like Troy’s father and it could be enumerated that the entire generation was completely disheartened after the freedom their ancestors received from slavery (Wilson 67). This tag was difficult to come off and they all suffered because of it dearly.

Troy Maxon is the protagonist of the play. He is a responsible person who is extremely dissatisfied with life though he is a dreamer by nature. In this frustration, Troy Maxon lives in a self-created world of illusions. When the play starts we see Troy Maxon is telling a story to Rose and Bono where he is encountered Devil who is personified by death and there is a huge brawl between them. This is just one example of his imaginary world and there are more.

As a whole Fences is a story that narrates the livelihood of Troy Maxon and all the characters of the play are instruments that communicate with Troy and thereby reveal his inner self to the audience. Nevertheless, every character at the same time indulges in conflict with him at some phases of the play no matter small or large. More often than not it is Troy himself who is the responsible person to instigate these conflicts and these conflicts take place because of Troy’s inability to accept a different point of view proposed and accepted by the others (Zimmerman 42).

The main reason behind this is that Troy himself lives in a world of dreams and when he realizes that that world is inaccessible to other members of the society he tends to be frustrated and eventually becomes angry with the society and this anger is manifested upon the person next to him as being an otherwise simple person he has no other specific identity to exert and no ability to enforce a change to the society. Society becomes the primal force against Troy Maxon and people around his vicinity become the victim of his anger. Troy is in constant conflict with Rose as contradictions arise with his stories and for his passion for numbers. Troy conflicts with Lyon as there is the decision to become a musician. Troy conflicts with Cory because football is their main passion.

One very interesting fact about Troy is his surname, Maxon. Maxon is a combination of Dixon and Mason. The Mason-Dixon Line was given to the imaginary line that was instrumental in differentiating the Free states and the slave states. The character of Troy Maxon appears to stand at the brink of apparently two opposing ideologies or existence. One of the existences is his very own dream world and the other is the reality. Thus, in this manner, Troy Maxon is neither totally free of the ideas of the society nor is he completely enslaved by the needs and demands of the society. He stands in a line of ‘no man’s and he is not at all comfortable with this existence. He could be enumerated as a character that is partly full of disappointment and partly engaged in hope.

However, another very interesting aspect of the character of Troy Maxon is his duality in hypocrisy. On one side Troy demands from his family a responsible and practical approach but in his personal life, he indulges in the affair of extramarital activities. He directly puts up a rebellion against his employer who could be enumerated as a racist as only blacks were used for lifters and were not allowed to be drivers of the trash cars. But in the same context, the assembly finds himself in an escapist mode with his dreams. He simply is not happy about what he finds in the society or other words what the society offers him rather than protesting in a long-termed formulated process he seeks salvation in his reams.

In a way, Troy can be enumerated as a classic example of a tragic hero. As a protagonist, he becomes lovable to the audience with his whereabouts but in the end, becomes a victim of society with his death. This attributes enough negative impact on the character.

But if seen from the wide aspect it is the society that is to be blamed for his death no matter how awkward Troy Maxon may seem with his illusions at different stages of the play and Gabriel tries to play the trumpet to open heaven’s gate. They both signify equilibrium of possibilities and impossibilities and death and sustainability throughout the parameters of the play and ultimately break down the fence of distinct differences. Here Troy is the symbol of radical black resistance against racism whereas his brother acts as the symbol of love and brotherhood.

Works Cited

Wilson, August. Fences: A Play. New York: Plume, 1989.

Zimmerman, Allen. Social Criticism of ‘Fences’. Auckland: IPCL Press, 2000.

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