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Symbolic Title of August Wilson’s “Fences” Play Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 1st, 2021


It is worth noting that August Wilson’s play Fences is considered one of the greatest achievements of contemporary African-American dramaturgy. It is part of a series of works revealing the tragic experience of African Americans living in 20th century America (Wessling 124). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the significance of the play’s title as applied to different themes and characters of the play.

General Points

The title of the play directly intersects with the image of the fence, which is being built along with the development of the plot and evolution of the main characters. Curiously, the symbol of the fence is crucial for each character of the play. Initially, the reader cannot understand why Troy wants to build a fence. The author gives the audience the opportunity to answer this question autonomously. It is evident that the fence has a physical function; nevertheless, it also has a psychological connotation – this is a barrier that the father has built between himself and his family (Wessling 124). At the same time, the fence reflects Rose’s efforts to preserve what she values. The title is in the plural form to indicate the barriers existing between people on different levels.


The play’s title reflects the leitmotif of the plot – people erect a sensitive fence to protect themselves and their family members from the outside world that is often hostile. Simultaneously, by building such fences, they attempt to execute their control over other people, which also alienates them from each other. This way, a fence becomes something similar to a trap because driven by a deep internal feeling, individuals try to protect themselves and their loved ones from the circumstances they cannot control (Wills 50). As a result, they end up in an environment full of conflict. By building a protective fence, the heroes of the play attempt to secure themselves, but in the end, the only thing they have is disrupted relationships.

The symbolic meaning of the title is revealed immediately after the reader gets acquainted with Troy Maxson. This person is someone who loves his family and is eager to do everything he can to protect his wife and sons. Importantly, he is an individual with a particular worldview and someone who has wraith, but he considers himself helpless. He wants his children to have the things he could not afford and never to face the challenges he had to face (Blackburn 339). Troy decides to build the fence so that it becomes a physical barrier protecting his family from the outside world while he also wants to establish a secure psychological environment for his children. The father cannot think of how his sons could deal with the difficulties and inequalities he had to overcome.

The theme of racism is also transmitted through Troy’s character and the symbol of a fence. In particular, the father finds himself in a situation when a barrier existing between people of different races has a form of institutional racism. At work, white people were the ones who would do the driving; meanwhile, the colored ones had to do all the lifting. He is eager to break this inequality, so he poses this question directly. He then wonders: “They gonna fire me cause I asked a question? That is all I did…” (1. 1. 2825). It may be assumed that it would not matter if an African-American worker was better qualified for the job – a white employee would still be driving the truck.

Importance of the Symbol for Other Main Characters

However, fences are not a symbol with a strongly negative connotation; in fact, it is always a mixture of moods and attitudes. In the case of Rose, a fence for her is something similar to a love shield (Wills 51). The woman sings: “Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way” (1. 2. 2852). She strives for the feeling of security and wants to feel that her family is protected by a greater force. The mother needs to have a safe environment in which she will be able to take proper care of her family.

In contrast to the female character, Troy and Cory are sometimes reluctant to continue building the fence. It is important that Bono understands the difference between Troy and Rose at some point. As he puts it: “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all” (2. 1. 2908). For the father, the fence is a measure necessary for not letting other people in, while for Rose, the fence allows forming a secure area in which the family could be nurtured. The goal of the two heroes is to protect their sons, but their perceptions of how to achieve it are different.

Symbolism and Themes

Troy’s reluctance to finish the fence displays his poor commitment to his marriage, while Rose is eager to keep everyone together despite the difficulties faced. The reader may notice that the fence is being built throughout the play, and it is ready at the end. This process is so lengthy because Troy neglects his liability just the way he disregards his responsibility to be a loyal husband. Notably, he mentions that it is because of Cory, who is not always available for continuing the construction works. In his turn, Cory stresses that Troy “don’t never do nothing, but go down to Taylors’” (1. 3. 2864). The implication here is that Troy spends time with his mistress Alberta, and the fence becomes a symbol of not only infidelity but also some degree of indifference in regard to the family.

Apart from that, the fence is a symbol of a broken relationship between a father and a son. It is quite possible that the mother, Rose, asked her husband and son to build a fence in an effort to reinforce the connection between them. She might have noticed the growing distance and alienation between Troy and Cory, so their mutual effort could have reunited them. The fence could have become a symbol of a union if the plot had a different denouement. As was discussed earlier, for Troy, the fence is a barrier, which allows him to leave something out of his life. When talking to his father, Cory says: “Tell Mama I’ll be back for my things”, and the father reacts: “They’ll be on the other side of that fence” (2. 4. 2946). This dialogue puts an end to the bond between a parent and a child, building both a physical and psychological barrier between the two. The choice of words allows assuming that the child is no longer welcome in his father’s territory.

The significance of the title of the play may be analyzed on a deeper level as well. Closer to the ending, the father builds a fence as a measure to protect himself from Death. When his mistress dies in childbirth, he addresses Death, saying: “All right…Mr. Death. See now…I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side” (2. 2. 2930). It is clear that he understands that, one day, Death will come and take his life away as well as the lives of his family members’. However, he is ready to fight, and this eagerness to struggle is quite revealing (Blackburn 339). It implies that he thinks not only about himself but also about his loved ones.

Nevertheless, his attempt to shield his family from Death is not that important. What is more significant is the barrier between a father and son and the loss of connection between a husband and wife. When Troy’s newborn child is brought to Rose, she agrees to take care of the baby; however, she tells her husband: “You a womanless man” (2. 3. 2933). This has indicated that a fence between her and Troy will remain forever, and no effort from his side will be able to change that. The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that Rose wants to keep her family away from hardships and temptations using the fence, but all of that has been detected inside the family itself.

Further Points

Moreover, the title of the play symbolizes all the difficulties the main character, the father, has faced throughout his life. Troy grew up in a family with an abusive father. He did not come from a well-off family and had to live in poverty (Blackburn 339). Growing up, he became quite a promising athlete, but racism intrinsic to society did not allow him to become a professional player. As an adult, he gradually becomes more and more separated from his family by a multitude of different fences. However, the end of the play leaves the reader with an open ending. After Gabriel finishes his dancing, the audience may assume that Troy finally becomes free and finds forgiveness. After he dies, nothing prevents him from feeling harmonious, and nothing can disrupt his peace.

It should be stressed that the author of the play uses the symbol of a fence to indicate the multi-layered internal conflict inside the family and individuals (Blackburn 340). The title of the play is a direct reference to this idea. Everybody in Fences needs to overcome their own sins and barriers, while the literary device Wilson has used is simply a tool to drive the reader through the complex conflicts inside the reading. As the characters evolve, their fences either grow together with them or become less noticeable, but for every hero, a fence represents both love and hurdles of life.


Thus, it can be concluded that Fences by August Wilson is a play the parts of which require close reading. The fence the family has built together indicates something different for everybody. As the family was erecting the fence, people protected by it would become more and more distant from each other. However, when the work was done, the family would reunite again despite the losses experienced. The title of the play is a collective symbol of all the obstacles each member of the family had to face.

Works Cited

Blackburn, Regina Naasirah. “Erupting Thunder: Race and Class in the 20th Century Plays of August Wilson.” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 17, no. 1, 2003, pp. 339-358.

Wessling, Joseph H. “Wilson’s Fences.” The Explicator, vol. 57, no. 2, 1999, pp. 123-127.

Wills, Anne Blue. “Heroes, Women, Wives: Writing Other Lives.” Fides et Historia, vol. 49, no. 2, 2017, pp. 49-52.

Wilson, August. “Fences.” Literature: A Portable Anthology, edited by Janet E. Gardner et al., 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 2820-2963.

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