In his play Fences, the playwright August Wilson presents audiences with a family at the cusp between complete segregation and the civil rights movement, and between demoralization and stability. The family of garbage worker Troy Maxson is attempting to advance from the hopeless poverty of his childhood and Rose’s confused family relationships. This family is trying to make their way in a world still largely set against African Americans (Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand).
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They are trying to create a stable family, in the face of a history of deliberate destruction of the families of enslaved people. They do not always succeed, although, by play’s end, there is a promise for success in the next generation. One continuing symbol of their efforts to achieve some measure of status in their community is the fence that Troy intends to build at the start of the play. The fence can affirm Troy’s ownership and the stability of the family.
The fence is a barrier against the intrusion and oppression of racism and serves to exclude the rebellious son, as well. The fence appears in the gospel song that Rose sings to herself, as a symbol of the spiritual protection that she seeks and hopes to acquire. Fences, both in the title, and in the dialogue of the play, serve to retain respectability and what passes for normality in a heavily segregated society, and to keep out the forces that threaten that respectability – the oppression of racism, lust, filial disrespect, and other evils.
Alan Nadel, in his essay entitled “Boundaries, Logistics, and Identity: The Property of Metaphor in Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” points out that the notion of a fence is tied up with, “the idea of property” and “giving propriety” (Nadel).1 As Nadel reminds the reader, in the Western world, there is a long tradition that building a fence around something confers ownership (Nadel 86).
Troy is perhaps trying to build a fence, weekend by weekend, at Rose’s urging, to assert his ownership over his home and family that he, and especially Rose, value so dearly. We know that Rose cherishes her family because Rose expresses her ambition that, “I never wanted any half nothing in my family” (Wilson, Fences Act 2, Scene 1). She wants to keep this wholeness, this propriety, and to accomplish this, she has striven to be, “everything a wife could be” (Wilson, Fences Act 2, Scene 1).
As Bono puts it, “Rose wants to hold onto you” (Wilson, Fences Act 2, Scene 1). Thus, the fence demarcates the property that Troy has acquired (albeit with the help of his brother Gabriel’s disability payment) and the family that Rose has created with Troy (Wilson, Fences Act 2, Scene 5).2
This fence is also intended in some way to keep at bay the intrusion of the racism that he deplores at his job. Nadel asserts that this fence is part of Troy’s “struggle to internalize the Mason-Dixon line (Nadel 89)”. Outside the fence, Troy chafes at being assigned the less desirable jobs solely based on his race (although he does not have a driver’s license) (Wilson, Fences Act 1, Scene 4). He protests how unfair it is that he could not play baseball in the white leagues, saying, “If you could play, they ought to have let you play” (Wilson, Fences Act 1, Scene 1).
Inside the fence, however, he can be the breadwinner, husband, and father. He even has authority inside the fence, including to kick his (in his opinion) disrespectful son and belongings out, saying, “They’ll be on the other side of that fence” (Wilson, Fences Act 2, Scene 5). For Troy, the fence is a way of “reclaiming ground” in the same way that Wilson himself hopes that African American theatre will reclaim the ground lost in centuries of oppression (Kushner).
Fences have a religious and spiritual symbolism in the play Fences, for example, as expressed by Rose. Wilson has Rose sing a gospel song to herself, providing what the playwright, as quoted by Murphy, calls, “an emotional reference for the information” (Murphy). The hymn asks,
“Jesus be a fence all around me every day.
Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way”. (Wilson, Fences Act 1, scene 2)
She sings this after she and Troy have shared what is presumably a steamy Friday night together. Troy, after a trying week, has declared, “I’m gonna drink just enough so I can handle it” (Wilson, Fences Act 1, Scene 1). He has also announced that he will be “still stroking” Rose come Monday morning (Wilson, Fences Act 1, Scene 1). Rose’s hymn pleads for protection against sin and temptation so that it may seem an odd choice after all this enthusiastic marital activity.
However, as David Arnold asserts, “Wilson often uses music to signify the presence of something numinous or spiritual” (Arnold 200). As a committed Christian, Rose could be concerned that her love for her husband could distract her from loving God. Additionally, perhaps the very happiness that she feels right then seems to require supernatural protection from external threats. Rose’s defensive impulse could be a foreshadowing of the destructive intrusion of extramarital lust and adultery into her marriage.
There is a rich heritage of symbolism associated with fences, walls, and gates that Wilson is tapping in the title and the body of the play. They play many roles. As Bono says, “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in” (Wilson, Fences Act 2, Scene 1).
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The fence in this play is a symbol of Troy’s manhood as a husband and father in a racist nation, an effort to keep their family and property together, and a symbolic appeal to God to keep out sin and evils. How successful these efforts are depends on how Lyons, Cory, and Raynell all manage in the new era that follows Troy and Rose’s lifetime.
Arnold, David L. G. “Seven Guitars: August Wilson’s Economy of Blues.” Elkins, Marilyn. August Wilson:A Casebook. Florence: Routledge, 2013. 199. Web.
Judaism 101. Halakhah: Jewish Law. 2014. Web.
Kushner, Tony. “Author Notes.” Program. Costa Mesa: South Coast Repertory Company, 2010. Web.
Murphy, Brenda. “A Review: Understanding August Wilson by Mary Bogumil.” MELUS 26.1 (2001): 256-258. Web.
Nadel, Alan. “Boundaries, logisitics, and identity: The property of metaphor in “Fences” and “Joe Turner’s come and gone”.” Nadel, Alan. May Alll Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Ed. Alan Nadel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. 86. Web.
Wilson, August. “Fences.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 12th. New York: Pearson, 2013. 1833-1883. Print.
—. The Ground on Which I Stand. New York: The Theatre Communications Group, 2001. Web.
1 This scholar may also be referring the notion often expressed regarding the Talmud, that the Talmud is a fence around the law of the Torah, preventing people from breaking one of the laws by mistake (Judaism 101). What is inside the fence of the law is protected both from people straying, and from people attacking it.
2 Wilson has expressed his feelings about the sacrifices that African Americans like the character Gabriel made in wartime as follows: “We left our blood in France and Korea and the Philippines and Vietnam, and our only reward has been the deprivation of possibility and the denial of our moral personality.” (Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand)