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In The Literary Symbol by William York Tindall, symbol is defined as “the outward sign of an inward state” where ‘sign’ indicates a material object and ‘inward state’ refers to feelings, thoughts or a combination of the two (1955). As George Orwell used it, symbol refers to any substitution of character or construction that is intended to imply through strong connections characters and events occurring in the broader political world of the writer. As this concept is used in August Wilson’s play Fences, a combination of these approaches can be discerned. The play depicts the life of a group of people living in a small tenement building in Pittsburgh during a span of eight years from 1957 to 1965.
The main plot follows the life of Tony as he slowly builds a fence for his wife Rose, who feels the physical presence of the fence will help her contain the love of their little family and help keep them together. Tony is, in many ways, a progressive black man in an era before Civil Rights in that he helps pave the way for black men to obtain better employment positions. However, he is also a victim of his upbringing as he discusses with his oldest son. This causes him to build metaphoric fences that shut himself off from making meaningful emotional connections with those who should mean most to him. By naming his play Fences, the plural form of the word even though only a single physical fence is evident in the play, August Wilson brings attention to the symbolism of the fence itself as defined by Tindall while he also employs the wider political concepts of Orwell regarding the state of the entire race during this era.
One of the main activities holding the play together despite the long expanse of time that is covered in it is the building of Rose’s fence. At the end of Act 1, scene 2, Rose reminds Troy of the fence she wants him to build around their yard. This is an important element of the home front to her as the house with the fence around the yard signifies a step toward the middle class. That this was the case can be found in essays about women’s issues during this time period. According to Hewitt (2002), “in response to dramatic economic and political upheavals, they constructed white, middle-class ‘True Women’ as the gladiators at the gate, fending off the evils that accompanied the pursuit of wealth and power by bourgeois men and the expansion of cities, factories, and plantations that fed their success. Yet this was a warrior without armor taking her stand behind a white picket fence” (157).
The physical presence of the fence not only indicates an economic perception of a higher social status than those without fences, but also becomes a permanent reminder of the yard space that belongs to the family, highlighting the freedom they have gained. In Act 1, scene 1, Troy himself alludes to this upward economic motion as he jokes around about the possibility of Rose cheating on him and threatening to put a rooster in the back yard to keep the other men away from her. “Only thing is … when we first got married … forget the rooster … we ain’t had no yard!” (14). Although the family has achieved some financial success, for which Troy can take some pride, he is still resentful at the thought of the fence because of the work it represents and the way in which it serves to keep him locked within his own property rather than leaving him free to wander the neighborhood in whichever direction he chooses to roam. Throughout the play, Rose continues to push Troy to build the fence and it is only completed as Troy exits the play in death.
On a metaphorical level, the fence is seen as a symbol for keeping something beloved close and protected. It is Rose who continues to push for the fence, feeling it is necessary to protect her small family from the outside world. The fenced yard is reinforced as a symbol of the family’s status as well as the loving grace of God smiling upon them. However, the fence is also quickly recognized by the other characters as a means of trapping in the love and sense of family Rose has always struggled to maintain in spite of Troy’s contentious behavior. “Her desire to see it built becomes an openly symbolic issue that the characters comment on with insight and sadness” (Zinn, 2005: 1).
The idea that for Rose, a fence is something used to contain all the love and togetherness of an ideal American family is first introduced in the beginning of Act 1, scene 2 when she is found singing a song asking Jesus to protect her like a fence. It is again reinforced by Gabriel’s dream that the fence of heaven has Rose’s name marked clearly for entrance, highlighting the idea that Rose has nothing to fear from the construction of fences because they will be there to welcome her, protect her and provide her with a safe sheltered place in which to live her life in happiness and peace. Bono later explains Rose’s strong desire for the fence to Troy, telling him, “Some people build fences to keep people out. Others build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold onto you all. She loves you.” Unfortunately, this effort to keep things in for love, on its external level, appears the same action as that perpetrated by the white man in attempting to keep the black man contained as a means of domination.
For Troy, the metaphorical meaning of the fence is quite different from the ideas held by Rose. For him, it is a symbol of the many ways in which he has been prevented from living the life he should have been living simply because he was born a little too early. “Fences is baseball slang for the outfield wall that must be cleared for a home run. … Troy, who could clear the fences with ease on the field, feels trapped by them in his life. Sports, which held the promise of escape, instead fenced him in and swallowed him whole, and he attempts to take his family with him” (Zinn, 2005: 1). In completing the fence, he feels as if he will be trapped within the much smaller world of his wife’s home and family, never again to escape into the greater world he once dreamed of entering and that he hopes his sons will enter successfully.
In direct contrast to the motion his wife continues to push on him, Troy works as hard or harder at building up psychological fences to keep people out. One such fence is his affair with Alberta, which he sees as a means of achieving some of the excitement of his youth. This concept is hinted at when he describes his marriage to Rose as “living for eighteen years on first base.” When Alberta becomes pregnant and Troy has to confess to Rose, he does so in terms that indicate she should understand the difficulties he’s had in attempting to confine himself within another world’s contradictory and dramatically unfair rules while still managing to provide for his family (Thompson, 2007: 2). Unfortunately, a large portion of the reason Troy has been able to provide his family with a home and a yard has been because he has taken over the money the state gives to his brother as compensation for the brain damage Gabriel suffered in the war.
Troy also works to separate himself as much as possible from Corey, believing this is the appropriate way to launch a son into the world. Troy’s vehement rejection of Corey’s possible sports career is an example of the type of fence he is attempting to build between himself and the boy. Rose asks him, “Why don’t you let that boy go ahead and play football, Troy?” to which he responds, “I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don’t wish a thing else from my life.” Toward the end of the play, just before Troy’s death, he drives Corey from the house as a means of forcing him to get out on his own and support himself, to be a man, by closing the fence between them. Notice how the fence at the end of the play has finally been completed, the last obvious thing Troy did.
As is suggested by Tindell, the symbolism of the fence is thus related to the various psychological and philosophical understandings of life held by the characters involved in the play. What takes the play to the deeper level, however, is the way in which Wilson uses this symbolism to discuss issues that have been a fundamental aspect of black people’s lives since emancipation. Through this presentation of the various fences that function to contain and to separate, Wilson speaks about the fundamental issues being faced by black people throughout the country. “Throughout the play Wilson places Troy within the historical context of the Negro Leagues, allowing his character to echo the feelings of actual black ballplayers who were denied a chance to compete at the major-league level. Furthermore, by situating Troy within three of baseball’s mythic settings – the garden, the battlefield and the graveyard or sacred space – Wilson contradicts the idea of America as a ‘field of dreams’” (Koprince, 2006: 349). At the same time, whether one has been involved in the game of baseball or not, the common analogy drawn between baseball and the American dream serves to expand the metaphor out to the general public and resonates within the heart, addressing political issues through his symbolism in true Orwellian fashion.
Hewitt, Nancy. “Taking the True Woman Hostage.” Journal of Women’s History. Vol. 14, N. 1. 2002, pp. 156-62.
Koprince, Susan. “Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s Fences.” African American Review. Vol. 40, N. 2, (2006): 349-358.
Thompson, Jennifer. “The Coming of Age in August Wilson’s Fences.” Associated Content. Vol 389, (2007).
Wilson, August. Fences. (1987).
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Zinn, Dave. “Tribute to August Wilson: Breaking Down Fences.” Common Dreams Newscenter. (2005).
Tindall, William York. The Literary Symbol. Bloomington, IN: Columbia University, 1955.