Historical Background Behind August Willson's Fences
Life changing historical events like the Civil War, the Great Depression, both world wars, and the Civil Rights movement have helped to influence major literary movements. And these literary movements take a lot from then current world events that later influence and become major themes for their stories. Setting is incredibly important when trying to understand the overall themes and characters of a story. The setting can help to build background information, it can also help to set the tone and pace of a story. For example, in “Fences” by August Wilson, the themes in the book are heavily inspired by the cultural and social impacts and settings of that time. The story takes place before the civil rights movement, in the late 50s, and is centered around the Maxson household. Troy Maxson, the father in the play, is a frustrated trash collector and former baseball athlete. Who has been left bitter and disillusioned by the American Dream and its empty promises made for African-Americans. Troy often reflects the inability of human nature to consider and recognize social change. This play has many complex characters and themes, such as, the father and son dynamic between Troy and Cory, broken dreams, death and fences. The themes and characters are greatly impacted by the social construct of the 1950s.
One of the most prominent themes in the play is the father and son relationship. The bond between Troy and his dad was far more complex than anyone would ever have envisioned. Troy was heavily influenced by his relationship with his father, that the way he behaves towards his sons is a perfect mirror of the way in which he related to his father. Troy says that “sometimes I wish I hadn’t known my daddy. He ain’t cared nothing about no kids. (…) But I’ll say this for him…he felt a responsibility towards us.” (p. 50, 51). Troy was fourteen years old when he was forced to become a man and leave the confines of his father’s home. However, Troy is hypocritical because he tries to act on his kids, like Cory, the same way his father used to act towards him, despite talking so negatively about his father. Troy narrates how he and his mother left their father because they ‘couldn’t stand the evil that their father possessed’ (p.51). Troy’s recognition of his father’s faults but his failed acknowledgement of the similarities between the two, foreshadows similar consequences.
Eventually, with Cory and Rose leaving him. Troy and his father’s relationship is influenced by the times, because Troy’s father grew up in the 1800s after slavery was abolished, and for him to be raised in that environment ultimately influenced how he painted his children and how he showed affection to them. The relationship between Troy and Cory is more bitter and tense than with Troy and his father. Troy’s combative attitude stems from his past. He blames discrimination for stopping him from fulfilling his dream of playing baseball in the major leagues, and he can’t let go of that bitterness. Cory resembles the change that is happening in the late 50s, to which Troy begrudges in believing in. Cory is offered opportunities that his father was denied which is primarily the root cause of Troy’s resentment towards Cory. Cory breaks the cycle of the broken father and son relationship, by returning home to his father’s funeral. Troy never returned to his father after he had left.
Another major theme in this play, is Troy’s broken dreams. After Troy went to prison, he wanted to join the major leagues in baseball. However, Tory got denied the opportunity. When Troy got rejected, the civil rights movement was barely non-existent, it had little traction meaning African Americans were much more discriminated against. Nonetheless, during the time in which Cory was in high school, things slowly began to change. Rose tries to comfort Troy saying how “folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson” (p.9) for the doors to be open for African Americans. Troy rebukes with “if you could play…then they ought to have let you play” (p.10).
This idea of being born too early, infuriates Troy because this whole notion is what has stopped him from achieving his dreams and has made him stuck in a routine for the last eighteen years. The idea of the American Dream was ripped away from his fingertips purely based on the color of his skin. The lack of opportunities and freedoms given to the African American community in Troy’s generation, has left him in such a state of turmoil that he refuses to acknowledge the beginnings of social change. By his refusal, his resentment towards Cory grows which leads to his refusal of Cory playing sports which then goes to further highlight the divide and strain between the two. This theme is dependent on the setting because you can see the generational divide between Troy and Cory because of the civil rights movement. Which also goes in and ties back to the father and son relationship theme.
Troy’s job as a trash collector is another reminder of his broken dreams. Troy works at the back of the truck with his friend, Bono, gathering trash. Usually, white people would drive the garbage trucks while black people would have to collect garbage. Troy demanded to his boss as to “why you got the white men’s driving and the colored lifting” (p.2). Everyone at work assumed that Troy would get fired for bringing that up, instead it actually led to Troy winning the complaint and getting to drive the trucks. However, it is soon revealed that Troy doesn’t even have a license, meaning he never fully expected to win the complaint. Troy fighting for his right to drive was based primarily on principle, but him winning the objection was a sign that the social and cultural environment was slowly changing.
Another major theme in this play, is mortality or death. Throughout this story, death is symbolized and personified, it can be inferred that death is symbolic to the failed American dream that Troy was never able to attain. Troy fighting with death can be seen as his tribulations against the failed promises handed to him. Death can also represent the barriers keeping Troy from his happiness. These obstacles and barriers kept such a hard grip on Troy’s life that he was never able to outrun them. When Troy first got pneumonia he was “laying there with a fever talking plumb out of his head” (p.11). Troy almost losing the battle against death, but in the end winning, made him feel fearless. In a way, Troy likes fighting with Death because it reminds him of his father, poverty, and his broken dreams, which ultimately fuels his fire to keep going. Not because he believes the times have changed, but because the ulterior option is death itself and Troy has lived through too many personal hells to willingly accept Death’s fate.
The idea of fences in this story has many different and important cultural and social metaphors. One thing fences symbolize is the picket fence every white American family had in their nice, and safe suburban neighborhoods. This theme is influenced in regards to setting because during the fifties, the ideal American family had a two story house with a white picket fence surrounding it; it also resembles the idea of the perfect american family made from the American Dream. Rose wants Troy to put up the fence because it resembles the idea of a safe neighborhood, like white suburbia. Rose also wants to protect her flock, she is incredibly maternal and protective of her own. For example, Rose encourages Troy to meet with Cory’s football recruiter and she implores Troy to loan some cash to Lyons.
Also, by insisting that Troy and Cory both work on the fence, she forces the two to bond and try and strengthen their relationship. Troy doesn’t understand why Rose wants a fence so bad, until Bono points it, “Some build fences to keep people out … other(s) build fences to keep people in” (p.61). For Troy, the fences represent the opposite compared to Rose. For him, the fence can keep people out like how he does with his own family. Troy understands the responsibility of making sure his kids have food and are taken care of but not emotionally. The fences also represent Troy’s desire to keep Death out of his life, by creating a barrier. Another symbolic metaphor the fences represent are the obstacles that African Americans faced during the early 20th century. Troy grew up in a time where his dream was crushed by the fences put up to stop him and his opportunities. While the world is changing, and the obstacles are slowly coming down, giving way to greater opportunities to Troy’s children, Troy refuses to acknowledge the social shift in society.
The play raises doubt about whether the American Dream is truly achievable, and assuming so, maybe it is only feasible for a specific group of people. One of the main takeaways of the American Dream is that anyone who puts in enough work is able to move up the socioeconomic ladder. However, the American Dream is considerably more attainable for a privileged person who isn’t discriminated against based on the color of their skin. For African Americans, that blueprint for success has less desirable results. When Troy was at his prime in baseball, he says that his path to the major leagues was hindered by segregation. The rejection faced from the major leagues, made Troy turn to a low-paying job with a growing. The American Dream was not a plausible actuality for Troy’s generation. It only started to become a reality for Cory’s generation, and Troy’s bitter heart leaves him unwilling to help Cory achieve his own dream.
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