August Wilson’s the “Fences” Literature Analysis Essay
August Wilson, the author of the “social realist” drama Fences, gives audiences a glimpse into the life of an African American family trying to gain respect and respectability (Kushner). They are trying to accomplish this at a time when segregation was still nearly universal. The fences that appear in the title, and often throughout the drama serve to represent some of the challenges the family faces. Fences are rich in symbolic possibilities. They are barriers for property lines, for keeping livestock in, or predators out.
They segregate, exclude, protect, and even imprison. They also symbolize all the ways that this family tries to keep the things that threaten them out and their family unity in. Whether the fences that the family erects, both symbolically and physically, are successful in preventing the negative and promoting the positive, the audience remains uncertain.
The yard fence that sits unfinished at the beginning of the play is one example of this use of symbolism. It parallels the career in baseball that Troy Maxson wanted to pursue (Wilson, Fences Act I, Scene i). Like the fence, one of his major life ambitions remains unachieved for much of the play. It sits there, reminding him of what he has not accomplished. Unlike baseball, however, he finally builds the fence (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene iv). The problem of not achieving everything one hopes to in life strikes a nearly universal chord.
Fences also demarcate private property, which, in this instance, is a sign of the improved status of African Americans in the 1950s (Nadel 86). As Sanders notes, the symbol of the fence refers to the historically painful connection,” between property rights and human rights, for African Americans” (Sanders).
As August Wilson points out in his introduction to the first act, the northern cities that African Americans migrated to in search of a better life were only grudgingly welcoming and permitted the migrants only the lowest-paid jobs (Wilson, Fences Act I, Scene i).
Thus, although Troy could legally own home, he was able to acquire it only by appropriating a portion of Gabriel’s disability payment from the Army (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene v). Nonetheless, he is fiercely proud of, “his own house and yard that he done paid for with the sweat of his brow” (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene iv).
The fence, or his intention to build a fence in response to his wife’s request, represents his pride in what he has managed to accomplish as a man, a husband, and a bread-winner. He wants to demonstrate that he is strong and competent as a man, in terms of which he is capable of.
He is so committed to being a good husband, according to his own lights, that he describes his role as a husband as giving Rose everything, even “the lint from my pockets” (Wilson, Fences Act I, Scene iii). Part of being a good husband is his desire to fulfill his wife’s wish for the respectability of a fence, even though he comes home tired each evening.
The fence, as a long-established and highly visible marker of ownership, marks the territory in which he exerts authority (Nadel 86). This is the space in which he has the prerogative to say who can stay and who must go. This includes throwing his son Cory out (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene v). He even blusters at “Mr. Death” that he will, “build me a fence” and Death must, “stay on the other side” (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene ii), unsuccessfully of course.
Rose, in singing, “Jesus be a fence around me every day,” expresses a longing for God’s protection from evils around her and her family (Wilson, Fences Act I, Scene ii). This is an example of both August Wilson’s use of the song for what Murphy calls the “spiritual and metaphorical,” and direct symbolism of the image of fences (Murphy 257).
Rose desires a stable family life, seeking what Wilson called the “inherent values that are a part of all human life,” and which were often denied to African Americans (Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand). This is a step up for her because as Rose says, “I ain’t never wanted no half nothing in my family. My whole family is half.
Everybody got different fathers and mothers” (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene i). The fence she wants is supposed to help her, “hold on to you all,” and keep this sort of family disruption away, but it cannot keep Troy out of trouble after all (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene i).
Throughout the play, the image of Fences reappears to evoke ideas of all sorts of barriers. As Bono says, “Some people build fences to keep people out… And other people build fences to keep people in” (Wilson, Fences Act II, Scene i).
Fences, for Wilson, represent unmet ambitions, the achievement of property ownership, Troy’s commitment to marriage, his hard-won right to exert authority, Rose’s attempt to acquire spiritual protection, and an effort to preserve family unity. In its richness of meaning, the symbol offenses, both in the title and throughout the drama, evoke a moving range of ideas that bring the life and struggles of African Americans into sharper focus for the audience.
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. Web.
Sanders, Leslie. “Review of “May all Your Fences have Gates”: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. by Alan Nadel.” African American Review Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 151-154 (n.d.): 152. Web.
Wilson, August. “Fences.” Titleofcompilation. Ed. Editorsfirst name Editorslastname. cityofpublisher: Publisherofcompilation, Year. 1833-1883. Print.
—. The Ground on Which I Stand. New York: The Theatre Communications Group, 2001. Web.
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