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August Wilson's "Fences"

Character and Setting Analysis

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Overview:

Arguably August Wilson's most renowned work, Fences explores the life and relationships of the Maxson family. This moving drama was written in 1983 and earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.

The protagonist, Troy Maxson is a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete. Though deeply flawed, he represents the struggle for justice and fair treatment during the 1950s. Troy also represents human nature's reluctance to recognize and accept social change. In the playwright's setting description, symbols connected to his character can be found: the house, the incomplete fence, the porch, and the makeshift baseball tied to a tree branch.

Origins of Troy Maxson:

According to Joseph Kelly, editor of The Seagull Reader: Plays, Troy Maxson is loosely based upon August Wilson's step-father, David Bedford. The following can be said about both men:

  • Talented, young athletes.
  • Unable to attend college.
  • Turned to crime for income.
  • Killed a man.
  • Spent decades in prison.
  • Married / settled down to a new life after prison term.

The Setting Reveals the Man:

The set description provides several clues to the heart of Troy Maxson's character. The play takes place in the front yard of Troy's "ancient two-story brick house." The house is a source of both pride and shame for Troy. He is proud to provide a home for his family. He is also ashamed because he realizes that the only way he could afford the house is through his brother (a mentally unstable WWII veteran) and his brother's disability checks.

Building Fences:

Also mentioned in the setting description, an incomplete fence borders part of the yard. Tools and lumber are off to the side. These set pieces will provide the literal and metaphoric activity of the play: building a fence around Troy's property. Questions to consider:

  • What does the act of building a fence symbolize?
  • What is Troy Maxson trying to keep out?
  • What is he trying to keep in?
Troy's Porch and Home-life:

According to the playwright's description, "the wooden porch is badly in need of paint." Why does it need paint? Well, in practical terms, the porch is a recent addition to the house. Therefore, it could simply be seen as a task not quite finished. However, the porch is not the only thing in dire need of attention. Troy's wife of eighteen years, Rose, has also been neglected. Troy has spent time and energy on both his wife and the porch. However, Troy ultimately does not commit to his marriage nor to the unpainted, unfinished porch, leaving each to the mercy of the elements.

Baseball and Fences:

At the beginning of the script, August Wilson makes certain to mention an important prop placement. A baseball bat leans against the tree. A ball of rags is tied to a branch. Both Troy and his teenage son Cory (a football star in the making - if it wasn't for his embittered father) practice swinging at the ball. Later on in the play, when the father and son argue, the bat will be turned on Troy - though Troy will ultimately win in that confrontation.

Troy Maxson was a great baseball player, at least according to his friend Bono. Although he played brilliantly for the "Negro Leagues," he was not allowed to on the "white" teams, unlike Jackie Robinson. The success of Robinson and other black players is a sore subject for Troy. Because he was "born at the wrong time," he never earned the recognition or the money which he felt he deserved - and discussion of professional sports will often send him into a tirade.

Baseball serves as Troy's main way of explaining his actions. When he talks about facing death, he uses baseball terminology, comparing a face-off with the grim reaper to a duel between a pitcher and a batter. When he bullies his son Cory, he warns him:

TROY: You swung and you missed. That's strike one. Don't you strike out!

During Act Two of Fences, Troy confesses to Rose about his infidelity. He explains not only that he has a mistress, but that she is pregnant with his child. He uses a baseball metaphor to explain why he had an affair:

TROY: I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job . . . I was safe. Couldn't nothing touch me. I wasn't gonna strike out no more. I wasn't going back to the penitentiary. I wasn't gonna lay in the streets with a bottle of wine. I was safe. I had me a family. A job. I wasn't gonna get that last strike. I was on first looking for one of them boys to knock me in. To get me home.

ROSE: You should have stayed in my bed, Troy.

TROY: Then when I saw that gal . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after eighteen years I wanted to steal second.

Troy the Garbage Man:

The final details mentioned in the setting description reflect Troy's later years as a hardworking garbage man. August Wilson writes, "Two oil drums serve as garbage receptacles and sit near the house."

For nearly two decades, Troy worked from the back of the garbage truck, along side his friend Bono. Together, they hauled junk throughout the neighborhoods and alleyways of Pittsburg. But Troy wanted more. So, he finally sought a promotion - not an easy task due to the white, racist employers and union members.

Ultimately, Troy earns the promotion, allowing him to drive the garbage truck. However, this creates a solitary occupation, distancing himself from Bono and other friends (and perhaps symbolically separating himself from his African American community).

The Pittsburg Cycle:

Fences is part of August Wilson's Pittsburg Cycle, a collection of ten plays. Each drama explores a different decade in the 20th century, and each examines the lives and struggles of African Americans.

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