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Analysis of Fences by Wilson Completed by: University of This paper analyzes and discusses the play by August Wilson titled Fences, mainly its characters, major themes, dialogues, and social issues that are drawn upon by the author. Wilson wrote Fences in 1983 not only to address his society concerns but also to prove to himself that he could raise a single character to a much grander scale. Initially he had no plans to write this riveting domestic drama, which ultimately won the most honors of any play in Broadway history, including a Tony for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, having already completed Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Jitney!, he had intended to follow his own strategy, which was next to write Joe Turner's Come and Gone and then go on to complete The Piano Lesson. But Wilson listened to the advice of his circle of theatre professionals who encouraged him to bring some variety to the then well-populated and unwieldy patterns of construction familiar from Jitney! and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Fences is situated at a juncture when what's left of an old guard is dying away, thus making room for a new order. During the eight-year span of events in the play, the characters experience the impact of several important historical events to which they adapt or of which they become frustrated victims. Although the play proper begins in 1957, Troy's recollections reach as far back as the 1900s when he struggled under the cruel authority of a sharecropper father who was himself a product of the Reconstruction era. As soon as Troy came of age, he became part of the steady trickle from southern farmlands to northern cities. The play opens as two middle-aged black men make their way home to celebrate another week's end. Troy Maxson and his friend Jim Bono collect garbage for a living. For eight hours a day, they bend, they stoop, and they hoist cans of refuse to the waiting mouth of a huge trash compactor. As he has done each Friday evening, Troy hands over his weekly paycheck to his wife, Rose, who manages their home.
Troy and Jim tease each other and look forward to another weekend away from the mental and physical pressures of their jobs. But Troy cannot put the pressure of his job behind him. Because he continues to witness blatant discrimination on his job and in other aspects of his daily existence, he harbors a deep-seated disgust for the racism of his country. For example, he fumes over the fact that all of his coworkers who lift garbage cans are black, and all who drive the trucks are white. But garbage collecting is one of the few professions now open to Troy. Although a top-notch baseball player during the Negro League's heyday, by 1957, he is too old to play on a desegregated Major League team. These feelings of being passed over change Troy into a man obsessed with extorting from life an equal measure of what was robbed from him. Despite a seemingly loving and passionate relationship with his wife, Troy finds the "big-legged Florida gal," Alberta, irresistible. He is drawn into a physical relationship with her--one that produces their love child, Raynell. After Alberta dies in childbirth, Troy is left to raise the baby girl but finds that his only recourse is to plead with Rose to care for the motherless infant. Rose accepts this responsibility heroically, but at the same time she drives Troy away from her. Troy's massive ego affects his son Cory as well. In tense dramatic episodes, Troy and Cory clash over the boy's plans to become a football player. When Cory is convinced by high school coaches that he has a future in football, he is quick to quit his afterschool job at the local A&P. Troy, who has other plans for Cory's future, secretly discourages an interested recruiter from scouting the boy's talents. The play ends in the 1960s, a decade that will bring significant changes for African Americans. The final scene takes place on the day of Troy's funeral: one of his favorite concocted stories about doing battle with the grim reaper has caught up with him, and he has died while batting the rag doll he tied to a tree in the yard.
Previously alienated, the family members respond to Troy's death by tightening their communal bonds at this solemn occasion, and Rose gently convinces her prodigal son Cory to tear down the fences that have long existed between father and son. Troy dies a lonely man, but with at least the hope that his son Cory would rise above the racism that had made him so bitter. For much of the play, he vividly recalls the hard life he was forced to endure because of the circumstances black men faced in America. Like many other naive ex-farmhands, Troy was surprised at what the North had to offer: "I thought I was in freedom. Shhh. Colored folks living down there on the river banks in whatever kind of shelter they could find for themselves.... Living in shacks made of sticks and paper" (Wilson 54). According to Wilson, the city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges (Tallmer C4). Cory personifies a new wave of optimism, but he must first confront and overcome the potentially emasculating dominance of two previous generations of Maxson men. Faced with a father who has grown to regard him as "just another nigger on the street" (F 87) and memories of a grandfather who sired children to be field hands, Cory is the hope of a new generation of black men. His unbridled enthusiasm about the possibility of attending college on a football scholarship suggests that he does not yet suffer from the defeatist attitudes that plagued the Maxson men before him. While Troy considers Cory's job at the A&P to be a fitting beginning to a future of similar work, Cory has his sights on much greater goals. As was the case with each of his previous history chronicles, Fences, set in 1957, grew out of Wilson's desire to revisit the past in an effort to reexamine the behavior of blacks in various conflicted positions. Yet unlike Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences does not hearken as far back as Africa. Instead, the play presents a portrait of three generations of black men whose roots converge in a brutish sharecropper of the Reconstruction era.
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His son, Troy Maxson, is a pivotal force; he is a fifty-three-year-old garbage collector of the late 1950s who still can recall ugly images of life under the iron rule of a frustrated, defeated father of the early 1900s. At the same time, Troy tries the best way he knows how to direct the course of his own son's life away from the negative influence of the boy's ancestors. Here, Wilson is concerned with a more immediate cultural heritage--one that involves voices from the past not as far removed as one's African ancestors but relatives who exist more immediately in the mind's eye. Fences typifies Wilson's belief that "you should start making connections to your parents and your grandparents and working backwards. We're not in Africa anymore, and we're not going back to Africa. You have to understand your parents and understand your grandparents" (Watlington 106). Apparently, by promoting the wisdom of living ancestors over that of one's African kin, Wilson makes more practical his admonition to today's black youth to sustain the African continuum. For Wilson the drama of Fences is very much his own drama. The central conflict between father and son mirrors the difficult relationship between him and his stepfather, David Bedford, who died when Wilson was twenty-four. Only following Bedford's death, after the two had been at odds for some ten years, did Wilson discover that this man had been genuinely concerned about him and not just determined to hassle him about his decision to quit his high school football team. Wilson was stunned to learn Bedford's past. Wilson had an even more unstable relationship with his German biological father, Frederick Kittel, who had little to do with Wilson's mother, his sisters, brothers, or him. Thematically, however, the most important parallels between Wilson's memory and Fences' conflict are the eventual epiphanies that both Wilson and Cory experience about their fathers' integrity.
Both of these young men mature to some extent when they learn the entire scope of their fathers' actions and are led at least to understand the many reasons for the older men's callous behavior. Troublesome relationships between fathers and their sons are aired often enough in Wilson's plays that drawing parallels between them and the rifts that separated him from his own father and stepfather becomes inevitable. In both Jitney! and Fences, for example, father figures Becker and Troy Maxson are fiercely proud of their so-called paternal responsibility, yet they both are ashamed of sons who choose not to follow their fathers' examples. Although Cory's failure to hold his job at the local A&P and his ambitions to play college football in no way match Booster's homicide conviction, in their fathers' estimation the sons are both major disappointments. Fences explores the chemistry between black men--between fathers and sons, between brothers, and between lifelong friends. The most predictably turbulent relationship in the play is between a black man and his son. This historical pattern of polarized father-son relations within the black family is reflected in several other domestic dramas. At the center of the dysfunctional Hamilton family is a father so disgusted with having to provide for his offspring that he unwittingly poisons them against him and drives them to murder and prostitution. Unlike Troy, however, Noah has legitimate reason to be disgusted with his only son, who robs a supermarket, mutilates its owner, and finally murders him. Still, the play implicates Noah as the primary cause of his children's destruction.
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