The events of August Wilson’s play Fences revolve around the Maxson family. Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old African American man, struggles to provide for his family. He has experienced racial inequalities throughout his life, which has shaped his bitter and skeptical character. One of his most unfortunate experiences was that, although he was an excellent baseball player when he was young, he could not get into Major League Baseball because of racial segregation. This experience contributed to the main conflict in the play between Troy and his son Cory. Troy is involved in conflicts with every member of his family, including his wife, Rose, and both his sons, Cory and Lyons. In Fences, Wilson uses the conflict of Troy versus family to drive all the elements of the play, as evidenced by family conflicts over money, a college football scholarship, and Troy’s infidelity.
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The first family conflict in the play happens on Troy’s payday. Lyons, Troy’s son from the first marriage, comes to his father when Troy is talking to his friend, Bono, in the yard. Although Lyons says he has come to visit Troy because he happened to be in the neighborhood, Troy refuses to believe him: “You was in the neighborhood alright, nigger. You telling the truth there. You was in the neighborhood cause it’s my payday” (Wilson, 1986, p. 14). Lyons understands that his intentions are revealed and asks for ten dollars. This family conflict allows Wilson to introduce readers to Troy’s worldview and lays the foundation for further development of the play. From this scene, readers find out that Troy works hard as a garbage collector and finds this job decent because it allows him not to ask anything from anyone (Wilson, 1986). He also disrespects Lyons’ dream to become a musician because this occupation is not profitable (Wilson, 1986). Further in the play, Troy’s practical approach to life revealed in this scene leads to new family conflicts.
The major conflict that drives the plot is the one between Troy and Cory. It begins when Troy finds out that Cory has been recruited by a college football team and stopped working at the A&P. Troy says it is foolish to quit the job for the sake of football and argues that “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway” (Wilson, 1986, p. 35). Although Cory, Rose, and Bono try to persuade Troy that times have changed and it is now normal for black people to play football and basketball, he refuses to believe it. According to Gayen (2019), Troy’s rejection of a new reality stems from his experience of racial segregation. Troy believes that his son will be denied the opportunity of becoming a professional player just as he was; at the same time, he regrets not having such a chance in his youth (Gayen, 2019). Thus, the family conflict between Cory and Troy drives another conflict between Troy and society.
While Cory regards his father’s prohibition as a sign of his dislike of Cory, Troy acts out of his sense of responsibility. Troy says to his son, “A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house… sleep you behind on my bedclothes… fill you belly up with my food… cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you!” (Wilson, 1986, p. 38). As Nindita and Khoiri (2017) rightly point out, the father and the son should be friends, but it is not the case in the Maxson family. Although Cory wants to be close to his father, Troy sees him only as his subordinate who should obey him and who he should take care of (Nindita & Khoiri, 2017). Cory’s desire for his father’s affection resembles Wilson’s relationships with his father. Wilson’s troubled relationships with his father led him to break any connections to him and adopt his mother’s name. Something similar happened in the play when Cory left his family’s house and did not even want to come to his father’s funeral.
One more family conflict that drives the elements of the play is the conflict between Troy and Rose because of Troy’s infidelity. Wilson (1986) hints at Troy’s cheating on his wife at the very beginning of the play: “I see you be walking up around Alberta’s house. You supposed to be at Taylors’ and you be walking up around there” (p. 4). By the end of the play, Troy’s relationship with Alberta becomes disclosed. Alberta dies while giving birth to her child, and Troy brings the child to his house. Rose agrees to take care of the child but warns Troy: “From right now… this child got a mother. But you a womanless man” (Wilson, 1986, p. 79). According to Ibrahim (2016), Troy’s affair with Alberta is the most serious threat to the Maxson family. However, although this conflict creates a fence between Troy and Rose, it does not destroy their family.
In conclusion, all conflicts that are present in Wilson’s play, Fences, are driven by conflicts in the Maxson family. Through these conflicts, Wilson reveals the nature of the play’s characters, the impact of racial inequalities on them, and the effects of social changes taking place in the middle of the twentieth century. The conflict between the father and the son is likely to have its roots in Wilson’s own life because the author had a strained relationship with his father. It seems that, by his play, Wilson wanted to show that people can create imaginary fences not only to secure their family from the outside world but also to separate themselves from their family members.
Gayen, S. (2019). African American plights in post-war American society: An analysis of consecutive generations in August Wilson’s Fences. Middle Flight: SSM Journal of English Literature and Culture, 8(1), 164-174.
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Ibrahim, A. (2016). Staging “the ethnic family” in August Wilson’s Fences (1983) and Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash (1985). Annals of the Faculty of Arts, Ain Shams University, 44, 1-36.
Nindita, P. D., & Khoiri, M. (2017). Troy Maxson’s extroversion in August Wilson’s Fences. Litera Kultura, 5(3), 64-71.
Wilson, A. (1986). Fences. Plume.