The Fence Symbol in ‘Fences’ by August Wilson

Very often in literature, authors use tangible objects as a symbol in order to represent an idea. In the play, “Fences”  by August Wilson, the characters’ lives progress throughout the building of a fence in Maxson’s family backyard. Throughout the play, the fence serves as a symbol; representing the metaphorical barriers main characters are building in order to protect themselves. Far from being a straightforward title,  “Fences”,  appears to be a complex symbol which summarizes the entire play and illustrates the conflicting desires of the Troy Maxson’s family members and the relationship between them.

First of all, the fence could represent the boundary Troy uses to separate himself from all people, ideas or things he does not want in his life.  This symbolism is conveyed in the last dialogue between him and his son Cory:

CORY.  Tell Mama I’ll be back for my things.

TROY. They’ll be on the other side of that fence. (Wilson 110)

From this dialogue, it appears clearly that Troy institutes the fence as the separation line between him and Cory.  After expelling Cory out from his house, Troy shows that he is the chief of the house by pointing out the fence as the boundary of his territory.

In his attempt to escape Death, Troy uses the fence as a symbolic shield intended to protect him. After Troy receives the information related to the death of Alberta, he cries out, “All right . . . Mr. Death. See now . . . I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side” (Wilson 77).

From this passage, one can see that Troy decides to build the fence to keep Death away from him. After he throws Cory out of his house because he says Cory “got the devil in him” (Wilson 87), Troy starts to taunt Death. Troy sets up a batting stance and begins to tease Death as he says, “Come on! It’s between you and me now! Come on! Anytime you want! Come on! I be ready for you… but I ain’t gonna be easy” (Wilson 89). This quote shows that Troy is somewhat feared of Death because he wants to get rid of everything related to Death, even his own son.

At the beginning of the play, Rose protects herself by singing, ‘Jesus, be a fence all around me every day. Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way’ (Wilson 21). By Rose signing this song, one can see Rose’s desire for protection. To Rose, a fence is a symbol of her love. Her longing for a fence signifies that Rose is willing to love and nurture her family within a safe environment. However Troy and Cory think the fence is a burden and they are reluctant on finishing Rose’s project. Bono indicates to Troy that Rose wants the fence built to protect her loved ones as he says, “Some people build fences to keep people out’ and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you?” (Wilson 61)

It also appears clearly from this passage that, the fence is a symbol here of the difference between Rose and Troy’s personalities. Being the dominant figure of the house, Troy considers that the fence is meant to keep something out. Bono tries to make Troy realize that the fence can have the opposite effect. It is possible that Rose wants Troy and Cory to build the fence in order to help her husband and her son in their relationship. Feeling the distance growing between them, Cory is trying to keep her family together. The fence building project is Rose’s attempt to reunite her family.

Lastly, the fence can be interpreted as the symbol of all the hardships Troy faces in his life. Troy grows up under the influence of his abusive father and faces poverty and homelessness.  Troy experiences racial injustice towards blacks and that keeps him from a promising career as a professional baseball player.  Troy’s past history fills him with resentment and is at the origin of the barrier that separates Troy from his friends and family.

August Wilson develops the symbol of a fence as a literary tool to help paint images in the reader’s mind in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences”. Characters are protected mentally and physically by the depiction of fences. Troy has a mental image of Death and his relationship with Death and continues to grow. Troy’s relationship with Rose also develops however with his betrayal it formulates into an unforgivable sin. As one reads this play, the reader can see the characters come to life. The various symbols of a fence portrayed by Wilson combine with his cultural descriptions to create a colorful and memorable experience for the reader.

Alexandre Koffi

Entrepreneur, space enthusiast, dreamer, cosmic messenger.

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