A Formalist Approach to Fences
In 1985, August Wilson published Fences, which was one of his ten plays that explained the experiences African Americans had in the United States at the time (Meyer 1516). The play focuses on the main character Troy Maxson’s life and the decisions that he has made. With the play focusing on Troy, it allows the reader to understand situations that African American men, women, and teenagers were facing during this time. Through a formalist criticism I will examine parts of the play that will provide analysis to symbols in the story.
In the beginning of the play, the reader is informed of how exceptionally well Troy played baseball and that he could not play professionally due to the fact that he was African American. This plays a crucial role later on in the play when his son Corey is being recruited for football and his father wants him to get a job. Troy talks about how the right fielder for the Yankees is hitting .269 and he hit .432 with thirty-seven home runs. He has also seen hundreds of African Americans play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. However, due to the fact that he drank every Friday after he cashed his paycheck it is possible that he could also be drunk at this point as he tells a story about meeting death and then another story about meeting the devil.
Before the story about the devil, Troy’s son from a previous marriage Lyons enters and asks his father if he can have ten dollars. Troy is annoyed with this because Lyons does not have a job and every Friday which is pay check day Lyons comes to Troy and asks for ten dollars. In the next scene, Troy is angered that Cory went to football practice instead of helping him out with the building a fence at their house. The reader is then introduced to Troy’s brother Gabriel. In the next scene, Corey explains to his dad that he is no longer working during the week at the A&P. This is because he has to attend football practice as football is what he is being recruited to go to college for. When Troy founds out about this he is furious and wants Corey to quit football and do something that his son can make a living at. This is because Troy himself could not make a living playing a sport and does not believe that his son can either.
Later in the play, Troy gets promoted to a garbage truck driver. He then reveals what his childhood was like with his dad and how he left home at fourteen. The main problem arises when Cory tries to get past his father because he is sitting on the steps and he doesn’t say excuse me. Both Troy and Cory start arguing with each other and Cory swings a bat at his father. As a result of this encounter Troy tells Cory to leave his house. The last scene starts off years later with Cory saying that he will not go to his father’s funeral. He does not want to go because he feels strongly that he has to say no to his father once in his life and this is a time that he can say no. However, after he spent time singing with his step sister Raynell he ultimately decides to attend his father’s funeral.
The play is set in 1957 and at this time African Americans were still experiencing the hardships that they had always dealt with, both social and economical. This is shown in the play where Troy has to work a menial job because of his lack of education and skin color, and because of this he doesn’t make a lot of money. During this time, African Americans had come a long way in the Civil Rights Movement. However, still had to deal with racism such as what Troy and Jim Bono have to deal with in the beginning of the play. Troy is having a conversation with his friend Bono and says “Hell, anybody can drive a truck. How come you got all whites driving and the coloreds lifting?” (Meyer 1519). This part of the play is emphasizing the hardship of African Americans being treated unfairly. It shows where they are doing the heavy manual labor and the Whites are simply just driving the truck. This is a symbol of not being appreciated, for what he had the ability to do and the fact that it was just overlooked because of the color of his skin.
Another symbol is aspirations of the future and this is seen both through Troy, Cory and Rose. Troy had his glory days when he played baseball in the Negro leagues up until he was in his forties. He did not play professionally because baseball was still segregated when he played and because of this he felt that he has not succeeded in life and all that was left for him to do was work his menial job and to provide for his family (Grant 10).
This leads to Troy’s relationship with Cory being damaged because what happened to himself earlier in his life. Cory is an outstanding football play and Troy does not want to recognize this because he was an outstanding baseball player, and that never provided any future for him. Troy feels that the same thing will happen to Cory even though Cory is being recruited by a college to play football. Troy tells Cory that he needs to get a job instead of playing football, but Troy fails to realize that times have changed and football can get Cory a better education and a better job. At this point of the story Troy is trying to put a fence around Cory’s future and keep him in the same position that he is in.
Using the same symbol of aspirations of the future Wilson uses Rose. “One often-overlooked aspect of Fences is the strength of Rose, Troy’s wife. A woman who has sacrificed everything she might call her own to try to make Troy happy.” (Grant 11). Rose is also fenced in by Troy. Troy continues to see another woman outside of his marriage with Rose, and Rose knows about it and I think that she is afraid to leave him because she would feel helpless without him. One day Troy tells Rose that the lady he is having an affair with is having a baby and he is the father. After hearing this, Rose is obviously disappointed but she decided to still stay with Troy despite the news. This is a symbol of the hopelessness of Rose, because even though she is a strong woman she feels that she has no other option than to stay with Troy.
The ending of the play is something that can be interpreted in many different ways. I feel that it is a symbol of transformation and forgiveness. “It is Troy’s capacity for gratitude and forgiveness that his son Cory must internalize on the morning of Troy’s funeral. After a seven-year absence, the young man has returned in his marine uniform, proudly wearing his corporal’s stripes. There is an aura of maturity about him but also a lingering bitterness–he refuses to attend his father’s funeral. Troy’s mother, Rose, articulates the deep truth that Cory does not want to face.” (Wessling) Rose tells Corey that he has some of his father in him, and after hearing this he refuses to believe it. Corey does not want to go to the funeral because he feels he has to say no to his father once in his life time, but after singing a song with his illegitimate sister he realizes that he should go and he will attend the funeral. I feel that at this moment in the play Corey transforms from being like his father to being a new person, since Troy did not like his father and Cory did not like his father but then he transforms out of that chain and forgives his father and attends the funeral.
August Wilson published Fences to provide a play that shows different meanings and symbols for situations that African Americans were facing at the time. Through a formalist approach it is clear to see that these are Troy’s job being a symbol of being unappreciated because of his skin color, aspirations of the future seen through Troy, Corey and Rose, and transformation and forgiveness is seen when Corey attends his father’s funeral. Work cited
Gantt, Patricia M. “Putting Black Culture On Stage: August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.” College Literature 36.2 (2009): 1-25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.
Meyer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing : Resources for Teaching. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.
Wessling, Joseph H. “Wilson’s Fences.” Explicator 57.2 (1999): 123. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 May 2012.