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Fences | Study Guide

August Wilson

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Fences | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Why does singing a song with Raynell cause Cory to change his mind about going to Troy's funeral in Fences?

Rose does not accept Cory's decision to not attend Troy's funeral. While she understands Cory's anger, Rose explains Troy from her perspective, saying he gave Cory the best of what he had. Despite this explanation and encouragement, it becomes clear that Cory is going to the funeral only after he sings a song with Raynell. The song is one that each of them learned from their father, and which Troy learned from his own father. The fact that this song survives through the generations, in the face of Troy's struggles, is something of a miracle—as much as the "feet and bones ... that pumping heart" that Troy told Cory he gave him in Act 2, Scene 4. Sharing this symbolic legacy with his half-sister enables Cory to see that Troy did after all give the best of what he had, and Cory finally accepts Troy's limitations.

What is the significance of Gabriel's performance in Fences, Act 2, Scene 5?

At the beginning of the play Gabriel tells people that he is going to blow his trumpet, signaling St. Peter to open the gates of heaven for Judgment Day—the day of God's final sentence on mankind. For Gabriel that day coincides with Troy's funeral. But when Gabriel blows his horn nothing happens. Wilson's language in the stage direction for what follows is much more cryptic than usual. When the trumpet fails, Gabriel is "exposed to a frightening realization." He reacts to this "trauma" with a strange "dance of atavistic signature and ritual." (Atavistic here means "characteristic of a remote ancestor.") Then, lo and behold, the gates of heaven open. The play's finale is ambiguous. What has Gabriel realized? That Christianity has failed him? If so he recovers quickly, responding with an atavistic dance—that is, something that seems to come out of remote tradition—preslavery, pre-Christian?—and gets heaven to open up. Gabriel apparently has the ability to transcend reality, and he takes the family with him; not only Troy but everyone onstage seems free now to pass out of this world and into heaven. The fence that Troy meant to keep the Devil out of has come down in a big way. Perhaps Wilson is suggesting that freedom is found not by putting up fences but by opening gates. In passing through the gate, Troy and his family are moving simultaneously forward—with the new generation represented by Raynell, who is not tainted by her grandfather's demons—and back to a distant past, perhaps to a time before slavery and its legacy of pain.

How does Cory break the cycle of suppression between fathers and sons in Fences?

Until the final scene, Cory seems to be following the same pattern as Troy. He clashes with his bitter and overbearing father and ultimately leaves after a physical altercation. In the final scene, however, the cycle is broken. First, unlike his father, Cory actually returns home. In this way he acknowledges his past, which is part of the process of moving forward. His conversation with Rose, after the passage of time, allows him to see his father's actions as loving. The song with Raynell enables Cory to appreciate the good in his father. Finally, his decision to attend the funeral allows him to move forward by facing his father. Unlike Troy, who fenced off his feelings, Cory is willing to reach over the fence and confront his demons. Cory will not be burdened by his father's mistakes but instead learn from them and become a better man.

What is the significance of the play's title: Fences?

Fences are referred to throughout the play. While Rose wants the fence to hold her family together, Troy wants the fence to keep Mr. Death out. These different motivations for fence building give insight into the character of Rose and Troy. Rose is a loving person who wants to share a deep connection with the people around her. Troy is a damaged person who sees the world as a threatening place where one needs to always be on guard and ready to fight. This attitude ultimately pushes people away and leaves Troy emotionally isolated. Fences also symbolize the barriers that African American face. Troy grew up in a time when those fences or barriers were strong, and they destroyed his dream. The world has changed; the barriers are coming down, allowing Troy's children to have greater opportunities and the potential to achieve their dreams. Perhaps that explains why the last image in the play is not a fence but an open gate.

What does August Wilson's Fences say about the American Dream?

One of the key tenets of the American Dream is that anyone can move up the socioeconomic ladder through hard work. For African Americans that formula for prosperity has not always worked. Troy is a gifted baseball player. When Troy was at his peak, however, he says his path to the major leagues was blocked by segregation. Troy played in the Negro leagues, and he does not feel the same pride. He is stuck in a low-paying job and is able to buy his house only because of his brother's disability check. The American Dream was not a reality for African Americans in Troy's generation. It was starting to become a possibility in Cory's generation, but Troy's bitter experience leaves him unwilling to help Cory reach for his dream. The play ends on a positive note, as the young Raynell represents hope for the next generation.

What role does baseball play in the structure of Fences?

Baseball is the backdrop against which much of the action unfolds. Its rhythms and language inform the play's structure and the character's dialogue. Rose listens to baseball on the radio, and the characters talk about professional players like Jackie Robinson. Baseball is central to Troy's identity. He uses baseball terminology when describing his feelings. He tells Rose he feels stuck on first base, and that having an affair with Alberta felt like stealing second base. Baseball is also the source of Troy's disappointment. Because of his bitter experience with baseball, he tries to prevent Cory from pursuing his own goal in sports. The play is organized into nine acts just as a baseball game has nine innings. The conflict between Troy and Cory is structured around the image of a player at bat. Each of their first two confrontations ends in a strike; the final confrontation ends with Troy striking out, leaving home.

How does Lyons serve as a bridge between Troy and Cory in Fences?

Lyons's age literally places him in the middle of Troy and Cory. The similarities he shares with both Troy and Cory, however, make him a bridge between the two characters. Like Troy, Lyons grew up with only one parent present. Lyons is able to recognize and appreciate the struggles Troy went through when he started out on his own. He encourages Cory to talk to Troy about a job in Act 2, Scene 4; repeating one of his father's sayings in the next scene shows he can relate to as well as appreciate Troy. Like Cory, Lyons sees a world with increasing opportunities for African Americans. He believes that people should be able to pursue their dreams. Also like his brother, Lyons feels burdened by Troy's insistence on responsibility and lack of support for his dreams. Lyons gets along with both characters in part because he can relate to the perspective of each character.

At the end of Fences, in what ways does Troy deserve or not deserve to go to heaven?

Most readers will probably agree that Troy deserves heaven. After a rough start, he paid the price for killing in self-defense with a 15-year jail term, where baseball taught him about fair play. Like his father before him, Troy views providing for his family's basic needs as an absolute priority. Though he is unfaithful to Rose, he never fails to bring his pay home to her. When Raynell is born, Troy takes her in (and asks Rose to raise her) though he could have abandoned her or left her to Alberta's family. Troy believes he has been a good father according to his own values, which he tries to share with his children. He also helps take care of his brother, who acknowledges Troy's protection with affection. By his own measure, Troy believes he has done all he can. Although he says his father was evil, he seems to think he has treated those around him fairly. He may be forgiven for failing to show his family affection—and for seeking it elsewhere—since he never had a model for family love. When the gates of heaven open, it seems fitting that Troy should be allowed to pass through.

In Fences how is situational irony created by the fact that Alberta never appears on stage?

Because she plays such a pivotal role in the play, there is situational irony in the fact that Alberta never appears onstage. Instead, she acts as a remote device for magnifying the characters' conflicts. For Troy she is the illicit response to his dissatisfaction with life—his feeling of being stuck on first base. Her death represents another blow from the world, causing him to build a fence around his emotions with redoubled effort. For Rose and Cory, Alberta represents the other woman, the place where Troy goes to find the joy he can't find within his family. (No wonder Rose wants to build a fence around her yard!) Alberta is not all bad news, however. Her child, Raynell, represents a new hope for Rose.

What responsibility, if any, does Cory bear for the conflict with Troy in Fences?

The cycle of suppression that Troy and Cory are repeating stems from Troy's childhood and his experiences as a young man. His bitterness and fear cause him to suppress Cory's dreams. His inability to show affection, even when Cory asks whether he likes him, adds to the conflict between the two. Cory, however, is not blameless. Before he started playing football, he and Troy had made a deal about keeping up with chores and holding a job. Cory changes those terms without discussing it first with Troy. He tells Troy he will work at the A&P on weekends; when Troy finds out he quit even the weekend shift, he is understandably angry. Though selling Troy on football was never going to be easy, Cory bears some responsibility for making the conflict worse.

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