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Fences | Study Guide

August Wilson

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Fences | Symbols



Throughout Fences baseball is a complex symbol of fair play, injustice, and freedom. Troy spent years in prison as a young man because he killed someone in self-defense. While in prison he learned how to play baseball. The baseball field was the one place where Troy truly excelled, and the rules were clear. Despite Troy's immense talent, his dream of playing in Major League Baseball, which would have provided him fortune and fame, was denied—either because of the color barrier or because he was too old when he got out of prison, or both. This disappointment shaped Troy's later life and caused him to have a love-hate relationship with baseball and other sports.

When trying to express himself, Troy often uses baseball terminology. During the climax of the play, when Troy confesses to Rose about his affair with Alberta, he uses baseball language to describe his actions. When describing how his mistress makes him feel, he says, "I just might be able to steal second." He contrasts this with the past 18 years, which he feels he has spent standing on first base. The baseball terms symbolize daring and freedom versus stability and safety.

Baseball symbolism also describes Troy's relationship with his son. In this case Cory is in the batter's box and Troy is the umpire. As the issues with Cory boil and eventually explode, Troy describes each incident as a strike and the final blow-up as a strikeout. The final incident between the two literally includes a baseball bat. Troy's handling of his relationship with his son is arguably his biggest mistake in the play. His anger and frustration, initially caused by his failure to join the major leagues, blinds him to his son's needs and the changing times.

When Troy talks about his glorious past, it involves baseball. Both Bono and Lyons recall Troy's prowess on the field, both in the prison league and the Negro Leagues, where Troy was apparently playing when he met Rose. It is the time when he was most alive and full of hope. Baseball, however, is also part of Troy's downfall, and it comes to symbolize his mistakes as well.

Mr. Death

Death is personified in Fences. It is a presence throughout the text and looms over the action. Troy first mentions Mr. Death when describing a battle he had with pneumonia. He said, "What you want, Mr. Death? ... You done brought your army to be getting me?" In this early scene, Troy seems all powerful. His family and friends listen to his stories and look up to him.

But death continues to loom. Troy recognizes death is ever-present and says, "Ain't nothing wrong with talking about death. That's part of life. Everybody gonna die." In several scenes Troy addresses Death personally. He insists it stay away or be ready to fight. Troy declares he will build the fence not for Rose but to keep Death out.

As the play continues, Troy's all-powerful image begins to crumble, leaving the character vulnerable to death. Here, the symbolism of death is intertwined with that of baseball and the three-strikes rule. First Alberta dies in childbirth. After her infant daughter's acceptance into the Maxson family, things stabilize. Death strikes again, however, when the altercation occurs between Troy and Cory. When Troy's relationship with Rose withers, he has a third strike against him. Finally, Mr. Death arrives and takes Troy himself.

Troy's vigilance is no match for Mr. Death. The epic battle was one Troy could win as a young and exceptionally strong man. His vitality contrasts with that of his brother, who was grievously injured in World War II. But inevitably, as Troy ages, death takes its toll.


Rose loves her family. She wants to keep everyone together and plays peacemaker to achieve this end. The fence she wants Troy and Cory to build around the yard symbolizes her goal. Troy and Cory can't understand why she wants the fence, but Bono can. He says to them, "People ... build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on ... She loves you." Troy and Cory's inability to understand why they need the fence is what makes it all the more necessary. The two most important people in her life do not see their house as a loving one and are aching to get out.

The one civil conversation Troy and Cory have is when they begin working on the fence. While building the fence, Cory tells Troy he should buy a television. Troy eventually agrees to form a partnership; if Cory can raise half the money for the television, Troy will match it. The fence-building project comes too late, however, and is not strong enough to hold the family together.

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