Fences | Study Guide

August Wilson

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Fences | Themes


Fair Play

The idea of fair play is a recurring theme in Fences. Troy was born into an unfair world, but by the time the play ends, things are improving. The play is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1957, squarely in the midst of the civil rights movement. Many date the beginning of the civil rights period to 1954, when the Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal" in Brown v. Board of Education. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The boycott ultimately led to the desegregation of buses in Montgomery and much of the South. In 1957, when Fences is set, the "Little Rock Nine," a group of nine African American students, began attending a previously all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The book ends in 1965, which coincides with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Through these years and beyond, the civil rights movement strove to establish fair play for all Americans, not just for whites.

Troy experiences fair play for the first time playing baseball in prison. While serving his 15-year sentence, Troy developed a major league–level baseball talent. By the time he got out, however, he was entering middle age. Around this time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. In Troy's mind Jackie Robinson is a lesser talent; the fact that he succeeded while Troy failed leaves Troy angry and embittered. Troy believes sports should value only ability. Baseball did not follow the rules of fair play, and this betrayal shakes Troy to his core and affects his views on life. His wife, however, repeatedly points out that Troy was simply too old for the major leagues by the time he was a free man.

Troy continues to fight for fair play, however. At work he fights a system that lets only white men drive the trucks, and he wins. But his deep-seated distrust of organized sports endures, and he refuses to let his son pursue a football scholarship. In a sense he denies his son the benefit of fair play by not letting him use his football talent to better himself.


Troy spends much of the first act talking about responsibility. When it comes to responsibility, Troy lectures his children about it, grudgingly praises his otherwise abusive father for it, and insists he lives his life by it. Readers cannot help but admire how responsible Troy seems, at first. After all he takes care of his family, providing a home and giving all his pay to his wife.

His inability to focus on anything but responsibility, however, strangles his relationship with his son. Rather than helping Cory achieve his own dreams, Troy insists his son follow the path Troy has chosen for him.

Furthermore, Troy hasn't always lived up to his own high standards. He has a criminal past, and he uses his brother's disability pay for his own benefit (and that of his family). He can feel alive and free only when engaged in an illicit affair. The pressure he places on himself and everyone around him to behave responsibly drives him to questionable acts.


A pattern of suppression, passed down from one generation to the next, manifests itself in the family. Troy's father suppressed his attempt to have fun with a girlfriend, so Troy escapes, lands in prison, and plays baseball. Although he feels let down by sports, believing his skin color kept him out of the major leagues, he, in turn, suppress his son's dream of using sports to get an education and a leg up in society.

Troy believes he is doing Cory a favor and giving him a brighter future. After all, his son will not suffer the same heartbreak he did. But Troy cannot see the world is changing; African Americans have better opportunities. Cory's best chance at success is to go to college. A football scholarship would provide a college education. This education would allow him to scale heights beyond what Troy has achieved. Troy suppresses Cory's dream through his own limitations.

Questions for Themes

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