conflicts between the father Troy and his son, Cory throughout the play. Using baseball analogies and terminology, “Fences” tells the story of two men, one struggling to care for his family and the other one growing up to become his own idea of a man. Cory, the son, suffers “three strikes” according to his father, and is sent away to live on his own. In the “first strike,” Cory shows his father he can be a man, in the “second strike,” Cory shows his father he can fight, and in the “third strike,” he is sent out of the house, never to see his father again. Each strike widens the gap between father and son, ensuring that they will never reconcile or forgive one another for their behavior.
Critic and interviewer David Savran sums up Wilson’s play this way, “Wilson’s 1950s play, Fences, an examination of the nature and dynamic of inheritance, is his most structurally conservative work, centered upon the steadily escalating conflict between Troy Maxson and his teenage son, Cory” (Savran 289). The conflict begins with Act One, where Troy and Cory face off about Cory’s desire to play football. Troy thinks he is doing the best thing for his son by banning him from playing football, because he does not want him to believe he can make a living by playing the game. Things come to a head at the end of the fourth scene in Act One, when Cory accuses his father of being fearful his son is actually better at sports (and indirectly life), than he was. Cory says, “Just cause you didn’t have a chance! You just scared I’m gonna be better than you, that’s all” (Wilson 58). Cory sees his father’s weaknesses, but he cannot accept them, because he is still a boy that wants to look up to and respect his father. However, his father is now stepping in and altering his dreams, and Cory cannot deal with that. At the end of this scene, Troy calls a “strike one” on his son, telling him, “You swung and you missed. That’s strike one. Don’t you strike out!” (Wilson 58). He is in turn warning his son not to cross him again, and also referring back to his own dreams of playing baseball in the big leagues, which never happened because he went to prison. He is also telling Cory that he is trying desperately to take care of his family, and does not want any dissention from his children (or the rest of his family, for that matter). Earlier he says, “It’s my responsibility! A man got to take care of his family” (Wilson 38). This is the very heart of the play and how it relates to Troy’s family. While he is inconsistent in his affair and his treatment of his son, he is resolute about his ability to take care of his family, no matter what it takes. He thinks he is taking care of his family by forbidding Cory to play football, but in reality he is simply driving a wedge between he and his son, and making Cory resent him and ultimately rebel against him.
In the second act, at the end of Scene one, Troy and Cory fight over Rose and the knowledge that Troy has had an affair and fathered a child with another women. Cory hits his father, but ultimately loses the fight. Troy calls strike two on him, saying, “Alright. That’s strike two. You stay away from around me boy. Don’t you strike out” (Wilson 72). Cory is only one strike away from being “out” in baseball terminology, and every strike drives him further away from his father. The two form an uneasy truce, but Cory never forgives him for taking away his dreams, and he can never find any closeness of warmth from his father. Troy is selfish and self-centered, and while he may be concerned with taking care of his family, he shows it in paradoxical ways, such as taking in his newborn baby when his mistress dies in childbirth. He drives the family apart, and in the end, it is really Troy who faces “strike three” and is called out in his own home. He thinks he has control, but when he brings home the baby, he loses the love of his wife, the respect of his children, and even his longtime friendship with Bono. He ruins everything, which is a clue to his character and what he has passed on to his children in regard to character and principle. Playwright Wilson says of Troy, “Troy’s flaw is that he does not recognize that the world is changing. That’s because he spent fifteen years in a penitentiary” (Savran 299). He also cannot recognize that his son is changing and growing older. Strike two signifies that Tory realizes that Cory is growing older and he will not always be able to impose his will on his son. Again, he thinks he is helping him, but in reality, he is simply driving him further and further away with his actions. It is clear by this point that the conflict between father and son is not going to end, and that something important or monumental is going to happen between the two men before the end of this play.
In the final strike, Troy never calls Cory “out,” he does not have to. He sends Cory away, presumably to help turn him into a man, but deep in his heart, he may fear Cory, and fear he will become more of a success than Troy has been – thus more of a “man.” He says to Cory, “You a man. Now, let’s see you act like one. Turn your behind around and walk out this yard. And when you get out there in the alley… you can forget about this house. See? Cause this is my house” (Wilson 86). After that, Troy has totally rejected Cory and sees him as “just another nigger on the street” (Fences 87). This rejection is tragic, because it replays events in Troy’s own life, and indicates that he has not been able to learn from his own experiences. Instead of passing on a better legacy to his son, he continues the legacy of rejection and misunderstanding that his father gave him, and it has cost him a continuing and warm relationship with his son. Cory leaves, and the two do not meet again. The symbolism of the fence in the front yard is hard to ignore here. Throughout the play, Cory and Troy have worked on the fence together. The fence now symbolizes the rift between the two characters. While they could have formed a strong bond by building the fence together, instead it drove them further apart. The image is complete when Troy tells Cory he will put his things on the other side of the fence for him to pick up. He is not to enter the house again, and the fence is the final element that separates them, literally, from one another. Cory enters the Marines, although Troy does not know this, and the two men will never see each other again. Troy dies, and it takes his death for Cory to really understand the complexities of his father.
In summary, “Fences” is a moving story about the strained relationship between a father and son. It is also a look at how a young black man grows up in America, and what helps create and mold his ideals and dreams. Cory is basically a good young man, who is constantly driven to the breaking point by his overbearing father. Troy is not an evil man, but he makes poor choices and then does not know how to alter them. He grew up in conflict with his own father, and yet passes the same legacy to his son. Cory at first refuses to attend his own father’s funeral, but his mother convinces him that will not make him any more of a “man.” In fact, allowing himself to be so stubborn and unforgiving is just like his father, so he is more like his father than he might care to admit. It takes Troy years, but he finally comes to terms with his relationship with his own father, and begins to give up his feelings of anger and hatred. He says, “I got to the place where I could feel him kicking in my blood and knew that the only thing that separated us was the matter of a few years” (Wilson 53). The reader can only hope that someday, Cory will have the same revelation, and when he does, he will do things differently when he has his own son. As the two brothers talk before the funeral, they say, “You gotta take the crookeds with the straights. That’s what Papa used to say” (Wilson 94). Hopefully, that will help them move on with their lives and forgive their father for his transgressions. If not, they have not learned anything useful from Troy, and that would be tragic. Troy had his flaws, but he did what he had to in order to raise his family and take care of them, and hopefully Cory will be strong enough to recognize this in the future.
Jacobus, Lee a. The Bedford Introduction to Drama, Fourth Edition.
Savran, David. “Interview with August Wilson.” In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1988. 288-
Wilson, August. Fences. New York: New American Library, 1987.
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