Fences, by August Wilson, is a story enmeshed with conflict surrounding an African American family who lives in Pittsburg Pennsylvania in the year 1957. The center of the conflict seems to be the main character and head of household, Troy Maxson. Troy’s conflicts arise with his closest friend Bono, his son Lyons (from a previous relationship), his wife Rose and their son Cory. Each conflict that arises in the story lends a hand to the structure of the Maxson family and the inner/external conflicts that each character plays out.
Troy is the victim of living in a generation where there were limited opportunities for African Americans. Through his experiences he has formed his beliefs that African Americans will always have to struggle to survive and the only thing that they can do is stay practical and support their families the best they can. Troy’s conflicts arise because he imposes his views and beliefs onto his family and demands that they view life through his lens. This is in accordance to Dickerson (2013), which states, “Narrative therapists understand, that problems are produced through clients positioning in wider cultural stories or discourses” (pp. 103). In regards to Troy and his relationship with Lyons it is shown from their first encounter how strained their relationship is. Their relationship is strained due to the difference in outlooks that the two characters have adopted. Just as Troy is engulfed with memories from a generation were African Americans were treated poorly, Lyons is growing up in a generation where he views life as more of a place of opportunities for African Americans. Lyons is a struggling musician who feels that his music gives him a sense of belonging and purpose. Troy believes Lyons optimism to be blindness and that difference in beliefs further wedges a gap between the son and father relationship. Troy’s distrust in society creates a barrier between his relationship with Lyons and pushes him away. In addition I believe the disconnect between Lyons and Troy stems from the fact that Troy was in prison for the first 15 years of Lyons life. Lyons mentioned in the book that Troy didn’t know him and he didn’t raise him. Troy’s attitude towards his son is out of protection but comes across as ridicule and judgment, which doesn’t allow for Lyons to understand or want to further connect with his father.
When Troy was let out of prison he met Rose who became his wife. Throughout the book Rose exemplifies a character with the traits of understanding and compassion for Troy as well as for the other characters. Rose puts all her time, effort and faith into her husband and son (Cory), but is stunted when Troy reveals that he has fathered a child (Raynell) by Alberta his secret lover. Rose and Troy’s relationship, which seems to start out close, quickly turns distant almost to the point of emotional cut-off. This is in accordance with Nichols (1988), which states, “Any two people in a relationship go through cycles of closeness and distance” (pp. 145).
While Troy tries to explain that the affair occurred due to him wanting an escape from his life of stress and anxiety, Rose stands up for herself and finally realizes that all her time and effort has been wasted. What furthers the conflict between Rose and Troy is the fact that Raynell’s mothers dies and Troy asks for Rose to raise Raynell as her own. Raynell’s birth takes Troy and Rose’s stable relationship and destabilizes it. The triangulation that stems from Troy’s affairs leads to the emotional cut off that occurs between him and his wife. As a result Rose finds her strength in the midst of this conflict as well as forms a bond with Raynell. Being with Troy, Rose felt that she gave up her strength in order for Troy to have his and because of this situation she was able to find herself again.
The conflict in the story that I mostly identify with is the conflict between Troy and Cory. Cory is about 17 or 18 during the beginning of the story and has a passion for football. From the first encounter that is shown between Cory and Troy you get a glimpse of the relationship between the two. Troy’s parenting style is harsh and Cory is very passive. From early on in the story Troy is shown trying to teach Cory the importance of responsibility but his style of parenting and way of communication comes across so harsh that the message is lost onto Cory. Conflict arises when Cory wants to play football in hopes of earning a scholarship but is shut down by Troy who believes Cory should work and play football as just a hobby or not at all. Once again Troy’s past experiences (not making it in baseball) stunts his belief that Cory could be successful in the sport of football. I am not sure if Troy is hurt from the fact that he was not successful in baseball or if he is jealous of Cory’s talent and possible success, but I do believe that, just like with Lyons, Troy is trying to protect Cory from being hurt the way he had been. Although this seems as a good action, the way Troy goes about this is very damaging and further pushes Cory away. Throughout the story even when Troy is belittling Cory, Cory still tries to connect with his father but is met with disconnect which eventually pushes Cory away to the point that he doesn’t even want to attend Troy’s funeral. Nicholas (1988) states, “the greater the emotional fusion between generations the greater the likelihood of cutoff, some people seek distance by moving far away from their parents others do so emotionally” (pp. 148). A lot of Troy and Cory’s relationship mirrors the relationship of Troy and his father. Troy grew up with a father who showed loved through being responsible for his children. He was mean and didn’t show any compassion or loving emotion but he didn’t leave his children. That is exactly how Troy is but he does not see how just as his fathers actions caused him to run away, the same thing was happening with Cory. This is in accordance to Nicholas (1988), which states, “the problem in the identified patient is a product of the relationship of that persons parent which is a product of their parents continuing back for several generations. The problem is neither the child nor adult but instead the problem is the result of a multigenerational sequence in which all family members are actors and reactors” (pp. 147).
Although the conflicts mentioned above could be seen as major there is a conflict that I believe is significant but not as major. This conflict is between Troy and his best friend Bono. Bono and Troy met while Troy was in jail and was there during Troy’s baseball days. Although Bono admired Troy’s sense of responsibility and leadership Bono quickly began to change his feelings and became concerned with Troy’s marriage. Bono and Troy bump heads on the issue of infidelity and I think Bono’s morals and thoughts about loyalty put a wedge between his friendship with Troy. Towards the end of the book Bono stopped coming around and became distant towards Troy. What Bono admired about Troy came to be the reason he became distant. I would consider Bono to be functional kin to Troy which is defined as ‘non-biological related family members who have been designated as kin” (Watts-Jones, 1997, pp. 346).
Rose is Troy's ever-dutiful wife. As far as homemakers go, she'd put Martha Stewart to shame, and her cooking skills would make Rachel Ray blush. Rose is in some ways what you might expect of a 1950s-era housewife. She's always at home, cleaning or cooking. And, most important for a housewife of the time, she stands by her man. Even though Troy can be a jerk, Rose sticks by him for most of the play.
Don't get us wrong, Rose is no doormat. She doesn't let Troy walk all over her; she always calls him on his crap. When he makes inappropriate sexual remarks in front of company, she tells him that's not cool. When he exaggerates stories, she sets him straight. When she learns about his affair, she tells him off, saying, "You always talking about what you give...and what you don't have to give. But you take too. You take...and don't even know nobody's giving!" (2.1.122).
Perhaps the most telling moment for Rose is when she agrees to help raise Raynell. When Troy's mistress Alberta dies in childbirth, Troy begs Rose to be a mother to the baby girl. Rose tells her husband:
I'll take care of your baby for you...cause...she innocent...and you can't visit the sins of the father upon the child. A motherless child had got a hard time....From right now this child got a mother. But you a womanless man. (2.3.8)
It seems to us that this line sums up the two sides of Rose's nature. A natural mother, she can't help but want to nurture and care for the baby. The fact that she is her husband's illegitimate daughter makes Rose seem all the more compassionate. However, when Rose agrees to do this, she cuts Troy off. For the rest of the play, we see that the two are totally estranged. OK, she still leaves food in the kitchen for him, and he still pays the bills. But it's clear that, emotionally, Rose has severed her ties to her husband. Troy has lost the loving wife he once had.