Sight is a very prevalent theme in a great variety of fiction; it can often be a symbol for understanding, comprehension, and enlightenment. Hindsight and foresight are often rewarded as virtues, or at least play heavily into the plot of a story. A blind person is often thought to ‘see’, or comprehend, more than the normal person, and sometimes people are not aware of a shocking truth, despite it looking them straight in the face. These scenarios are found in August Wilson's play Fences, as Troy, the patriarch of the family, is completely undone by his pride and lack of awareness of his situation.
In August Wilson’s Fences, we follow Troy Maxon, a disillusioned, bitter middle-aged man who used to play baseball in his prime – however, since he played before the color barrier was broken in major league baseball, there was no chance for him to shine. This has left him a broken shell of a man who clings to what mild successes he had in the past and participates in an extramarital affair which tears his family apart. Troy’s journey is the most transparently indicative of the American Dream – his dream occupation was baseball, a quintessentially American sport (Koprice, 2006). However, due to the times in which he lived, he could not break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, and therefore had no money saved up. Combined with his increasing age and his low job prospects, he has turned into a bitter alcoholic, doing menial work and maintaining a stressful relationship with his family.
Troy, over the course of the play, lives in a fantasy world; because his dreams were destroyed by circumstance, he starts creating his own deluded impressions of his life in order to cope. At the beginning of the play, Troy talks about his encounter and conflict with a man who could be construed as the Devil; here, he is already setting up a narrative in which he is strong enough to beat back Death himself. "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (Wilson, I.i.82). He is also stubbornly unable to admit to Bono the truth about his affair with Alberta, choosing instead to sugarcoat his mistakes and make himself look better than he is. These fantasies often bring about conflict in his life, as he simply lies to himself until he believes what he is saying.
Another fatal flaw that Troy possesses is his inability to see the point of any other path but his own in life; he has his own philosophy, which he believes that other people should follow. People, like Rose, call him out on the lies and mistruths he tells himself and others, contradicting him. Troy, meanwhile, becomes incredibly upset at people potentially succeeding beyond him – he tries to discourage Lyons from becoming a musician, and Cory from becoming a college football player. Rose also plays the lottery, something Troy is angry about. Troy has become disillusioned by his poor returns from his youth, so he becomes bitter and jealous of those who try on their own (and just might succeed). Troy’s dissatisfaction is at the heart of his unrest, and the conflict of the play – he cannot see any way out of his situation, and also fails to cop to his own responsibility for his fate. One of the biggest sources of unrest for him is his dependence on his brother’s disability checks to finance his home, thus constantly reminding him that he cannot take care of his family: “If my brother didn't have that metal plate in is head, I wouldn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of” (Wilson I.ii. 18). In a reality that is so hopeless and dissatisfying, it is no wonder Troy involves himself in a world of delusion.
His lack of sight is a metaphorical one, as he refuses to see his own jealousy of his son Cory, and anyone else who might benefit from better timing and opportunities, as his own were squandered by race relations at the time - "Times have changed, Troy, you just come along too early" (Wilson, I.i.77). Troy's perspective on his situation does not improve, unfortunately; he does not receive the moment of clarity that the narrator does. Troy constantly receives advice from others about how to improve his own situation, and to make peace with the fact that he is not the all-star baseball player that he used to be. This blindness and stubbornness causes him to be overprotective and dismissive of his son Cory, who claims that "You just scared I'm gonna be better than you, that's all" (I.iv.166).
Troy refuses to grow and evolve from his mistakes, instead choosing to stew and make excuses for his own failures. In light of the failure of his baseball career, Troy lashes out at the world, thinking it cruel and unfair. As Bono tells him about his fears that things will be the same for Cory as they were for him, “Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early” (Wilson I.i.77). He resorts to drinking and has an incredible bitterness towards his status as a black man, thinking it the reason behind his lack of success at life. At the same time, he is prone to exaggeration; he often upscales his own feats, preferring to participate in his own particular version of his life, in which he had a good run before age caught up with him. In addition to that, he actively discourages those he knows from pursuing their own American Dreams – Cory wants to play football when he goes to college, but Troy scolds him, reminding him of his own baseball days. He thinks Cory should be practical: “He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living” (Wilson I.i.69). When Lyons wants to be a musician, Troy discourages that as well, not wanting any of his children to take chances as he had. In his eyes, it only invites failure; his view of the American Dream was soured and made cynical by his experiences.
Much of Troy’s failures and frustrations are meant to echo the struggles inherent to the black experience. Troy’s surname, Maxson, combines “Mason” and “Dixon” in a subtle nod to the slave/free state divider that plagued the United States during the slave era. Not only does it inextricably tie Troy’s character traits and motivations to the struggles of blacks, it shows Troy as a man divided himself – he wrestles with having high hopes and having those hopes crushed. In his youth, he had dreams and ambitions as a baseball player, but those were destroyed, leaving him a broken shell of a man at a job that will get him nowhere. Troy’s family history places him at the latest rung in a long life of Maxsons whose life has beaten them down – his father was a sharecropper who experienced little success as well. Troy has a concrete connection to his family history, however – he continues the oral tradition that is very much present in the black experience by becoming a storyteller and songster (Nadel, 1993). In this way, his own delusion is a product of this ability to create stories – he manufactures his own reality in order to overlap a less productive or successful history.
Troy’s own hypocrisy and ability to lie to himself is painted as somewhat selfish; his desire to rail against the iniquities of the black experience eclipses his own responsibilities to his family. Troy rails against anyone who takes chances and is even slightly irresponsible, while he is permitted all manner of mistakes – infidelity, social unrest (by protesting his job’s racist practices), and more. He sees himself as a social crusader; even his opening tale of Death shows the specter of Death in a KKK robe: "Death stood up, throwed on his robehad him a white robe with a hood on it” (I.i.96). This is further evidence of Troy’s delusion – he can only see things the way he wants to in his mind, and refuses to see reality. This is the fundamental tragedy of Troy’s character; from the beginning to the end of the play, Troy’s selfishness starts out as being admired and lauded, but he ends up dead. What’s more, his death will potentially lead to negative consequences for his family; everyone has to sort out the issues that they left him with, both financial and psychological. Rose, for instance, has to now work out the consequences of Troy’s affair and illegitimate child: “I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreamsand I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and waited and prayed over it” (Wilson I.ii.122). When Troy finally dies (a reversal of his defeat of Death in the beginning), he leaves behind quite the negative legacy for his family.
In conclusion, the protagonist of Fences experiences challenges to the way he thinks the world works. Troy in Fences uses his failures as a justification for his own poor behavior, choosing instead to take out his own anxieties on his family. In a way, he is a cautionary, tragic tale for those lamenting the frustrations of the black experience – Troy goes too far into self-loathing about the racial discrimination he experiences, becoming a victim who refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Instead, he simply deludes himself into thinking he is a big man, who takes care of his family and is faithful, and who got as close to success as anyone around him possibly could. Troy simply cannot own up to his failings, instead trying to grasp onto whatever fantasy will make him feel better. Refusing to see the light, Troy ends up dying with much of his family hating him, a life full of unfulfilled dreams.
Koprice, Susan. "Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson's Fences." African American Review 40.2 (2006): 349-358. Print.
Nadel, Alan, ed. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essyas on the Drama of August Wilson.
Wilson, August. Fences.