Fences is a portrayal of family life—of how its characters view their roles as individual family members, and how they each define their commitment or duty to the family; it also explores how betrayal can break the familial bond.
Troy refuses to tell Cory he loves him; rather, Troy tells Cory he only acts out of duty towards him as a son, and that there’s no reason that love necessarily must be involved. Duty, for Troy, is the foundation of family—but it’s almost indistinguishable from how Troy views professional duty (as an act one is obligated to perform regardless of one’s personal feelings towards one’s employer—e.g., he speaks of Mr. Rand in this way). If love isn’t a factor that distinguishes family from profession—if family is just a contractual obligation—then Troy must not find much of anything about family life particularly rewarding or unique.
Troy’s affair with Alberta doesn’t conflict with his understanding of family as founded on duty. Troy largely view his obligation and connection to his family as fiscal, and nothing more. Further, Troy’s betrayal of Rose ultimately reveals how the ties of families like his are fundamentally based upon the relationship between the two spouses who create it—in this case, a black man and woman raising a family in relative poverty—and upon whose union, which isn’t guaranteed, the survival of those ties depend. Troy’s betrayal therefore reveals a crack at the heart of family life: the fact that the idea of a family as a stably defined, pre-existing structure of human experience and development is quite complicated. Dishonoring his bond with Rose, Troy’s family starts to fall apart.
Further, the idea of what the Maxson family really ‘is’ gets complicated by the addition of Troy’s baby with Alberta, Raynell, whom Rose lets into the family after Alberta’s death, becoming her adoptive mother. The family, therefore, is revealed to be a system of pledges and vows which, as such, can morph and evolve over time. This sense of pledging is emphasized by Rose’s reply to Troy when he admits to his affair—Rose emphasizes the intense sacrifices she’s made for her relationship with Troy, saying that there were definitely times she wanted to pursue more fun and satisfaction by being with other men, but that she refused because of her vows.
Rose also defends her view of family as essential and unbreakable by insisting that Cory attend his father’s funeral, despite his wish to skip it. While Cory considers himself separated from his father, Rose invokes family as something which should surpass personal differences. Yet, at the same time, this is not an invocation of Troy’s kind of duty. For Rose, family is more than a fiscal contract. She tells Troy she felt a devotion to him based on a moral sacrifice of her own, personal longings—a sacrifice which adultery undoes and betrays. Unlike Troy’s sense of obligation, adultery conflicts with Rose’s sense of moral duty.
Whereas Troy thinks that his adultery is something permissible, and which Rose should be able to accept and wrap her head around because of all the sacrifices he’s made to support the family, Rose rejects this. She affirms that she’s made sacrifices too, but they transcend sacrifices motivated merely by making money and doing one’s job as a provider in getting food on the table and maintaining the house. Rather, Rose’s ‘duty’ is one of staying together and protecting the bonds of the family—bonds which she, again, sees as something never to be broken.
Family, Duty, and Betrayal ThemeTracker
Family, Duty, and Betrayal Quotes in Fences
You and me is two different people, Pop. . . . I know I got to eat. But I got to live too. I need something that gonna help me to get out of the bed in the morning. Make me feel like I belong in the world. I don’t bother nobody. I just stay with my music cause that’s the only way I can find to live in the world. Otherwise there ain’t no telling what I might do. Now I don’t come criticizing you and how you live. I just come by to ask you for ten dollars. I don’t wanna hear all that about how I live.
Jesus, be a fence all around me every day / Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way. / Jesus, be a fence all around me every day.
I don’t care where he coming from. The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.
Like you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. . . . I go out of here every morning . . . bust my butt . . . putting up with them crackers every day . . . cause I like you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw. . . . It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! . . . A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you in my bedclothes . . . fill you belly up with my food . . . cause you my son. . . . Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you! I owe a responsibility to you! . . . I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owes me.
I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don’t wish him a thing else from my life. I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.
How he gonna leave with eleven kids? And where he gonna go? He ain’t knew how to do nothing but farm. No, he was trapped and I think he knew it. But I’ll say this for him . . . he felt a responsibility toward us. Maybe he ain’t treated us the way I felt he should have . . . but without that responsibility he could have walked off and left us . . . made his own way.
Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.
Rose, I done tried all my life to live decent . . . to live a clean . . . hard . . . useful life. I tried to be a good husband to you. In every way I knew how. Maybe I come into the world backwards, I don’t know. But . . . you born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate. You got to guard it closely . . . always looking for the curve-ball on the inside corner. You can’t afford to let none get past you. You can’t afford a call strike.
We’re not talking about baseball! We’re talking about you going off to lay in bed with another woman . . . and then bring it home to me. That’s what we’re talking about. We ain’t talking about no baseball.
I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me? Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good? . . . I gave everything I had to try and erase the doubt that you wasn’t the finest man in the world. . . . 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!
I’m gonna tell you what your mistake was. See . . . you swung at the ball and didn’t hit it. That’s strike one. See, you in the batter’s box now. You swung and you missed. That’s strike one. Don’t you strike out.
I’m coming in and everybody’s going out…
The whole time I was growing up . . . living in his house . . . Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere. It weighed on you and sunk into your flesh. It would wrap around you and lay there until you couldn’t tell which one was you anymore. That shadow digging in your flesh. Trying to crawl in. Trying to live through you. Everywhere I looked, Troy Maxson was staring back at me . . . I’m just saying I’ve got to find a way to get rid of the shadow, Mama.