Fences

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Family, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Blackness and Race Relations Theme Icon
Practicality, Idealism, and Race Theme Icon
Manhood and Fathers Theme Icon
Family, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fences, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon

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.

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Family, Duty, and Betrayal ThemeTracker

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Family, Duty, and Betrayal Quotes in Fences

Below you will find the important quotes in Fences related to the theme of Family, Duty, and Betrayal.
Act 1: Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lyons Maxson (speaker), Troy Maxson
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Lyons speaks these lines to Troy in the first scene of the first act, after he’s asked Troy if he can borrow ten dollars. Troy chastises Lyons for asking to borrow money, criticizing Lyons for pursuing a fast, carefree, and profitless lifestyle as a professional musician, when Lyons could very well go out and get a stable, steady-paying job doing some sort of trade instead.

But Lyons, in this passage, insists that he and Troy live in two different worlds: while Troy only emphasizes material wealth and stability, Lyons prioritizes feeling joy at what he does every day, and considers music to be the only thing which adequately fuels such joy. Though Troy may be a bit caught up in his definitions of what trades count as “proper” career options, he nonetheless has a point: Lyons is thirty-four, and still isn’t financially stable. It can certainly be argued, however, that Troy played a role in Lyons’s psychological development into someone who’s financially irresponsible—and who seeks joy and recognition in his creative work to a point that threatens his basic welfare—since Troy was in prison during Lyons’ entire upbringing. On the other hand, Lyons’s inability to successfully make a living out of music might also be attributable to the fact that, as August Wilson writes in Lyons’s character description, he’s more caught up in the image of being a musician than in music for its own sake.

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Act 1: Scene 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Rose Maxson (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Fence
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Rose sings at the beginning of the second scene of the first act, while she’s hanging clothes up to dry. Rose’s desire to be protected manifests, as it does in this song, through her request that Troy build a fence around their yard. For Rose, the fence embodies safety, as well as the capacity to keep her family together as a unit and set off from a dangerous outside world. Rose’s song seems to suggest that her longing for a fence also has a religious dimension—that the protection and definition of space, the definition of inside versus outside, and the togetherness of family versus outside forces of separation, have a spiritual significance. Though Rose’s wish comes true, and Troy builds a fence around their home, it actually comes to serve as a symbol more so of the Maxson family’s division than unity.

Act 1: Scene 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote—spoken by Troy to Cory after Troy mentions that he’s heard from Rose about Cory’s recruitment to play college football—demonstrates that, perhaps on some fundamental level, Troy truly does intend only good things for his son, even though he often fails to show it. Troy, certainly not silent on the matter of white supremacy and racial discrimination, is firmly convinced—based on his experiences of discrimination when he tried to play professional baseball—that the world of sports will not be hospitable for his son, a young black male. And, while it’s easy to pass Troy off as a pigheaded man who only wanted to make life for his son as difficult as his own has been, and to prevent Cory from excelling in ways he was never able to, it seems, here at least, that Troy genuinely thinks he’s doing Cory a favor by standing in the way of his career in sports.

This speaks to the fact that August Wilson doesn’t seem bent on portraying Troy as, in-and-of-himself, a bad person—as a bad father whose parenting decisions aren’t informed by any valid experiences. Rather, Wilson seems concerned with conveying Troy as an unfortunate byproduct of historical forces which have molded him to think about the world the way he does, and which were ultimately out of his control. Wilson is therefore able to show how the racism experienced by previous generations of black fathers informs the way they raise their children—it informs a father’s vision of the society in which he’ll raise his child, regardless if race relations have evolved and are now different than the view afforded by his outdated perspective. Thus racism from the past gets recycled, indirectly onto new generations, who must grapple with the dichotomy between their own vision of contemporary society and the less current vision of their parents.

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.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 37-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Cory in the third scene of the first act, after Cory asks Troy why he’s never liked him as a son.

Troy’s harshness and fundamental lack of any loving qualities as a father come to a pinnacle here. Troy insists that his duty as a father is simply a contractual one—that he’s responsible out of sheer contractual obligation, like a job, to provide for Cory, hence why Troy compares their relationship to the one he shares with his boss, Mr. Rand. For Troy, his duty to provide for his son isn’t born out of love, admiration, or any higher moral, emotional, or psychological forces. Fatherhood is not a duty or labor of love: it’s just a basic labor which, as if decreed by some law, he’s required to do. Therefore, insofar as it’s only Troy’s obligation to meet certain requirements as a provider, he needn’t go beyond them—he needn’t do such things as actually treat his son with kindness, or show him compassion.

Troy’s appeal to duty as the fundamental familial bond, as opposed to anything psychological (like love), shows how he views his relationship to his family in terms of the minimum amount of participation that’s required of him. This narcissistic view is what allows him to go off, have an affair with Alberta, and not question his conscience.

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.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Rose Maxson
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Rose when she enters the yard after Troy spoke to Cory about his duty as a father. Cory’s exited the yard to go to the A&P store, in an attempt to get his job back (which he gave away because of the time commitment required by football). Troy says this in response to Rose’s comment that Cory is only trying to please Troy, to be like Troy, and that Troy should therefore ease up on his son.

We see here, once again, something of a decent, perhaps noble motivation behind Troy’s approach to parenting Cory—behind such decisions as not allowing Cory to play college football. Troy just wants to prevent Cory from repeating his own life—a life of many hardships and struggles, one of which was his failed attempt to become a professional baseball player in the face of racial discrimination. Though Troy only seems to communicate with Cory in a harsh, angry tone, he explains here that he only wants to prevent his son from wasting his time pursuing a future—a career in sports—that’s simply not accepting of black men.

Act 1: Scene 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Lyons Maxson
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Lyons in the fourth scene of the first act, when Lyons stops by to pay his father back the ten dollars he borrowed in the first scene of the play. Bono and Troy are both discussing their fathers.

What’s most striking about Troy’s description of his father, perhaps, is the fact that Troy’s explanation to Cory about his duty as a father corresponds exactly with the sense of responsibility Troy attributes to his own dad. In telling Cory that he’s not obligated, as a father, to like his son, but only to provide for him materially, Troy pretty much fits the mold of his own father. Like his own dad, Troy certainly doesn’t treat his son the way Cory feels he should, but Troy nonetheless claims to feel responsible to provide for him in certain ways to a minimal extent. This similarity between Troy and his own father seems to highlight Wilson’s motif about the recycling of past generations into the new. Troy’s approach to being a father is informed by his own past; even though he largely disliked his father, Troy was inalterably molded by him, and his approach to parenting Cody is consequently affected by that molding.

Act 2: Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Jim Bono (speaker), Troy Maxson, Cory Maxson
Related Symbols: The Fence
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Bono speaks these lines to Troy and Cory in the first scene of the second act, while they’re all working on the fence. Cory has just asked what the point of building the fence is in the first place.

Fully aware that Troy is having an affair with Alberta, Bono wants to evoke, with this statement, a realization in Troy about the gravity of what he’s doing to Rose—that he’s betraying his bond with an incredibly loving, good, and strong woman. As Troy’s best friend, Bono surely knows that Troy’s mind is prone to fantasy—Troy has believed that he can lie to Bono about being monogamous and make him believe it, when Bono has, multiple times throughout the play, told Troy that he’s explicitly seen him interacting with Alberta in an adulterous way. By bypassing Troy’s imaginary world of defense mechanisms against the truth of his actions, and getting Troy to realize he’s forgotten about and pushed aside the love of his incredible wife, he can perhaps trigger in Troy a remembrance of when he was deeply in love with Rose—he can help Troy empathize with Rose in a way that will make him be ashamed of his actions with Alberta. This seems to be Bono’s goal here.

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.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Rose Maxson
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Rose, in the first scene of the second act, after he’s confessed to her about his affair and baby with Alberta. This is another instance where Troy’s obsession with the imagery of baseball takes over his use of language. Here, particularly, it’s apparent that—by his use of baseball metaphors to describe his moral character and ethical status as a man “born with two strikes” already against him—Troy’s imagination bypasses actually dealing with the reality of his actions. Instead of discussing, explicitly, how he has betrayed his wife by sleeping with another woman, Troy diverts from the actual content of his actions with metaphorical language that borders on meaninglessness. This is another example demonstrating Troy’s difficulty which distinguishing his imagination from reality—from the real experiences of other people around him.

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.

Related Characters: Rose Maxson (speaker), Troy Maxson, Alberta
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Rose speaks these lines in response to the last quote, spoken by Troy. Once again, Rose proves herself to be the voice of reason when faced with Troy’s excessively imaginative mind that frequently covers up truth with distracting, invented images. As soon as Troy, entangled in his unclear language about being born with “two strikes on you before you come to the plate,” tries desperately to divert Rose’s attention from the concrete reality of his adultery, she refuses to give into his confused world of euphemisms and images. As the voice of reason, she rejects Troy’s words, and insists that nothing in their conversation has anything to do with baseball—they’re talking about Troy’s betrayal, nothing else.

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!

Related Characters: Rose Maxson (speaker), Troy Maxson
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire play, Rose speaks these lines to Troy after he’s confessed to his affair with Alberta.

This is the first time in the play when Rose’s own voice—a voice which articulates her own feelings, hopes, opinions, desires and imagined fantasies—gets fully expressed. This is the first time that Rose expresses herself without any censorship, without any hesitation before Troy’s excessive presence, his narcissistic occupation of space. Here, Rose affirms that she has dreams and longings of her own, even though Troy addresses and talks to her as if she didn’t have any. She affirms that she has a mind and imagination and needs of her own, and that she certainly hasn’t been perfectly content, over the past eighteen years with Troy, with sacrificing nearly all her own desires just to be with him, while Troy constantly refused to acknowledge the extent to which Rose gave of herself.

While Troy often rambles about fantasies and figments of his imagination, and while Rose usually serves as the voice of reason, here she actually gives in to her own sense of imagination—her connection to her own dreams—and expresses it face-to-face with Troy. Yet, unlike Troy, she expresses her feelings with maturity and clarity; she isn’t narcissistically absorbed in her own created imagery.

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.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks this to Cory in the first scene of the second act. Troy has just confessed to Rose about his affair with Alberta and the baby they’re going to have; after they argue for a while, Troy grabs Rose by the arm, and Rose tells Troy that he’s hurting her. Cory then enters the scene, and pushes Troy off from Rose—this is when Troy warns Cory that he’s had “strike one.” Troy uses this metaphor about “strikes,” a term borrowed from baseball, in order to describe whenever Cory has severely insulted him.

The fact that Troy uses this metaphor in such a serious manner—in a moment of real anger and confrontation—suggests that he associates more than a bit of literary flair with its usage. “Striking out” has a real, visceral meaning for Troy, who conceives of his relationship with Cory as actually being structured like a baseball player’s turn at the batter’s box. This demonstrates just how fundamentally Troy’s experience with baseball has shaped his imagination—and we already know that he has difficulty distinguishing his imagination from reality. Troy’s repeated use of this metaphor to name events where Cory has crossed the line in his role as a son therefore shows how Troy’s psyche is caught up in such imagery, much like Gabriel is caught up in images of judgement day and hellhounds. This similarity between the two brothers suggests that Troy’s imagination and obsession with certain images and figures—like Mr. Death—isn’t all that different from his mentally ill brother. In a way, therefore, we can read Troy’s mind as a victim of trauma—the hardships and racism faced in his past—much like Gabriel’s brain suffers from a traumatic injury.

Act 2: Scene 4 Quotes

I’m coming in and everybody’s going out…

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson, Rose Maxson , Lyons Maxson, Raynell
Related Symbols: The Fence
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks this line in the fourth scene of the second act. Lyons has just stopped by the Maxson house to drop off some money for Troy, who’s not yet there, and Rose tells him to put it on the table. As he leaves, Cory enters the yard; they talk briefly (Lyons apologizes for missing Cory’s high school graduation), and Lyons exits. Then, Troy enters the yard; as he approaches the steps to the house, Rose exits the house with Raynell, carrying a cake, and Troy says this line.

Though short and succinct, this is perhaps one of the most significant quotes of the entire play. It not only signals that Troy is starting to realize the division, the rift opening between him and his family, but also hints at the failure of the fence to keep the Maxson family together as one solid unit. While one goal of the fence—at least Rose’s intended goal—was to protect her family and enclose them in a space of their own, this ambition has utterly failed in the face of Troy’s betrayal of Rose. The fence speaks more to division and separation than unity or togetherness; it serves as a fault line with which to reference not some divide between the family and the world, but a divisive crack that runs between the family and itself.

Act 2: Scene 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Cory Maxson (speaker), Troy Maxson, Rose Maxson
Page Number: 96-7
Explanation and Analysis:

Cory speaks these lines to Rose in the last scene of the play, at the Maxson household before Troy’s funeral. Cory’s just arrived: he hasn’t been home presumably in years, having joined the marines. He’s just told Rose that he doesn’t intend to attend Troy’s funeral, and she argues that it would be wrong to miss his father’s funeral.

Cory’s description of Troy as a shadow that, upon wrapping around him, would mix itself up with him to the extent that he couldn’t distinguish himself from it, portrays Troy as an invasive force of malice that distorted Cory’s sense of self. Trying to steer clear and avoid his father as a child, Cory, it seems, ultimately found it impossible to escape Troy, who had the ability to infiltrate Cory’s psyche with a non-corporeal weight, which bogged his personality down to the extent that its edges couldn’t be discerned—Cory couldn’t tell where his own personality started or ended.

This inability to distinguish between the inside and outside of Cory’s persona hints at the function of the fence at the core of the play. As a divider that creates a separation in space between an interior and an exterior, the fence defined the Maxson household as a discernible group against the outside world. Ironically, even though Cory was instrumental in building the fence, it seems like it took him a very long time—until after he left home—to build such a fence in his mind, and begin to be able to tell himself apart from the shadow of his father.