Fences

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Practicality, Idealism, and Race 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.
Practicality, Idealism, and Race Theme Icon

Fences explores the different views some of its characters have about what’s feasible, achievable, and practical or life-sustaining with regard to career ambitions and future goals. Troy disapproves of the livelihoods to which his sons aspire, considering them to be idealistic dreams compared to what he views as more practical trades. Troy’s disapproval, especially in Cory’s case, is largely informed by his own experience growing up black. Cory’s youth—his experience growing up in a different period of history—however, affords him a broader view of what the future might hold in store for him, of the careers open to him as a young black male. Consequently, he has a different understanding of what qualify as practical, viable ambitions.

Troy doesn’t think Cory should pursue a future in football, since he believes that black people are prohibited from success in the white-dominated world of sports. Troy’s past in the sharecropping South, and his experience as a talented baseball player whose career could never take flight because of discrimination, have all informed his sense of black life and opportunity in the world around him. It’s this background which makes Troy perceive Cory’s ambition as idealistic, and not grounded in reality or practical. Further, while Lyons says music is something essential to life, Troy sees Lyons’ lifestyle as shirking the responsibility and hard work Troy associates with a man’s ‘proper’ profession. Though Lyons says he values being a musician for a value intrinsic to it, Troy thinks only about money, finding Lyons’s ambitions to be impractical. Lyons lifestyle fails to adequately provide for him, but he nonetheless continues to pursue music over a more stable trade.

Does Fences suggest that the idealism of Cory or Lyons is a better choice than Troy’s practicality? While Wilson ultimately writes Troy’s existence off at the end of the play with an aura of failure, dissatisfaction, anger, and betrayal, it might be too simplistic to say that this is a gesture of critique—that Wilson condemns Troy’s practicality altogether. Further, the fact that his sons appear to be more compassionate, level-headed, and hopeful as human beings are not sufficient grounds to say that Wilson favors their idealism over Troy’s practicality. Rather than taking a stance on either, Wilson seems more concerned with showing us how the social world of white power and racism, and how it changes and evolves through time, forms its characters’ perceptions of idealism and practicality—how, to a great extent, especially as disenfranchised black men, Troy and his sons’ perceptions of idealism and practicality are molded by the white power outside and around them.

Troy’s practicality, informed by his sense of failure at the hands of racial discrimination, ultimately leads him to become an embittered man who withholds affection from those around him, and who cannot see past his own horizon when it comes to thinking about his sons’ futures. But Wilson perhaps wants to show us that people like Troy exist because an unjust world has hurt and formed them, and that the pain which racism inflicts on such people gets recycled into the generation they raise. Wilson doesn’t seem to want to delegitimize Troy as a human being by implying that his practicality is something which he personally invented—rather, he wants to educate a white audience, and give a voice to a black audience, about the suffering which exists in people like Troy, why it exists, and how it is passed on.

Similarly, Cory and Lyons are not treated by Wilson as a choice in an ethical decision between idealism versus practicality, but rather as two views of a racially divided world informed by a different, more progressive but still grossly regressive social atmosphere—as the two have different personal pasts than Troy. By pitting Troy against Cory and Lyons, Wilson again shows us how white power not only separates itself from blackness, but also separates and divides blacks themselves. While not picking a side, Wilson positions the play from the standpoint of a more historical perspective about how these sides are formed, and how they shape future generations, at the same time that he grounds that higher perspective in a family’s everyday lived experience.

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Practicality, Idealism, and Race ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Practicality, Idealism, and Race appears in each Scene of Fences. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Practicality, Idealism, and Race Quotes in Fences

Below you will find the important quotes in Fences related to the theme of Practicality, Idealism, and Race.
Act 1: Scene 1 Quotes

I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it. Now you come telling me he done went and got more tied up in it. He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson, Rose Maxson , Jim Bono
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Rose in the first scene of the first act, when he and Bono are engaging in one of their Friday night payday get-togethers. Rose enters their conversation for a bit, and informs Troy that Cory’s been recruited by a college football team.

Troy’s disdain for a career in sports stems from his experience playing baseball when he was younger. Despite being a very talented athlete, his hopes of playing professionally were cut short due to racial discrimination—black players simply weren’t given a chance in the major leagues, where skin color was favored over objective talent. Troy’s opinion about what counts as a viable future for Cory, therefore, is shaped by his own past, by a different era in history than the one in which Cory grew up, where—though race relations are still overwhelmingly far from equal and just—there are more opportunities for young black men than there were in Troy’s time. Troy, however, doesn’t think this, and refuses to see it. He stays stuck to his ‘outdated’ view of society, insisting that pursuing sports will only bring Cory disappointment and an unstable lifestyle. To prevent this, Troy advocates—however stubbornly—that Cory pursue a standard trade that will earn him what he imagines would be a steadier, more dependable living. Thus, the conflict between Troy and Cory over football can be explained as a war between two drastically different views of history, society, and race relations.

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You ain’t seen no devil. I done told you that man ain’t had nothing to do with the devil. Anything you can’t understand, you want to call it the devil.

Related Characters: Rose Maxson (speaker), Troy Maxson, Lyons Maxson, Jim Bono
Related Symbols: “Mr. Death”
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Rose speaks these lines in response to Troy’s declaration that he’s met the devil. It’s the first scene of the first act, and Lyons has just come by to ask Troy if he can borrow some money.

Here, Rose’s function as the voice of reason in her relationship with Troy becomes more apparent. Anything Troy can’t understand, she claims, he wants to attribute to the workings of the devil—to “Mr. Death,” Troy’s personified figure of the abstract, impersonal force of death. Rose thereby offers an explanation for Troy’s tendency to tell tall tales and spin fantasies as if they were true accounts of reality: rather than leaving things open to chance and the contingency of natural events (which make it impossible for anyone to successfully understand the reason behind everything that happens to them in life), Troy would rather give an explanation—even if it means telling a lie. This points to a fundamental attribute of Troy’s psyche: he’s afraid of the unexplainable—of things he doesn’t know or totally understand. This perhaps explains the hardness to his personality—why he treats a new and changing society, like the one Cory inhabits, as if it were the old one in which he grew up, hence why he won’t allow Cory to play sports.

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.

Act 1: Scene 3 Quotes

If they got a white fellow sitting on the bench . . . you can bet your last dollar he can’t play. The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That’s why I don’t want you to get all tied up in them sports. Man on the team and what it get him? They got colored on the team and don’t use them. Same as not having them. All them teams the same.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Cory, in the third scene of the first act, after Cory tells him that a college football recruiter is going to pay Troy a visit to get his signature, which would grant Cory permission to join the college team.

Troy severely disapproves of Cory’s ambition to play football, believing that the world of sports hasn’t changed since when he played baseball (with the hopes of becoming professional). Since Troy’s hopes were cut short due to racial discrimination, and since he believe the status of race relations in sports hasn’t evolved at all, he thinks that Cory’s sports dreams are foolishly impractical, idealistic, and not rooted in social reality. It would make more sense, in Troy’s mind, for Cory to go out and practice a standard trade, like auto-mechanics.

Troy’s comment about benched white players not being able to play well follows from his premises that black players are always benched while whites are favored on the field, and that, in order for a black player to get time on the field, they have to be twice as good. If a white player is benched, therefore, they must be exceptionally unskilled.

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 2: Scene 1 Quotes

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.