The topic of death appears throughout the play in various forms, both in the physical death of two characters (Troy and Alberta), as well as in the stories told by Troy and through his brother Gabriel’s obsession with the Christian afterlife.
Troy mentions the grim reaper (“Mr. Death”) several times throughout the play, telling a story about how they once wrestled. Troy seems to believe that, while death is an unavoidable fate, one should try to go out with a fight. Troy says that he knew Death had the upper hand in their battle, but that he nonetheless wanted to make his death as difficult as possible to achieve. Further, the fence can be read as a barrier to the inevitable onslaught of death. Troy mentions that the fence he builds is a way of keeping Death out of his life.
Gabriel, always thinking about judgment day, has perhaps just as strong an obsession with death as his brother. Gabriel’s obsession, however, is more loud and noticeable because it’s expressed in his manic, psychotic ideas about his supposed spiritual powers. Troy’s obsession with death is perhaps just as strong, however, for in a way it sustains him: Troy’s pride in having survived against all the odds—his father, intense poverty, personal failure—relies on death to fuel itself.
On the day of Troy’s funeral, Gabriel declares that Troy has successfully entered the gates of heaven. While this declaration may not indicate the opinions of other characters, it nonetheless ends the play, and is the final word on Troy’s death. Gabriel’s proclamation therefore has both a punctuality and an ambivalence; the play ends with the gates of heaven opening onto and usurping Troy’s fenced-off existence. Death ends the play by annihilating the in/out distinction effected by a fence, and Troy dies in an unfavorable status because of his adultery.
Wilson therefore seems to speak against Troy’s view of death, and how this view informs his approach to life and the lives around him. If we take Troy to view death as a force that should be fought against at all costs, to the extent that one should give up on taking any risks (such as Cory’s football ambitions, in his mind) and even sacrifice one’s ability to give love and compassion to one’s family members as a result of that fight, then Wilson seems to speak against this.
By having Troy die unsatisfied and in low moral standing, Wilson suggests a couple of things. First, with regard to Troy’s adultery, he did take a risk—but one for himself, and which endangered his family, rather than a risk at least attempting to invest in his family (like letting Cory try out football and attend college, despite his uncertainty about its promise). Troy lets the pressure of death eat at him to such an extent that he seeks to find satisfaction in life (to defy and thwart that pressure) in an extreme form, somewhere outside the space he’s cultivated and fenced off for his family. Secondly, Troy is ultimately unhappy because of this decision to find satisfaction beyond his fence—he ruins his relationship with Rose, and Alberta dies because of the baby with which he impregnated her. This suggests that Troy’s constant struggle to defy death and win out against it—or at least his specific methods of doing so—is something which ultimately fails, and which hurts everyone who’s affected by that failure.
Mortality Quotes in Fences
I wrestled with Death for three days and three nights and I’m standing here to tell you about it. . . . At the end of the third night we done weakened each other to where we can’t hardly move. Death stood up, throwed on his robe . . . had him a white robe with a hood on it. He throwed on that robe and went off to look for his sickle. Say, “I’ll be back.” Just like that. . . . I told him, say, “yeah, but . . . you gonna have to find me!” I wasn’t no fool. I wasn’t going looking for him. Death aint nothing to play with. And I know he’s gonna get me. . . . But . . . as long as I keep up my vigilance . . . he’s gonna have to fight to get me. I ain’t going easy.
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.