August Wilson

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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:

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:

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:
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:

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:

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:

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:
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:

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: