I re-read Fences fairly regularly, every couple years or so, because I have taught it a few times in the past. With the movie coming out, I decided to teach it again this year, and my AP Literature students are currently reading it. What I plan on doing with this short review is to go over some of the considerations I have talked about in class and how we approached some of our conversations about the novel.
If you haven’t read or seen Fences, I do recommend it. I don’t know if the movie is any good (the reviews say about as I would guess, the movie as a whole lacks some of the power that the play has, but the performances are great). This is a very intimate play. We have the blended/fractured Maxson family made up of Troy and Rose, their son Cory, Troy’s son from a previous marriage Lyons, Troy’s injured brother Gabriel, and Troy’s friend Jim Bono, all spending various hours together in the vicinity of the Maxson household. There is a sense in nearly every scene that these dramas, conversations, ideas, and conflicts has been stirring and recurring throughout all their lives. In the opening scene, we get Troy and Bono’s theses on life, love, death, work, and baseball. A conversation fueled by drink, punctuated by Rose’s cooking, and probably some version of the same conversation they have had for twenty years or so.
Troy is a deeply sympathetic and unsympathetic character, like most of us. He really has been given a raw deal in his life and harbors some real bitterness and resentment. In my classroom we talked about the difference between regret and bitterness, and my students decided that regret is where you have remorse for the choices you made/or didn’t make when you were given a chance. For them, bitterness is the remorse you feel for you decisions you were never allowed to make. Troy’s bitterness comes from two real sources in his life, that he was never allowed to play major league baseball, relegated instead to the Negro leagues. And two, that his job, as a garbage collector, privileges his white coworkers over he and his black coworkers when it comes to pay and preferential treatment. In baseball, Troy is just too old to have been given a shot at the major leagues, he would have been near 40 by the end of WWII, and so Jackie Robinson’s subsequent move to MLB missed him by. And in his work, his sense of work-ethic and fairness do not really have that much pay-off at his job. This play deals in part with labor issues in this country, which like almost everything else in this country, is deeply influenced and saturated by racism. Labor Unions were often segregated or exclusionary, and collective bargaining often gave white workers rights and benefits not given to black workers. This is not the explicit background of this play, but this history does inform it.
Troy, however real the bitterness he feels in these areas of his life, projects his very real bitterness into the areas of his life that he does have control over. Like many men, he lays the unfairness and grief of his working life onto the backs of his wife and children. Troy mistakes his regret for bitterness. He was not there for his oldest son growing up, and resents being reminded of this. He is not only not appreciative of his wife for her own sacrifices, he doesn’t acknowledge or allow that these sacrifices are even real. He struggles to see his youngest son as anything more than an extension of himself. Troy, like most of us, can deal with the unfairness of life in very real ways, and still fail. He doesn’t have to be a witless victim, and he is not excused for his behavior, nor is he everything that’s wrong with the world today.