August Wilson’s Fences is an iconic play about African American life that was written in 1983. It was originally set sometime around the 1950s. It is the sixth installment of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which consists of ten parts. Fences was written in the decade Wilson lived during which time the play was being composed. This makes it probable that Wilson used real-life experiences to portray Blacks in the 1950s. Black Baby Boomers view Troy Maxson as a very relatable, or even archetypal Black character. Wilson explores Troy’s inner world to illuminate the mysteries and misunderstood characters of the 1950s.
Troy is a trash collector at the Sanitation Department in order to support his wife Rose and teenage son, Corey. Troy has settled into an unfavorable outlook on life, but he enjoys it. He has been through too many disappointments in his life. Although he was a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues he was not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. This was first because he is Black, and then because he was too elderly when integration started. He also represents a criticism of Jackie Robinson that, despite the barriers Robinson effected, he wasn’t necessarily the best Black player. Troy represents this perspective, and even said outright that he had seen more niggers than Jackie Robinson. “Hell, I even know of some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make!” (Wilson.i.). Troy’s hyperbolic nature shows, but it is still relatable to many African Americans. (Wilson i.i.). Robinson represents both. In the story, Robinson represents both historical and traditional norms. August Wilson was, without doubt, a product of the shift in discourse Robinson made in the second half of the 20th century. New Historicism can be described as a lens for literary criticism. It refers to “ways of seeing and talking over the world” (Dobie 184). The discourse during the era of Fences is in mid-shift. This shift marks the end of a discourse that subalternally segregated Blacks from Whites, as well as their ambitions. African Americans had the opportunity to pursue their dreams and live lives that were similar to those of White Americans. Professional sports
Troy Maxson, Troy’s younger brother, is a product August Wilson. He is also influenced and committed by the American changing discourse. His dream is to have a professional career playing football, which has rapidly overtaken baseball as America’s favourite pastime. Rose supports Corey’s ambition to play football at college. Rose views this as an opportunity to get a scholarship and to continue his education. Troy, however, is a distinctly unsupportive individual. It can be frustrating to see Troy’s reasoning on stage, or even to read it.
Carl Jung, a student and successor to Sigmund Freud, furthered the neo-Freudian approach to psychology. Jung claimed that there are three powerful archetypes which make up the self. These archetypes are the shadow, anima, or persona (Dobie 64). Jungian psychoanalysis regards the shadow to be the inner self one is unwilling to confront. Jung suggests that the anima (for women; animus) is the driving force behind an individual’s actions. Jung said that this anima is female in men and male in women to indicate that the opposite sex exists within the person. This is Freudian theory that people often only experience this opposite sex in dreams or project it onto another person in reality. Freud called the persona the external mask that one uses to present the self to others. Jung believed that individuation, which is the ability to be oneself (i.e. Jung believed that to achieve individuation (i.e., psychological well-being), one must accept and discover one’s differences.
Troy fails to individuate because he doesn’t accept all aspects of himself, even though they are all present and visible in the play. Troy constantly expresses his love for Rose in grandiose and extravagant ways to Bono, Corey and Gabe. He is enthusiastic around Rose and claims she is the heart of his life in every way. But, he refuses the offer to confess that he is unfaithful. Bono repeatedly confronts him about the affair with a woman he works with. One of the best lines in the entire production is Bono’s explanation to Troy about the importance of the fence Rose wants Troy built. Bono stated, “Some people put up fences to keep people away… and others to keep people inside” (Wilson). Troy insistently replies that he doesn’t need anyone to tell his wife that he loves her. Troy cannot reconcile or admit to the side of himself that betrays his true love for the woman he is truly in love with.
Rose is Troy’s anima, and he seems to be most attracted to her. He gets up every morning because Rose is his motivation. Troy’s secret mistress, who is unidentified, can easily be confused for the projection of his spirit. Troy also admits that he feels better about himself because she gives him the impetus to take action. Troy is able to receive his will-to-live from Rose. But his infidelity shows that he has lost touch with Rose’s importance to his unique self. This oversight only serves to further compound his lack of individuality. Instead, he has created a vibrant and opinionated persona for him that is self-sufficient, loyal, supportive, and trustworthy. The second lie is just as convincing as the former. His son has no support for his ambition, based on his illusion that the White man will not allow any Black man to achieve anything.
August Wilson takes these three dimensions and extrapolates them from Troy’s character. Perhaps he has had similar experiences in real life. Troy, like his Black archetype, is complex and three-dimensional. Jungian psychoanalysis can also be called literary theory or mythological criticism. Wilson makes extensive use of them in the play. In mythological literary criticism, gardens are used as symbols of innocence, much like the Garden of Eden. When Raynell is introduced to the audience, Raynell is caring for a small backyard garden for Rose. Troy’s main argument about Rose helping him raise Raynell is that Raynell is innocent despite his sins. Rose therefore should not be left behind just because her mother has died in childbirth. Wilson gives Rose a similar archetype as other female figures such as Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Aphrodite of Greek mysticism, and Isis of Egyptian mysticism. The audience associates Raynell and Nurturance with Troy, so Troy likely will bring Raynell.
Troy has a primary archetype with which he interacts. It is, however, the devil. Troy often invokes an unrevealed personification of death and challenges some harbinger to go after him. Mythological criticism treats the devil as a type of evil that invades characters’ lives in order to tempt or destroy them. Wilson is not interested in Faustian roots. But he does use it to predict Troy’s fate.
Carl Jung passed away in 1961. His neoFreudian work was a kind of springboard to many more advances in psychology. New Historicism will not forget that August Wilson was alive during Jung’s time. By the 1980s, Jung’s literary adaptation (which began with Northrop Frye back in the 1950s), had been three decades in development. It was probably just about to be proliferated nationally through several more collegiate programs. Wilson’s writings provide ample evidence that Wilson was aware of and influenced by psychoanalytical literary theories. His characters seem richer for it.
Dobie, Ann B. Theory into practice: An introduction to literary criticism. 4th ed. Thomson Heinle published in Boston in 2015. Print.
Wilson, August. Fences. Plume published a book about New York City in 1986. Output