Rescuing the Tragic Subordinate in Wilson’s Fences

In this essay, the prompt was to analyze part of August Wilson’s play Fences. I liked my essay because I was happy with my idea to defend the ending of the Play on Gabriel’s behalf as it seemed different from popular criticism.

In the final scene of August Wilson’s play Fences, the story’s tragic protagonist is received into the gates of heaven. This surprising ending was met with varying degrees of approval by critics, and Myles Weber is one who believes the ending was completely inappropriate. He claims that Troy did not deserve salvation because he was too sinful when he was alive and that the ending results from Wilson’s racial motivations and struggle to reconcile the many things influencing him. In my opinion, the ending of the play works very well; Troy paid for his sins in the last years of his life, and the character who is the true beneficiary is Gabriel, Troy’s mentally disabled younger brother. By believing he delivered Troy to the gates of heaven, Gabriel (who believed he was an angel) fulfilled his duty and was healed.

Weber accuses Wilson of being unable to reconcile his influences from the Blues movement and Greek tradition. Because of this, Weber says Fences is “a play whose egotistical protagonist is rescued from a self-imposed state of dishonor for no clear reason other than his racial identity and the political implications of being black” (Weber 649).  The Blues movement championed the enduring and powerful spirit of black people, while the Aristotelian tradition called for a tragic protagonist to meet his demise (Weber 649). Because of these two influences, Weber says Wilson had to choose between giving the flawed character what he seemingly deserved, or giving him a happy ending because he was black. The play’s ending was also complicated by the fact that this was an atypical type of play for Wilson, focusing on one main character instead of a slew of secondary ones; so to write the downfall of the main character would be bleak (Weber 655). This problem is exacerbated because as a main character, Troy seemingly stood for so much. As a downtrodden black man in the 1950s, he represents the greater black community. Weber explains this dilemma when he says “if Troy Maxson were to go down in Fences, all of black America would go down with him” (Weber 655).

According to Weber, the ending in Fences is inappropriate not just stylistically, but also because it is inconsistent with the plot. Wilson “avoided saccharine content too assiduously…for this reason, the protagonist’s spiritual deliverance at the end of Fences seems especially incongruous” (Weber 665). Troy was a “tragic bully;” a hardened man who spent time in jail for murdering someone during a robbery, cheated on his wife, and was cruel to his son. All this makes him an unlikely candidate for salvation, yet nevertheless, he is welcomed to heaven after his death. For these reasons, Weber find the ending to be unrelated to Troy’s life.

Though Weber assumes that the play’s ending was linked to Wilson’s racial motivations, I disagree. He is assuming that Wilson, because he was black, wanted to protect his black characters no matter the stylistic errors that would follow. But because Wilson is quoted as saying “’I’m an artist first, a playwright second, and a black third,’” (Weber 673) it seems unlikely that the ending was intended to provide hope to black America. If Wilson had wanted to depict a triumphant black hero, he would not have made Troy so fundamentally stubborn and cruel. Troy refuses to recognize that prospects are changing for blacks in America, and thus will not let Cory play college football (Wilson 906).  When he tells his wife that he has been cheating on her, the words “I’m sorry” are never spoken (Wilson 925). Troy even famously tells his son Corey “’I gave you your life! Me and your mama worked that out between us. And liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain’” (Wilson 909). These acts of stubbornness and cruelty show that Troy is a doomed character who cannot be a black hero. A black hero must rise above the systematic racism that is meant to hold him down, but Troy is content just to complain about the system. Troy will never be able to improve his social standing because he is too cynical, and he will never be able to love genuinely. His flaws are too internal and engrained into his personality to allow him to function as an enduring hero.

Because Troy is a fundamentally flawed character, he could not function as the story’s hero, and he couldn’t be saved.  Although Weber believes Troy was undeservingly spared, in actuality, another character is helped. Troy paid for his sins prior to his death by living estranged from his wife and the rest of his family and friends. He receives no benefit, or at least not the concrete type Troy Maxson would have appreciated, by being redeemed posthumously. The redemption scene instead is a vehicle for another character’s emancipation: Gabriel. Gabriel “believes with every fiber of his being that he is the Archangel Gabriel” (Wilson 901). His delusion is not random or coincidental; early on it integrates Gabriel into the plot instead of casting him as an additional burden for Troy. At the beginning of the play, Gabriel tells Troy that he saw his name in St Peter’s judgment book, foreshadowing that regardless of Troy’s actions, he was always destined for heaven. At the end, it is Gabriel who dances and blows on the broken trumpet he always possesses to open the gates of heaven for Troy. All of these characteristics show that Gabriel, due to his mental impairment, is obsessed with redeeming Troy. The final scene offers freedom for Gabriel, as he is finally able to carry out the duty he thinks his whole life has led up to.  It is a moment of psychological healing for a damaged but deserving individual that embodies the persona of an enduring black hero more than the flawed Troy Maxson ever could.

That this is Gabriel’s duty is even more significant because he and Troy are parallel in many ways. They grew up with the same lowly father but turned out differently, reiterating that the sins of the father are not the sins of the son. While Troy is cruel, even to his wife, Gabriel is devoted to making others feel better. Specifically, Gabriel hands out roses to people, including to Troy’s wife, Rose (Wilson 913). Troy is stubborn and doesn’t want to accept help from anyone, so it is a form of punishment for him to be redeemed by someone he always thought he was above.

Overall, the final scene in Fences as about more than just the dead protagonist. Weber failing to recognize the significance of the ending for Gabriel is parallel to Lyons trying to hug Gabriel when he’s dancing to open the gates of heaven. The ending of the play shows us that salvation can be a selfless act that does not honor the dead, but instead helps the living cope with the awfulness of the life they still have to live. Wilson’s stage note, “it is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand,” (Wilson 942) is about much more than that one scene; it can be generalized to all of life.

 

 

 

Weber, Myles. “Rescuing the Tragic Bully in August Wilson’s Fences.” Southern Review. 50.4

(2014): 648-674. Print.

 

Wilson, August. “Fences.” Literature: A Pocket

Anthology. 6th Ed. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Longman P, 2015. 888-942. Print.

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