August Wilson’s powerful play Fences is set in the 1950s and examines historic racism in America. The play is the sixth in a 10-part series called the Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle. Fences explores themes relating to the American Dream, family, gender roles, and responsibility and provides many opportunities for class discussion, including the duality of characters’ actions—how their decisions and behavior are perceived and the consequences resulting from them. For example, in his attempt to protect his son from discrimination, Troy sabotages Cory’s chance for a college education and a better future. Was his decision truly in Cory’s best interest, or was Troy simply jealous of his son’s potential?

A lesson on sharecroppers and racial segregation prior to the 1960s, including baseball’s Negro Leagues, will give students a foundation for understanding the setting and what influences the characters’ world views. Students should know that during the late 1950s, America inched toward racial progress because people of color began to more vocally oppose their mistreatment as they campaigned for equal rights. Students can analyze how changing race relations contribute to Troy’s alienation from his family.

Students will gain an even deeper level of understanding of the play by analyzing the literal and metaphorical significance of fences, the symbolism of Gabriel’s and Troy’s names, baseball metaphors, and the importance of songs.

Summary of Fences

Key Facts

  • First Performed: 1985
  • Publication Date: 1986
  • Length: 101 pages
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12
  • Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1987)
  • Tony Award for Best Play (1987)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play (1987)

The play opens in 1957 in an industrial city. Two Black men, Troy Maxson and his close friend, Bono, are at Troy’s house talking and drinking. Bono suspects that Troy is having an affair (a truth that Troy denies). Troy, a trash collector, wants to be a driver, a job given only to white men. They also talk about Cory, Troy’s son, who has been recruited by a college to play football. Troy worries that Cory will face racial discrimination, just as Troy did when he played baseball. He won’t allow Cory this opportunity, which causes conflict in their relationship. His other son, Lyons, comes over to borrow money. The next day, Troy’s wife, Rose, reminds Troy that he promised to fix their fence. Gabriel, Troy’s brother, stops by. Gabriel is physically and psychologically damaged from a head injury he received in WWII. Troy used Gabriel’s disability money to buy a house and struggles with guilt about it.

Troy’s mistress, Alberta, is pregnant, and she dies in childbirth. Rose agrees to care for the baby. She tells Troy that she will remain married to him, but in name only. Cory continues to have a contentious relationship with his father, which culminates in Cory’s leaving home.

Several years later, Cory, now a Marine, returns home to attend his father’s funeral. He nearly changes his mind, but Rose states that it’s disrespectful not to go. Cory, Rose, Lyons, Gabriel, and Cory’s half-sister, Raynell, gain closure through forgiveness.

Content Warning: Characters use racial epithets and coarse language, and there are scenes of violence, mental abuse, and sexual situations.

What Your Students Will Love About Fences

  • The compelling characters and Rose’s dramatic monologue
  • Examining how race relations affected the characters’ dreams and relationships

Potential Student Struggles With Fences

  • The time jumps between acts and scenes
  • Students may find Troy an unlikeable and unsympathetic character.

Learning Objectives for Fences

  • State the significance of the play’s title, relating it to specific events in the play
  • Recognize patterns in the Maxson men’s lives and compare Lyons and Cory to Troy and to each other; additionally, compare Troy’s relationship with his father to Cory’s with Troy
  • Identify the antagonist(s) of the play from the perspectives of Troy, Rose, Lyons, and Cory
  • Discuss the use of songs and music in the play
  • Examine what Death and the Devil mean to Troy
  • Reflect upon the role Gabriel plays in Troy’s life, as well as upon the symbolic significance of the brothers’ names
  • Compare the roles of men and women
  • Assess whether Troy’s failures are a result of his bad decisions, a flawed society, or both

Literary Elements in Fences

  • Allusion
  • Dramatic conventions
  • Foil
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Symbolism
  • Theme
  • Tragic Hero
  • And more!

Major Themes in Fences

Racism — Troy has experienced racial discrimination as a baseball player and as a trash collector. The Maxsons have struggled to achieve their dreams in the 1950s, before Black Americans gained equal rights.

Related Works:

Parent-Child Relationships — Troy’s father was argumentative and abusive; while he tries to be a good parent to his own children, Troy continues the pattern of conflict.

Related Works:

Betrayal — Troy betrays Cory and other members of his family in various ways: letting down his son; having an extramarital affair; taking advantage of Gabriel; alienating Bono and his other friends.

Related Works:

Other Resources for Fences

Order Fences Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Fences Paperback Student Edition
Fences Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Fences AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Fences Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Fences Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Fences Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

This free guide was originally posted in January 2017 and updated in September 2020.