The Irresponsibility of Distorted Responsibility: Duty and Responsibility in August Wilson’s Fences Essay

            John D. Rockefeller Jr. once said, “I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty”. Responsibility is defined as the act of being required to give an account of one’s duties or obligations. Responsibility is required of every human being in some shape, sort, or form. Fathers and mothers owe responsibility to their children, citizens to their country, spouses to each other, and so on and so forth. If one cannot accept and fulfill a certain responsibility then how can they expect anyone to show responsibility towards them? If one person fails to accept their responsibility and act upon it, then a chain reaction of unhealthy and destructive situations can erupt. Even when people do accept “their responsibility”, they can have a distorted understanding of what their responsibility truly is and how it should be handled. In August Wilson’s Fences, the main character of Troy Maxson carries his large number of responsibilities with cynical, heart hardened, self righteous views that end up destroying the relationships that were his duty to protect as he tries to carry out and then escape from them.

         From an outsiders unbiased and unknowing perspective, at the ripe age of fifty- three years, Troy Maxson would appear to be a responsible employee, husband, son, brother, friend and, in general, man. “He is a hardworking man who has managed to buy a home and, as head of his household, exercises control over the lives of his wife and sons” (Nadel). Troy Maxson held a steady job working as a garbage collector for the city. He was a reliable employee with enough dignity to stand up and fight for the duty he believed he owed to his race of African Americans. When he feels there was an injustice placed against him and his fellow black men, he takes his complaints to his boss and then to the union which led to a win and gain in respect and position for the black employees of the company. This feeling of responsibility leads to Troy doing the responsible thing and speaking up.

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            Since he kept his job, Troy is able to be a dependable provider for his family. “Troy believes that economic independence, earned through hard work and careful money management, is the primary sign of manhood” (Nadel). By being the primary bread giver of the family, Troy is needed to keep his family functioning. Even though, “his home ownership was made possible only by a somewhat dubious of his brother Gabriel’s disability award”, Troy is the only reason his family is able to continue functioning on a day-to-day basis. (Nadel) Also, by accepting Gabriel’s disability money and putting towards such a solid investment as a home, he is able to put a roof over the

head and put food in the mouth of his disabled brother. Even though, this action may be frowned upon, it did logically benefit Gabriel in the long run. Gabriel was able to live a happy life while being taken care of while living in a home that was acquired due mainly to his help.

         As a father, Troy showed responsibility to both of his sons. In addition to having financial responsibility, Troy also tries to teach lessons about responsibility through his stories. He used his stories, such as the story about making a deal to pay his ten dollars a month for his furniture, to “teach the expected ideals about duty” to his sons. (Blumenthal) Lyons knows that his father is financially responsible enough to be a dependable source to borrow money from. By giving Lyons a hard time about borrowing the money, Troy also teaches him the importance of being responsible enough to pay back what he owes. Also, beyond stressing “the practical and responsible avoidance of borrowing”, Troy also provides insight that:

Even responsible payment, such as Troy enacted in the story, can become a mentally destructive way of life from which escape is difficult when one fears to stop paying: habitual enactment of responsibility can ironically become as damaging in extreme cases as irresponsibility itself. (Wilson)

Troy also teaches Cory how to be financially responsible at a young age by making him get a “real” job. Troy does not want Cory to fail as an athlete and have nothing, so by forcing him to quit the football team and go to work at A & P, Troy sees himself being responsible for his son. Troy himself was shunned as an athlete by the white population and did not want his son to face the same criticism and disappointment. He wants his sons to have steady careers that would make them as stable a provider as he was capable of being for them. He has times in his earlier life when he was unable to make an honest living for his family and never wanted that to be the case for his boys or their families.

            In addition to his sons and brother, Troy also showed responsibility to his beautiful wife, Rose, and his friend, Bono. Before his affair, Troy tried to be there for Rose just as she was devoted and supportive for him throughout their marriage. Rose was a beautiful soul that cared for her husband. She was also a force to “keep you straight if you get off the track” as Bono said. (Wilson) Even after his affair, Troy was still financially supportive of Rose. Since he was the primary bread giver of the family, Rose had to be financially dependant upon her husband. When considering the relationship that Troy had with Bono, there was a certain responsibility that each man owed to each other. Troy and Bono had created a bond while in prison and continued this friendship once they were released. This duty to each other was present and something that Troy respected.

            From a very early age, Troy was taught ideals about responsibility. The examples a child sees about core values can leave a forever lasting impression upon them. Troy had a difficult childhood in which he dealt with a hard, harsh, and abusive father. But, “Troy recalls his father’s sense of responsibility and recalcitrance: ‘My daddy ain’t had them walking blues! What you talking about? He stayed right there with his family. But he was just as evil as he could be… He wasn’t good for nobody” (Brewer). By being brought up in a home that lacked warmth and emotionally responsible parents, Troy never learned how to properly run and care for a family. As Brewer states, “Fences stages the stresses and tensions whereby sons attempt to both escape and emulate fathers.” Troy did exactly this. After the terrible confrontation he faced with his father at age fourteen, Troy wanted nothing more than to escape this man he refers to as the “devil himself.” (Wilson) That is exactly what he does. He leaves his family farm wanting to escape this oppressive force that had born down on him for the first part of his life.

            When he leaves the farm, he takes with him only the ideals about responsibility and duty that he learned from his father whom he hated. He knew nothing better and therefore continued in his life with this burden of misconstrued understanding and lacking the grasp of how one must be emotionally connected and responsible to their family. “From his father, Troy inherits the burden of economic responsibility for the family. Meanwhile, he becomes the same emotionally estranged tyrant” (Brewer). Without intentionally doing so, Troy emulated his father almost exactly. He became the same type of irresponsibly responsible father that his was.

            As Troy becomes a father himself, he treats his sons very similar to the way his father treated him. This passing down this treatment will create a chain that, unless someone realizes it and changes their ways, will continue infinitely. Even though Troy was a better person than his father in some ways such as not being physically abusive or an alcoholic, there were many evident parts about him that mirrored the father he hated.

            Troy never grasps the idea of being emotionally responsible for the relationships he holds. He is always at arms length from all the people that care about him. He establishes fences that isolate himself from everybody and never allows him to make strong lasting connections that would, in the end, have saved him. David Galens states this situation ideally: “While he realizes the financial responsibility of being the head of a family, he fails to grasp the emotional part of the job”. Troy lacks the warmth necessary to keep the relationships between a husband and wife, father and son, brothers, and friends healthy.

            The relationship a father has with his children is one that is vitally important to the development of that person. As previously mentioned, Troy did not have a healthy relationship with his father at all. Without this stimulation and lacking the necessary childhood experiences of this relationship, he did not know how to properly care and love for his sons. Troy was ultra critical of each of his sons. He never supported Lyons in pursuing his dreams as a musician. After so much criticism, Lyons finally breaks and tells his father, “You can’t change me, Pop. I am thirty-four years old. If you wanted to changed me you should have been there when I was growing up” (Wilson). Lyons sees the fact that his father was not a proper father figure in his life and knows this should have been different. Lyons knows that, even though he is not the most responsible individual, he must be a more devoted father than his was. This understanding would be the first step in breaking the chain of poor father to son relationships. “Even as Troy’s stories argue for ‘duty’, Wilson has Troy unfold with accumulating fullness and depth in the irony of the moral ambiguities implicit in conventional ideas about duty to family when they are applied to a black family many like Troy in the pre-civil rights era” (Blumethal). While he has good intentions behind the stories, Troy misses the true lessons he should have been teaching his sons.

Cory and Troy never got along well throughout his childhood. Just as he was with Lyons, Troy was hyper critical with Cory, always giving him a hard time about every minute detail of his life. Cory finally breaks down as asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” (Wilson) Troy’s response to this question clearly explains how he sees his role as a father:

Like you? I go out there 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! You understand that?  A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house… sleep you behind on my bedclothes… fill you belly up with my food… cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! Let’s get this straight right here… before it go along any further… I ain’t got to like you. (Wilson)

Troy completely misses the true responsibility he owes to his son. He owes him love and appreciation and a nurturing hand. Troy completely failed to be an emotionally responsible father in the lives of both of his sons. Lyons and Cory will suffer for the rest of their lives because of what they missed from their father in their childhood and sadly, beyond that, their children may suffer for the same mistake.

            As a friend, Troy was not always there for his friend Bono. They seemed to have a single way relationship in which Bono admired Troy and Troy simply enjoyed the attention and gloated in it. When the hard times came coming and Troy starts to slip into infidelity, Bono warned him that “if you try and juggle both of them…. Sooner or later you gonna drop one of them.” (Wilson) As a friend, Troy owed it to Bono to respect his opinion and advice and he did not. After Troy’s affair, Bono lost almost all of the respect he had once had for him.

            The relationship that Troy perhaps failed at more than any other was his marriage. “Troy Maxson has committed the unforgivable. He has, sadly, wronged the beautiful Rose. The durable pinewood fence the Rose wanted to keep her family in, to keep them protected, was not constructed in time.” (Walton) When a bride and groom take their wedding vows, they commit to having a duty and responsibility to each other, to be faithful and always be there for each other. In his infidelity with Alberta, Troy was completely irresponsible towards Rose and lost everything that they had built up in their marriage. “His affair with Alberta represents his attempt to escape the responsibility he feels for his wife, sons, and home.” (Galens) By trying to escape his biggest responsibility, Troy commits an act of totally irresponsibility.  He fails in his duty to Rose entirely.

            Along with his mistake, came consequences. “Troy realizes with a child coming, he must accept responsibility for what he has done.” (Galens) As this new responsibility comes into his life, instead of taking it on himself, he passes it along to Rose. Rose then takes this responsibility like the angel she is.

Okay, Troy… you’re right. I’ll take care of your baby for you… cause… like you say… she’s innocent…. And you can’t visit the sins of the father upon the child. A motherless child has got a hard time. From right now… this child got a mother. But you a womanless man. (Wilson)

Due to Troy’s continued irresponsibility, Rose must then take more responsibility onto her back. Rose never let down her responsibility to Troy like he did to her.

            Troy Maxson was a man who carried his responsibilities on his back with the wrong understanding of the definition of responsibility. Because he cannot handle the emotional part of his duties, “Troy finally succeeds in isolating himself from his wife, his brother, his sons, and his friends” (Galens). Troy used the example his father placed before him of responsibility and duty to run his family, which ended up building fences that prohibited him from being able to make the emotional commitment deserved by his loved ones.

Works Cited

Blumenthal, Anna S. “‘More stories Than the Devil Got Sinners’: Troy’s Stories in

August Wilson’s Fences.” American Drama. 9.2 (Spring 2000): 74-96.

Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 222.

 Detroit: Gale, 2006. 74-96. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale.

NHMCCD DISTRICT SERVICES. 25 Oct. 2009

<http://go.galegroup.com.lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRG&u

=nhmccd_main>.

Brewer, Gaylord. “Holy and Unholy Ghosts: The Legacy of the Father in the Plays

of August Wilson.” Naming the Father: Legacies, Genealogies, and

Explorations of Fatherhood in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Ed. Eva Paulino Bueno, William Hummel, and Terry Caesar Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000. 120-139. Rpt. in Drama Criticism. Vol. 31. Detroit: Gale, 120-139. Literature Resource Center. Gale. NHMCCD DISTRICT SERVICES. 25 Oct. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com.lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=nhmccd_main>.

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1998. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. NHMCCD DISTRICT           SERVICES. 25 Oct. 2009

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Nadel, Alan. “May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August

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Walton, James E. “Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman and Fences’s Troy

Maxson: Pursuers of the Elusive American Dream.” CLA Journal. 47.1

(Sept. 2003): 55-65. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 210. Detroit: Gale, 55-65. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. NHMCCD DISTRICT SERVICES. 25 Oct. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com.lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRG&u=nhmccd_main>.

Wilson, August. Fences.. Literature: Craft and Voice. Volume 3: Drama

Eds. Nicolas Delblanco & Alan Cheuse. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2009. 422-455.             Print.