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Troy Maxson and Realism in “Fences” Play by Wilson


Readers cannot always pinpoint elements of fiction that makes it different from reality, which is reflective of the mastery some writers have in terms of constructing a compelling work of literature. Apart from the storyline, characterization has the ability to engage readers and make the story realistic and relatable. In order to build a fictional world that would resemble reality, authors often incorporate morally ambiguous characters into the storyline. August Wilson took a riskier route and put a morally questionable character at the center of the narrative in his 1985 play Fences. Troy Maxson, a middle-aged African-American trash collector in 1950s America, serves as a realistic representation of a kind-hearted man who has fallen victim to his unfortunate circumstances. Although Troy seems to love his family, he hurts it as well, failing to support his sons’ aspirations and cheating on his wife. His motivations are complex and multi-dimensional, combining the laudable desire to help his loved ones with selfish and hypocritical tendencies. This essay is going to examine the realism that lies at the heart of moral ambiguity in fiction by focusing on Troy Maxson’s intentions and actions.

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Troy Maxson’s Background

August Wilson masterfully crafts Fences‘ main character by providing him with a compelling back story that manages to justify some of his actions. Troy Maxson’s rough childhood has been primarily affected by his father’s incompetence as a parent. As a result, Troy moves to Pittsburgh and turns to illegal ways to make money due to the close-minded mindset he has ‘inherited’ from his abusive father. During an attempted robbery, he inadvertently killed a man who shot him in self-defense, ending up in jail. While Troy eventually reformed and came to regret this incident, it exhibited his persistent tendency to put his needs first without considering the possible consequences for others. Although Troy’s behavior here and later is explained mainly by desperate circumstances and ignorance, those factors cannot entirely excuse actions that led to such a grave outcome.

The Battle of Progressive and Conservative Ideas on Racial Equality

Troy can be appreciated by readers due to his willingness to call out the unfair treatment of black people in 1950s America. Shaped by his experience as a young African-American athlete, Troy believes that segregation is the reason for his failure as a professional baseball player. After his release from prison, Troy decides to focus on starting a family and working hard to provide for it. Unfortunately, he faces racial injustice at his workplace as well due to the fact that blacks are only hired to carry garbage while whites get an opportunity to be trutruck driversroy serves as an embodiment of emerging social justice trends when he decides to protest the unfair treatment. This incident shows the positive qualities Troy possesses. However, his moral character is questioned yet again after he fails to acknowledge his sons’ desire to challenge existing race relations.

Cory and Lyons decide to go beyond the traditional roles allocated to black men in segregated America. For instance, Cory seeks an opportunity to play professional football due to the fact the black and white leagues have started to merge into one. Troy fights Cory and forbids him to play football. He justifies his radical stance by reminding his son of racial discrimination he has faced as a promising African-American athlete. Troy’s wife, Rose, admits, “your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t…and at the same time he, tried to make you into everything he was” (Wilson 97). Likewise, he is very critical of Lyons’ choice of career as a musician. Troy’s fight for racial equality and fair treatment of blacks and whites does not go beyond himself. He does not extend his willingness to challenge racial discrimination to his sons and their decision to do the same exact thing.

Fatherly Love or Envy?

Troy’s negative attitude towards his sons’ career ambitions lends itself to different interpretations. On the one hand, Troy has good reason to doubt that they would find success in a society full of racial discrimination. His own experience makes it reasonable to infer that they would be better off finding more steady blue-collar jobs than pursuing ‘impractical’ dreams. He tells them, “go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade” (Wilson 35). Such statements suggest a reasonable fatherly concern about his children’s future. On the other hand, it is not difficult to detect an undercurrent of resentment at the greater opportunities available to the next generation in his harsh criticism of their choices. It shows through when he rebukes Lyons for being too careless about money: “I done spent too many years without” (Wilson 18). In denying Cory and Lyons his support, Troy may be acting out of envy as well as a legitimate concern. Those discordant motivations are difficult to disentangle from each other, reinforcing the character’s ambiguity.

My Brother’s Keeper

One instance of Troy’s moral ambiguity that is virtually acknowledged by the character himself is his treatment of his brother Gabriel. Having returned from the war with a head injury, Gabriel is seemingly incapable of adequately taking care of himself. Thus, Troy used Gabriel’s state pension to purchase a house for his family, allowing his brother to stay with them. As Rose says, “Gabe wasn’t in no condition to manage that money” (Wilson 28), and it may be argued that he was better off this way. Nevertheless, having to take money from his mentally disabled brother seems to cause Troy unease. Has he done the best thing possible for all his relatives, or has he exploited Gabriel for self-serving ends? Furthermore, is Gabriel, who recently moved out, so wrong to suppose that Troy is mad at him? After all, he may resent the loss of income this implies. Although the family’s bleak financial circumstances may justify Troy’s actions in this instance, it still raises painful questions.

Troy’s Struggles as a Husband

Hypocrisy serves as a fundamental building block of Troy’s moral ambiguity. The practicality that drives his criticism of his sons all but disappears when it comes to his affair with Alberta. He cheats on his wife, which is something not grounded in practicality but purely motivated by his own needs and desires. It is important to acknowledge that Troy has to provide for his entire family and face unfair treatment at work, which brings him much stress. This stress drives him to seek relief in an affair, which undermines the very family he worked to support and hurts his long-suffering wife. Rose admits, “I wanted a house that I could sing in. And that’s what your daddy gave me. I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine…” (Wilson 98). While Troy’s behavior is hypocritical and unfair, it is also easy to understand and sympathize with, enhancing the character’s complex characterization.

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Use of Moral Ambiguity

Moral ambiguity is a crucial instrument that allows writers to engage and entertain the audience. Michael Rapp of Medium argues that morally conflicted characters allow people to “see varying shades of gray, a true spectrum of humanity without the rose-tinted glasses getting in the way.” Readers are more engaged in the storylines that feature such characters since they seem the most relatable and authentic. A study published in Human Communication Research confirms that exposure to a morally ambiguous character “makes people who are feeling insecure about their own moralities feel better” (Krakowiak and Tsay-Vogel 398). Characters that possess “an enthralling mix of good and bad traits” play an important role in making the story entertaining since readers often do not know what is going to happen next (Ehrlich). Troy Maxson presents an excellent example of a morally ambiguous character due to his complex motivations and personality. Driven by a combination of selfish and selfless motives, he makes difficult decisions in complicated circumstances that evoke the audience’s sympathies while interrogating their sense of morality.


In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge the significance of moral ambiguity in literature. Morality is a controversial and highly debatable topic for discussion, which makes the examination of Troy Maxson’s character fascinating. Many of Troy’s decisions arise from adapting all too well to the dehumanizing circumstances of discrimination and poverty. He often acts in an inconsiderate or ruthless fashion because he sees it as necessary. Insofar as many of his actions originate from his desire to provide for his family, Troy comes across as a sympathetic though flawed character whose fundamental good nature has been deformed by personal experience. However, he can also behave in selfish and hypocritical ways, enhancing his ambiguity. Although his family owes him much, Troy has also inflicted considerable pain throughout his life. Likewise, though he has exhibited some personal growth, it is necessarily limited, as he struggles to acknowledge fault or make amends. The final result is a humanly flawed and thus very compelling character whose tangled motivations possess a timeless relevance.


Ehrlich, Lara. “Allure of the Antihero.” The Brink, 2016, Web.

Krakowiak, Maja, and Mina Tsay-Vogel. “The Dual Role of Morally Ambiguous Characters: Examining the Effect of Mortality Salience on Narrative Responses.” Human Communication Research, vol. 41, 2015, pp. 390–411, Web.

Rapp, Michael. “Harnessing Moral Ambiguity in Fiction.” Medium, 2019, Web.

Wilson, August. Fences. Plume, 1986.

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