Themes and Ideas in Fences, Sweat, and Death of a Salesman

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In this paper, I will be discussing the similarities and differences between the themes of the three plays. The three plays I will be discussing are Fences, Sweat, and Death of a Salesman. Throughout each of these plays, different themes are presented to the audience, but the themes have similarities to one another. I will compare each theme from the plays to one another and explain what makes them different and what makes them similar.

The first play that I will discuss is Fences by August Wilson. The play follows Troy Maxson’s life and the people that surround him. One of the themes of the play is on race and how the characters from the play had to deal with it. Most of the play is set in the 1950s and there had been progress made on race relations but there was still a shadow of it in the country. Fences shows what it was like during this time before the Civil Rights Movement. An example of this is from Bono, “Well, as long as you got your complaint filed, they can’t fire you. That’s what one of them white fellows tell me.” (Act 1, scene 1, page 12). Bono’s comment showed the power that white people had in society during that time.

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Another theme for the play Fences is on dreams and plans. Troy had his dream of becoming a pro baseball player but was stopped due to racial discrimination. Troy’s son Cory wants to play football but Troy refuses to let him play, which destroys Cory’s chances of going to college. Fences explores the damage that can come from one generation not being able to fulfill their dreams can damage the dreams of the next. Troy Maxson still holds bitterness against white people because he feels as if he was passed over because of segregation and discrimination instead of how good his ability to still play was. The emotions involved with being passed over because of discrimination left Troy Maxson angry which he often displayed towards his family. Troy Maxson’s point of view about things drastically affects those around him. Troy Maxson had reached for his dream and failed and instead of encouraging his son to reach for his dream he demeans his son’s achievements. Despite Troy Maxson’s encouragement his son, Cory succeeds in his dream of being recruited by a college football team. As anticipated his father belittles the accomplishment by saying “it ain’t gonna get him nowhere” crushing the young man’s dreams.

Fences also has a theme of betrayal that is shown throughout the play in different ways. Troy betrays almost everyone in his life: his wife, son, brother and best friend. In Act One, Scene one, page twenty, Bono says “I see where you be eyeing her.” This line indicates Troy’s betrayal to his wife with Alberta that destroys his marriage and causes him to lose his family.

Much like Fences, Death of a Salesman has some of the same themes but the way that the characters fulfill those themes are different. Willy Loman is the main character in the play and is a traveling salesman. If the reader or audience looks past the plot into the theme and symbolism used they can see that the plays are more similar than they are different. Despite the different cultural backgrounds of each protagonist they both are tragic heroes that are trying to achieve the American dream as it relates to each character; both of which fail in drastic yet similar ways. The American dream has always been an important factor in many American’s lives as it is to Troy Maxson the protagonists of Fences and to Willy Loman the protagonist of Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman and Troy Maxson are both hardworking men of different cultural backgrounds, with striking similarities in the way they try and fail to achieve the American dream of their era and die in the end without earning the respect they both feel they should have. All the characters in Death of a Salesman are all trying to reach their dreams in one way or another and are frustrated when they face failure. Willy Loman tried to achieve his dream of becoming a world-class salesman but could not succeed. Willy Loman is an insecure self-deluded salesman who believes that to be hardworking, honest and have ambition were the ways of the American Dream. Willy Loman also believes wholeheartedly in his misguided notion that the key to success is being “well-liked” and making money.

In the play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman who is unsuccessful in achieving the American dream finds pleasure in the arms of a mistress; his adulteress affair is like that of Troy Maxson in the play Fences where his affair bears a child. Willy Loman’s need for fulfillment came in the arms of a mistress, as he looked at her and asked, “you picked me, heh?” the audience could tell that he was seeking more than a pleasurable experience, he was looking for someone to want him. Through his extramarital affair, Willy Loman had thought he had found satisfaction as well as gratification. Although, Willy Loman thought he could keep his affair to himself he was soon found out otherwise. Willy Loman’s oldest son, Biff, found out that “his father was having an affair with a strange woman” and all respect that Biff had for his father was lost forever. Biff cries, 'You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!' as he loses what trust and respect he has for his father.

Like Willy Loman, Troy Maxson also has an extramarital affair. One of the many possible reasons Troy Maxson has an affair maybe because of his “complex side” and he possibly “feels trapped”. Troy Maxson longs for something different than his stagnant marriage. While Troy Maxson is with his mistress he feels as if she gives him “a different understanding” about himself. Unlike Willy Loman’s affair, Troy Maxson’s affair yields a child. Willy Loman and Troy Maxson both were seeking the compassion of another woman to fulfill a nagging need they had inside to feel needed and wanted, in the end, it wasn’t the kind of compassion that served them well.

The play Sweat by Lynn Nottage covers the multiple challenges people face at their place of employment. The play centers around the events in the lives of several people who all work at the same factory in Reading, Pennsylvania. The largest theme of this play is on race and class in the workplace. When Cynthia is promoted from shop floor worker to manager and her co-worker and friend Tracey is not, their friendship suffers, and others start making accusations of racially-based preferences. The play also shows how the plant uses ethnicity to divide the workers. Although we see racism in Fences from Troy not being able to play pro baseball, the theme of racism in Sweat is coming from friends of the characters and their employer.

The other theme of the play is the effect of work-life on the family. The employee’s work lives and decisions about organizing affect their children. Jason and Chris are the sons of Cynthia and Tracey who end up on opposite sides over the strike. The young men are workers at the same factory and try to support the strikers. Eventually, the demonstration leads to an attack on Oscar and Stan, who is severely injured, and Jason and Chris are arrested and incarcerated. The fight over worker’s rights takes over a large part of the characters’ lives and Jason and Chris will have criminal records that will stay with them forever.

Much like the other two plays, Sweat also explores the idea of the American Dream but focuses on what happens when that dream is shattered and how those that are affected act. There is an increasing threat of the plant that the main characters work at will shut down and they will lose their jobs. Both Tracey and Cynthia apply for the supervisor position but when Cynthia gets the position, Tracey’s thoughts of hard work and company loyalty are rewarded and respected are shattered.

Though the three plays were written in different points of time, they still had similar themes that shaped the plays. The plays explore racism, the effects of work-life on family, and the American Dream. Each character from the plays is affected by these themes in different ways and is faced with challenges that affect themselves, their families, and friends.

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Themes and Ideas in Fences, Sweat, and Death of a Salesman. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/themes-and-ideas-in-fences-sweat-and-death-of-a-salesman/
“Themes and Ideas in Fences, Sweat, and Death of a Salesman.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/themes-and-ideas-in-fences-sweat-and-death-of-a-salesman/
Themes and Ideas in Fences, Sweat, and Death of a Salesman. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/themes-and-ideas-in-fences-sweat-and-death-of-a-salesman/> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Themes and Ideas in Fences, Sweat, and Death of a Salesman [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/themes-and-ideas-in-fences-sweat-and-death-of-a-salesman/
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