A tragic hero, according to Aristotle, must be an object of both pity and fear because tragedy represents fearful and pitiable things. He believes that the responses of fear and pity are closely intertwined in that the hero must endure a change in fortune that is often undesirable or the reverse (Halliwell 50). This change materializes mainly as a result of things that happen contrary to the expectations, but on account of one another. By combining this view of emotions and Aristotle’s utterance in the poetics, one arrives at three requirements for a character to be a hero:
- the character must be morally upright and generally undeserving of the anguish they encounter;
- they must be comparable to the members of the audience;
- their downfall must not necessarily be simply arbitrary, but rather, causally intelligible.
In the movie Fences, the character of Troy Maxton apparently meets this Aristotelian criterion of a tragic hero. The movie portrays him as a self-supporting but troubled and bitter protagonist who believes that everything he does is committed to his family. This ideology constraints his thoughts and actions, which leads him to turn a deaf ear to his friends and family. As a consequence, Troy is spiritually wounded by his experiences.
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The audience is introduced to Troy as a tragic hero when it learns about his judgmental nature and unspontaneous superior perception of himself. He re-cants many stories to exaggerate his experiences in order to model himself in a righteous manner. Contrary to what he communicates in his stories, his comportment exposes him as an imprudent man who engages himself in irrational things. This is well illustrated by his narration of his own bravery and confidence, where he describes his triumph over ‘death’: “I looked at death in the eye, I didn’t fear nothing” (2.18.49). At one point, the audience sees him reprimanding his family about the right way of living while in another, it witnesses his childlike behavior. Aside from this bad side of him, Troy was a talented baseball player in his past life. In fact, having been a member of the Negro Baseball League (NBL), he was a hero of his time. Unfortunately, this heroism is greatly overshadowed by his fears and concerns.
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In accordance with Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero, the movie portrays Troy as a morally upright individual just before his doom (Jones 13). His actions are clearly directed towards protecting his family. After receiving his monthly salary, he delivers it to his wife in full. He is also concerned about Cory’s education as well as the welfare of his older son Lyon. Altogether, Troy is a hardworking individual who strives to provide for his family and a centerpiece that unites all the relationships in Fences.
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Unfortunately, in fulfillment of the second requirement of the Aristotelian tragic hero, Troy demonstrates a flaw in judgment (Reeves 174). He lives in the shadows of the self that he should have been. As far as the audience knows, his actions are mainly informed and influenced by his past. He struggles to accept the mistakes he has committed and the negative realities in his life, which leads him to live within the confines of denial and bitterness. As a bitter man, his reality weighs resentfully with him so much that it affects his judgment. This is evident in his relationship with Troy. While Cory is overjoyed for being chosen for a college football scholarship, Troy is strongly against the idea. He tells his wife, “I don’t want him to be like me” (2.18.49). One of the greatest of Troy’s resentments is that he was not allowed to play baseball because of racial discrimination. He uses this as a reason to reject Cory’s admission into the college baseball team. Troy’s friend, Bono, attempts to convince him otherwise, “Times have changed, Troy “(1.1.77). But Troy quickly dismisses him and tells his son that “The white man ain’t going to let you get nowhere with that football no way” (1.3.78). The use of his horrible past to make a decision in his present life is his flaw of judgement.
Troy’s flaw in judgement results to his underserved suffering which further resonates with Aristotle’s third requirement in the definition of a tragic hero. Due to his bitterness and the subsequent irrational decision he makes, Troy suffers more than he deserves. A good case in point to illustrate this is when he goes against the advice of Bono to maintain an extramarital relationship with Alberta. Bono warns him by telling him that her wife loves him, “She loves you, Troy, Rose loves you” (1.16.39). Troy’s actions come at a great cost; he is spiritually wounded by is actions, especially when Alberta dies during child birth. He is also unable to build a fence with his sons and to support his wife and family emotionally. In general, he is remorseful of his failures.
Even though Troy’s character perfectly fits the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero, he does not fulfill the full description of a classic tragic hero. This owes to his lack of self-revealing moment at the end of the story. Certainly, Troy suffers from his flaws in judgement in character and causes pain for those around him. He fails to own his mistakes and remains an angry man who is afraid to deal with his own demons. This is clearly revealed when Rose says “anything he can’t understand, he is calling the devil” (2.18.49).
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In conclusion, the movie Fences portrays the character of Troy Maxton as an Aristotelian tragic hero. The movie presents him as a self-supporting but troubled and bitter protagonist who believes that everything he does is committed to his family. This ideology constraints his thoughts and actions, which leads him to turn a deaf ear to his friends and family. As a consequence, Troy is spiritually wounded by his experiences.
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