How It All Goes Down
The first act of the play is a swirling portrait of Troy Maxson's life. We meet all the main people surrounding Troy. There's his best friend, Bono, whom he met while in prison. Now the two work together as garbage collectors and sip gin every Friday night. Then there's Rose, Troy's loving and dutiful wife. Lyons, Troy's son from a previous relationship, stops by to borrow some money. We also meet Gabriel, Troy's brother, who suffers from a World War II head wound and now thinks he is the archangel Gabriel. Last, there's Cory, Troy's son by Rose.
Wilson plants all the major conflicts of the play in the first act. Troy is trying to break the racial barrier at work by becoming the first black garbage truck driver. This conflict is actually quickly resolved as Troy wins his battle. We also get strong hints in the first act that Troy is having an affair with a woman named Alberta.
Ultimately, however, it seems that the main conflict of the play will involve Troy's son Cory. Cory has the chance to go to college on a football scholarship, but Troy refuses to sign the permission paper. Troy says he doesn't want his son to suffer from the same racial discrimination that kept Troy from being a pro baseball player. This tension comes to a head when Troy tells Cory's high school football coach that Cory can't play football anymore, which destroys Cory's hopes of going to college.
Things start to go really bad for Troy in the play's second act. When Alberta becomes pregnant, he's forced to fess up to Rose about his affair. Making matters worse, Alberta dies in childbirth. Rose agrees to raise the baby girl, Raynell, but says she no longer considers herself Troy's woman.
Not only does Troy lose his mistress and his wife, he also loses his best friend, Bono. We learn that the two men no longer hang out. This is partly because ever since Troy got the promotion to driver, the two don't work together anymore. More than that, though, it seems like Bono is really disappointed in Troy for having the affair. We also learn that Troy has had Gabriel put away in a mental hospital. Rose accuses him of doing this just to get half of Gabriel's disability check.
The play comes to a climax when tensions explode between Troy and Cory and the two go at each other with a baseball bat. Though Troy wins the fight, he loses his son forever.
The last scene of the play takes place years later on the day of Troy's funeral. We see Cory return home in a military uniform. He's gone out and made his own way in the world but is still struggling with the shadow of his father. He considers not going to the funeral, but is talked out of it by Rose. We're given hope that Cory is on the path to becoming his own man and forgiving his father when he and young Raynell sing a song together in honor of Troy.
The play concludes when Gabriel returns. He tries to blow his trumpet to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out, he does a ritualistic dance and chant. In the play's final moment, we're told the gates of heaven are wide open.
Though Troy Maxson definitely wouldn't win any awards for congeniality, he's widely considered to be one of the greatest characters of the American stage. He's often cited as a perfect example of a modern-day tragic hero, right up there with Arthur Miller's Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Some critics even place Maxson on the same level as classical tragic heroes like Oedipus and Macbeth (read more). Wow, that's pretty highfalutin company. Our question is: how does Troy manage to play on the same team as these guys?
For one thing, like every tragic hero, Troy has a clear-cut case of hamartia. This word is commonly translated from the Greek as "tragic flaw"; however, a more direct translation is "missing of the mark."
That's a perfect way to describe almost everything Troy Maxson does. Though he used be able to knock a baseball out of the park like it was nothing, he constantly "misses the mark" in his personal life. Like most tragic heroes, Troy does whatever he thinks is right. Even though the people around him warn him that the things he's doing may have tragic consequences, he stubbornly pursues his own course of action.
Troy's relationship with his son Cory is good example of how he misses the mark. Cory is overjoyed because he's been selected for a college football scholarship. Like his father, Cory loves sports, and this is his one chance to go to college. Troy, however, is dead-set against Cory going off to play football.
One of the greatest sources of disappointment in Troy's life is the fact that he wasn't allowed to play pro baseball. Though he was a homerun king of the Negro Leagues, he couldn't graduate to the majors because of racial discrimination. Troy refuses to let his son play football, claiming that he doesn't want Cory to suffer from the same sort of heartache.
Everyone around Troy tries to make him see that times have changed, and that Cory will have a better chance. His wife Rose tells him, "They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football" (1.1.76). Troy's best friend, Bono, says, "Times have changed, Troy, you just come along too early" (1.1.77). Cory points out to his father several current black baseball players, like the famous Hank Aaron. Troy dismisses all of this and tells his son, "The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway" (1.3.78).
Troy can't acknowledge that times have changed. Much like Oedipus, he refuses to heed the warning signs. Instead of giving in to what everyone around him says, he chooses his own course of action, based on his own delusions. Instead of allowing his son to pursue football and college, Troy destroys his son's dreams, refusing to sign the permission paper and preventing the college recruiter from coming.
Cory accuses his father of doing this out of jealousy, saying, "You just scared I'm gonna be better than you, that's all" (1.4.166). On some level, this may be true. Troy never admits this, though. He tells Rose, "I got sense enough not to let my boy get hurt playing no sports" (1.3.123). In Troy's mind, he doesn't halt Cory's sports career out of jealousy, but out of a fatherly urge to protect his son. We have a feeling that Troy puts an end to Cory's football dreams out of both his own bitterness and an urge to protect his son. It's just these sorts of incongruous collisions inside characters that make them complex.
In the end, Troy loses his son forever. Like his tragic hero teammates, Troy dedicates himself to a course of action that he thinks is right, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Troy misses the mark by doing the wrong thing for what he thinks are the right reasons. This tragic case of hamartia simultaneously destroys his family and creates a place for Troy on a very select team of tragic heroes.
At the beginning of the play, it seems like Cory is really trying to be like his father. Rose even points this out to Troy, saying, "He's just trying to be like you with the sports" (1.3.118). In one scene, we see Cory try over and over to engage his father in a conversation about baseball, but Troy constantly shoots him down. Later on in the play, we actually see Cory pick up Troy's bat and attempt to hit the rag ball in the front yard the way his father does. It's pretty ironic that Cory tries to be like his father by playing sports, because this is precisely the issue that tears them apart. (For more on that, check out Troy's "Character Analysis.")
Though Cory begins the play trying to be like his father, he ends it trying to escape him. We see Cory return home on the day of Troy's funeral wearing a Marine corporal's uniform. Stage directions tell us, "His posture is that of a military man, and his speech has a clipped sternness" (2.5.14). It definitely seems like Cory has been through a lot since Troy kicked him out seven years earlier. We learn in this scene that Cory plans to get married soon. It seems like he's definitely on the road to becoming his own man, but he's still haunted by his father. He tells Rose:
The whole time I was growing up...living in his house...Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere. It weighed on you and sunk into your flesh. It would wrap around you and lay there until you couldn't tell which one was you anymore....I've got to find a way to get rid of that shadow, Mama. (2.5.81)
At first, Cory tells his mother he's not going to Troy's funeral. He sees this as his last chance to "say no" to his father (1.5.79). Rose goes off on her son, saying that being disrespectful to his father isn't going to make him any more of a man. She advises her son, "That shadow wasn't nothing but you growing to yourself. You got to either grow into it or cut it down to fit you" (1.5.86). She continues, saying that she's trying to raise Raynell, Troy's illegitimate daughter, the same way Troy raised Cory: "I'm gonna give her the best of what's in me" (2.5.88).
In the end, we're given hope that Cory will be able to find some middle ground. It seems likely that he'll be able to take the good things his father taught him and, perhaps, leave the bad things behind. It could be that the violent cycle of father-son rivalry that began between Troy and his father and continued with Troy and Cory may just be over. This moment of hope comes when Cory and Raynell sing a song that Troy used to always sing about a dog named Blue. When the two sing "Blue laid down and died like a man / Now he's treeing possums in the Promised Land" it seems pretty clear that they're really singing about Troy (2.5.101). When Cory sings, "You know Blue was a good old dog," it seems he may be finding peace with the shadow of his father (2.5.97).
Rose is Troy's ever-dutiful wife. As far as homemakers go, she'd put Martha Stewart to shame, and her cooking skills would make Rachel Ray blush. Rose is in some ways what you might expect of a 1950s-era housewife. She's always at home, cleaning or cooking. And, most important for a housewife of the time, she stands by her man. Even though Troy can be a jerk, Rose sticks by him for most of the play.
Don't get us wrong, Rose is no doormat. She doesn't let Troy walk all over her; she always calls him on his crap. When he makes inappropriate sexual remarks in front of company, she tells him that's not cool. When he exaggerates stories, she sets him straight. When she learns about his affair, she tells him off, saying, "You always talking about what you give...and what you don't have to give. But you take too. You take...and don't even know nobody's giving!" (2.1.122).
Perhaps the most telling moment for Rose is when she agrees to help raise Raynell. When Troy's mistress Alberta dies in childbirth, Troy begs Rose to be a mother to the baby girl. Rose tells her husband:
I'll take care of your baby for you...cause...she innocent...and you can't visit the sins of the father upon the child. A motherless child had got a hard time....From right now this child got a mother. But you a womanless man. (2.3.8)
It seems to us that this line sums up the two sides of Rose's nature. A natural mother, she can't help but want to nurture and care for the baby. The fact that she is her husband's illegitimate daughter makes Rose seem all the more compassionate. However, when Rose agrees to do this, she cuts Troy off. For the rest of the play, we see that the two are totally estranged. OK, she still leaves food in the kitchen for him, and he still pays the bills. But it's clear that, emotionally, Rose has severed her ties to her husband. Troy has lost the loving wife he once had.
Bono is Troy's best friend and sidekick. It's been that way ever since they first met as young men in prison. These two pals work together as garbage men and hang out, sipping on gin every Friday night. The Friday-night drinking sessions we see make it pretty clear that Bono is second in command of the pair. Mostly he sits around and nods as Troy talks and talks.
Bono admits that he's always admired Troy, and that he's learned a lot by following him. He says, "I done learned a whole heap of things about life watching you. I done learned how to tell where the shit lies. How to tell it from the alfalfa" (2.1.38). Bono also tells his friend, "You done learned me a lot of things. You showed me how to not make the same mistakes...to take life as it comes along and keep putting one foot in front of the other" (2.1.38). With lines like that, it seems like Bono is definitely the sidekick in this situation.
What's interesting, though, is that by the end of the play Bono and Troy don't really hang out anymore. It's never said outright, but it seems pretty clear that this is because of Troy's affair with Alberta. From the very first scene, Bono is trying to steer Troy away from this sexy lady. Troy, however, doesn't listen and has the affair anyway. The last time we see the two friends together, it's clear they don't chill anymore. Troy's promotion to driver has separated them at work, and Troy's betrayal of Rose has separated them on a personal level. It seems the affair damaged Bono's admiration of Troy. In the end, Troy hasn't just lost his family; he's lost his best friend.
Gabriel is Troy's brother. He's the only sibling Troy is still in touch with, though they grew up in a large family. Gabe was wounded in World War II and now has a metal plate in his head. The disability money he receives as result of his injury allowed Troy to buy the house that the Maxsons now live in, a source of shame for Troy.
Just before the play begins, Gabriel has moved out to live with a lady named Ms. Pearl. Gabriel is afraid that Troy is mad at him for moving out because now Troy no longer gets the disability check. Troy denies this. However, later in the play Troy has Gabe committed to a mental hospital and again starts receiving half of Gabriel's check. Troy says it wasn't about the money, but we think this seems pretty suspicious.
Because of his head injury, Gabriel thinks he is his own Biblical namesake – the archangel Gabriel himself. Gabe spends a lot of time chasing hell hounds and reminiscing about all the lovely biscuits he's shared with St. Peter. For more on this, and Gabriel in general, check out "What's Up with the Ending?"
Lyons is Troy's son from a previous relationship. Troy had Lyons when he was still homeless and squatting in a shack by the river. Lyons's mother moved on to another man while Troy was in prison, so Troy has never been much of a father to Lyons. Pretty much all Troy contributes to Lyons's life is the occasional ten dollars that Lyons comes to bum on Troy's payday. (And Troy even grumbles about that).
Interestingly enough, Lyons doesn't seem particularly bitter about any of this. He just seems to accept things as they come. Even though Troy won't even take the time to come see Lyons play music (the real pride of Lyons's life), Lyons still seems to respect his father. The almost easy going relationship between Lyons and his father is starkly different from the tense rivalry between Cory and Troy.