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Fences is a play by August Wilson which explores the evolving African-American experiences and examines race relations among other factors. In the play, Gabriel is a Troy’s brother who is currently insane - a condition that occurred due to a head injury from a piece of shrapnel during the World War. Gabriel believes that he is the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel is compensated by the army for the injuries, but Troy receives all the money and uses it to build his house. Gabriel becomes significant at the end parts of the play where he tries to play the trumpet but fails. This prompts him to dance thereby opening up the gates of heaven.
Gabriel plays an almost similar part like the fool in King Lear, but in Fences he is portrayed as the wise fool. Despite his sounding silly and nonsensical, Gabriel seems to know other characters better than they actually know themselves. In one significant part of the play, Gabriel talks to his brother in riddles about hellhounds and St. Peter seemingly having observed Troy’s fate with utmost clarity (Wilson, 1986). In a rather playful manner, Gabriel tries to warn Troy of his impending and almost inevitable fate.
Gabriel is the only sibling of Troy that Troy seems to be in touch with, despite the fact that Troy grew up in a large family. The theme of shame is portrayed in the sense that the house that the Maxsons reside in is as a result of the compensation given by the army to Gabriel for war injuries. In the beginning of the play, Gabriel moves out to live with a lady known as Ms. Pearl. Gabriel seems to understand the people around him even if they try to hide their feelings or reactions towards a certain situation. Gabriel thinks that Troy is mad at him for moving out, which means that Troy will no longer be getting a disability check. However, Gabriel is again committed into a mental institution and once again Troy starts receiving half of Gabriel’s check. Troy tries to defend himself saying that it was not all about the money, but rather the overall welfare of his brother. However, the whole situation seems very suspicious and the audience is left to question the morality of Troy.
The character Gabriel seems to support the main themes in the play and his role in the play is to show the choice between pragmatism and illusions as survival mechanisms in the play. In some instances, some of the characters in the play have to address a certain situation in a manner that makes the audience question their moral stands. Troy is practically on the spotlight on what is perceived to be a total disregard of humanity, going by the fact that he is seen to take advantage of his mentally unstable brother’s benefits. “Much of the conflict in Wilson's plays, including Fences, arises because the characters are at odds with the way they see the past and what they want to do with the future” (Napierkowski, 1998). This is the main reason why Gabriel, though seemingly unaware of the happenings around him, tries to warn his brother Troy of an impending and rather inevitable fate. Gabriel sees himself as an archangel and talks about hounds and St. Peters - a situation that is likely meant to question whether he was really insane or whether he was just trying to avoid reality.
The major conflict in the play is that Troy and Corry has opposing views on how Corry is supposed to spend his future. Troy tries to prevent Corry form going to college as well as playing football. Their relationship is worsened when Troy admits cheating on Corry’s mother and signing papers that permits Corry’s uncle Gabriel to be committed in a mental institution (Vecsey, 1986).