From lost to found: Exploring Rose in ‘Fences’

roseThere can be no discussion of Rose without first acknowledging the amazing job Viola Davis did in making her real. Of course the text was gold, but her performance of it took the words off the page and injected them directly into our hearts.

Against the big, booming backdrop that is Troy, Rose could easily disappear. She could settle into his shadow and live there, only emerging when it suits him. But she doesn’t. More than the stereotype of a 1950s housewife, she has a full presence and functions as the tether that brings Troy back to earth, even when he doesn’t want to be pulled. For example, when he romanticizes the loss of his baseball career, imagining himself the victim of some grand racist robbery, Rose points out that it was his age, not his color, that kept him out of the big leagues. And she does it in a plain and matter-of-fact way that suggests she is accustomed to speaking her mind and refocusing his inflated narratives. It is clear she is no one’s yes woman.

But even in her fullness, Rose is empty. Though the audience learns a decent amount about Troy’s life (his childhood, his family, his friend Bono, his almost baseball career), we learn practically nothing of Rose except that she was looking for the “marrying kind.” Her goal: get married (and not have half-siblings in her family). That is all we know of her. Is it that she has no backstory? No, but the absence of her history is a representation of how completely she’s poured herself into him. As she says in her famous monologue:

I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom. But I held on to you, Troy.

Rose came into her marriage wanting to grow, wanting to create something that was equal parts her and him, but she soon discovered that her dream and her reality were not at all in line. Troy’s lacks the emotional maturity and nuance needed to understand that his wife has needs that go beyond the physical. It is not enough to hand over his weekly pay and “blast a hole into forever.” Rose wants a husband who can temper his big and brash with softness and connection, a Herculean task for a man who only had a brief bit of nurturing from his mother and a fractioned piece of love from his father. As hard as Troy loves Rose (and I doubt anyone would argue the opposite), he simply doesn’t know how to love beyond provision.

But the real loss Rose experiences is not Troy’s lack of softness, but his inability to offer her the feeling of completeness she never had growing up. That’s her biggest pain. It’s also her biggest mistake. Rose, like so many other women (and men too), looks to an external source to solve an internal issue. That never works. (It’s the Swiss cheese metaphor all over again.) We must always have our own foundation of contentment before we can expect someone else to build on it. Every woman must have a special part of her heart that beats only for her, responds only to her call. This isn’t selfish. It is an investment, a protection, a worthwhile commitment to give as much to ourselves as we do to others.

In this sense, Rose, mild-mannered and accommodating, is every woman. She represents the struggle between serving and preserving, between seeking and creating, between healing and being healed. She lives out on screen what we carry in our hearts, and as she makes discoveries about her decisions and motives, we viewers are encouraged, if not ordered, to make discoveries of our own.

It is the uproar and angry release of her popular “What about my life?” monologue that gets most people talking, but I was most struck by words she speaks to her son before Troy’s funeral:

When your daddy walked through the house he was so big he filled it up. That was my first mistake. Not to make him leave some room for me. For my part in the matter. But at that time I wanted that. 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. I did that. I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn’t hardly tell which was which anymore. It was my choice. It was my life and I didn’t have to live it like that.

This is where Rose blooms. Though Troy is certainly guilty of transgressions, she spends no time on blame and launches directly into an exploration of the choices she made that left her feeling empty. Such raw ownership is transformative. It marks the moment when she goes from victim to victor. Rose could easily get lost in the (rightful) sorrow of being loved so harshly, but she realizes there is no growth there. Growth comes only from an even understanding of the role she played in the events of her own life. From that, there can be fruit.

Because of this ownership, Rose is able to extract the good from her circumstances and file the rest under “lessons learned.” This is the lens that allows her to feel love for Raynell instead of rage and rancor. She is freed from the weight of blame and self-pity. I think maybe I should say that again. She is freed from the weight of blame and self-pity. Talk about a life-changing moment.

Can I even count the number of times in my own life where I’ve lulled myself into complacency with pitiful stories of how I’d been wronged? Never a moment of introspection, never an analysis of the decisions I’d made. Only tears and sorrow and imagined bound hands. And in all of those moments, every single one, I have been stagnant, fruitless and mediocre at best. With pain and struggle, it is only when I re-word my stories that I am able to achieve and thrive. I’ve been on this journey time and time again and if I’m honest with myself, I’m probably not done. It is a revolving door of self-discovery, a booby-trapped path I’ve yet to master.

But I don’t expect it to be easy. The transformation we watch Rose make in two hours is actually an abridgment of a six-year process that starts the day Troy comes clean. And had he not destroyed her in that way, perhaps she never would have been moved to truly find herself. So even in her heartache, she finds value. It is as if she is determined to let nothing befall her except that which she can use. Once Rose releases her pain and finds a peace that is enhanced by (and not drawn from) others, she is free to truly live. From that, there can be fruit.

~Nadirah Angail