‘‘Us and Them’’: Divisions Between People
In this story, the fence built by the family is an actual barrier that divides people. In erecting a fence, Mother is saying to the vagrants, ‘‘This is my property. Keep off. You don’t belong here.’’ Before the fence is erected, the vagrants feel appreciative of the family. They can take shelter under the eaves of the house, and when the old man is sick, they receive help from the family. But once the fence is up, it divides them from the family. It sends the message, ‘‘We don’t trust you. We have more than you and we want to keep our possessions safe from you. We want you to stay away from our property.’’ The vagrants react strongly to this unspoken message and come to feel at odds with the family. They perceive them as rich and therefore no longer like them. The fence creates a rivalry between the family and the vagrants. Because the vagrants have been treated as untrustworthy, they start to act in an untrustworthy manner. They will stay away only as long as the barrier of the locked gate keeps them out.
In the end, the vagrants realize that the family is actually an ‘‘us’’ and not a ‘‘them.’’ This makes them feel both foolish and angry. They accuse the family of pretending to be something they are not. For example, one of the vagrants angrily grabs Father by the collar and says, ‘‘A poor man carrying on like a rich man, huh? What did you build that fence for?’’ Father built the fence at Mother’s urging.
But in reality, Father sees commonality between himself and the vagrants, and thus he feels no need for the fence. Mother, on the other hand, is fearful of the vagrants. She views them as different from herself, and wants to keep them as far away as possible. Mother and Father represent two extremes in the way that people treat each other. The Narrator is in between, observing both and trying to form independent opinions.
In treating the vagrants as ‘‘others,’’ the family brings harm upon themselves. Rangkuti’s meaning is that creating divisions between people and treating others as less than oneself may lead to the exact outcome that is feared. In other words, ‘‘The Fence’’ is a story of self-fulfilled prophecy. When seen and treated as brothers, the vagrants will act as brothers. But when treated like criminals that cannot be trusted, they will act the part. Rangkuti seems to be saying that if everyone is treated with respect and kindness (as was Father’s original instinct), they will rise to the expectation and treat others in the same way.
Faith in God as Protection from Harm
Father tells Mother she is looking for the wrong sort of protection in a fence. When asked what sort of protection people need, Father replies, ‘‘It’s faith in God and remembering the principles of Faith. That’s what you have to instill in yourself and the children. That’s what’s needed to serve as a fence in this life.’’
Each parent has a fundamentally different philosophy on what can best protect them from harm in life. Mother wants to hoard and protect her material possessions. She thinks physical barriers will protect her most valuable objects. Father, on the other hand, thinks that faith in God is the surest form of protection. He believes his most valuable possessions are his kindness, generosity, and his belief in brotherhood. He believes, too, that God can protect people everywhere they go—fences, however, can only protect people when they are at home. His belief in this is evident when he says of the fence, ‘‘Anyway, sometimes you have to go out through the fence, which means it will have lost its purpose.’’
In Father’s view, true faith offers him an impenetrable protection that a physical barrier cannot. He is a religious man who sees it as his duty to help the vagrants by sharing what he has. He believes that God will protect him for acting according to God’s principles.
As it turns out, Father is correct that the physical barrier is not enough to protect his family. In fact, the fence he erects only puts his family in harm’s way. In building it, Father is forced to violate his principles of brotherhood and generosity. He lets go of his spiritual beliefs, and as a result, fails to be protected.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Hamsad Rangkuti, Published by Gale Group, 2010