Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Transience of Human Life
Although Wilder explores the stability of human traditions and the reassuring steadfastness of the natural environment, the individual human lives in Our Town are transient, influenced greatly by the rapid passage of time. The Stage Manager often notes that time seems to pass quickly for the people in the play. At one point, having not looked at his watch for a while, the Stage Manager misjudges the time, which demonstrates that sometimes even the timekeeper himself falls victim to the passage of time.
In light of the fact that humans are powerless to stem the advance of time, Wilder ponders whether human beings truly appreciate the precious nature of a transient life. Act I, which the Stage Manager entitles “Daily Life,” testifies to the artfulness and value of routine daily activity. Simple acts such as eating breakfast and feeding chickens become subjects of dramatic scenes, indicating the significance Wilder sees in such seemingly mundane events. Wilder juxtaposes this flurry of everyday activity with the characters’ inattentiveness to it. The characters are largely unaware of the details of their lives and tend to accept their circumstances passively. The Gibbs and Webb families rush through breakfast, and the children rush off to school, without much attention to one another. They, like most human beings, maintain the faulty assumption that they have an indefinite amount of time on Earth. Mrs. Gibbs refrains from insisting that her husband take her to Paris because she thinks there will always be time to convince him later.
The dead souls in Act III emphasize this theme of transience, disapproving of and chastising the living for their “ignorance” and “blindness.” The dead even view George’s grief and prostration upon Emily’s grave as a pitiable waste of human time. Instead of grieving for the dead, they believe, the living should be enjoying the time they still have on Earth.
The medium of theater perfectly suits Wilder’s intent to make ordinary lives and actions seem extraordinary, as the perspective of the dead souls parallels the audience’s perspective. Just as the dead souls’ distance finally enables them to appreciate the daily events in Grover’s Corners, so too does the audience’s outsider perspective render daily events valuable. We have never before witnessed a Gibbs family breakfast, and when the scene is dramatized on the stage, we see it as significant. Indeed, every action on the stage becomes significant, from Howie Newsome’s milk delivery to the town choir practice.
The Importance of Companionship
Because birth and death seem inevitable, the most important stage of life is the middle one: the quest for companionship, friendship, and love. Humans have some degree of control over this aspect of life. Though they may not be fully aware of their doing so, the residents of Grover’s Corners constantly take time out of their days to connect with each other, whether through idle chat with the milkman or small talk with a neighbor. The most prominent interpersonal relationship in the play is a romance—the courtship and marriage of George and Emily—and Wilder suggests that love epitomizes human creativity and achievement in the face of the inevitable advance of time.
Though romance is prominent in Our Town, it is merely the most vivid among a wide range of bonds that human beings are capable of forging. Wilder depicts a number of different types of relationships, and though some are merely platonic, all are significant. From the beginning of Act I, the Stage Manager seeks to establish a relationship with the audience, which forges a tie between the people onstage and the audience offstage. Within the action of the play, we witness the milkman and the paperboy chatting with members of the Gibbs and Webb families as they deliver their goods. The children walk to and from school in groups or pairs. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, next-door neighbors, meet in their yards to talk. We glimpse Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs in private conversation. As Mrs. Gibbs articulates, “Tain’t natural to be lonesome.”
Even the play’s title—using the collective pronoun “[o]ur”—underscores the human desire for community. Many aspects of the play attest to the importance of community and companionship: the welcoming introduction from the Stage Manager; the audience participation, through the placement among the audience of actors within the audience who interact with those onstage; and the presence of numerous groups in the play, such as the choir, the wedding party, the funeral party, and the group of dead souls.
The Artificiality of the Theater
Wilder does not pretend that his play represents a slice of real life. The events that occur onstage could easily be moments in real lives—a milkman delivers milk, a family has a hurried weekday breakfast, two young people fall in love—but Wilder undermines this appearance of reality by filling the play with devices that emphasize the artificiality of theater. The Stage Manager is the most obvious of these devices, functioning as a sort of narrator or modernized Greek chorus who comments on the play’s action while simultaneously involving himself in it. The Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience and acknowledges our lack of familiarity with Grover’s Corners and its inhabitants. He also manipulates the passage of time, incorporating flashbacks that take us—and the characters—back in time to relive certain significant moments. These intentional disruptions of the play’s chronology prevent us from believing that what we see onstage could be real. Rather, the life we see on the stage becomes merely representative of real life, and is thus a fair target for Wilder’s metaphorical and symbolic manipulation. Wilder’s parallel positioning of the realm of the play and the real world implies a separation between the two. However, rather than distance the audience from the events on the stage, Wilder acknowledges the artificial nature of the stage and thus bridges the gap between the audience and the onstage events. This closeness between the audience and the story forces the audience to identify more fully with the characters and events.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Stages of Life
The division of the play’s narrative action into three acts reflects Wilder’s division of human life into three parts: birth, love and marriage, and death. The play opens at the dawn of a new day with a literal birth: at the very beginning of Act I, we learn that Dr. Gibbs has just delivered twins. Act II details George and Emily’s courtship and marriage. Act III features a funeral and delves into the possibilities of an afterlife. The overall arc of the story carries the audience from the beginning of life to its end. Our observation of the lives of the Gibbs and Webb families, condensed into a few short hours, leads us to realize that the human experience, while multifaceted, is nevertheless brief and precious. Indeed, Wilder demonstrates how quickly the characters proceed from stage to stage. George and Emily marry in Act II, but they appear just as nervous and childish as they do in Act I. The second stage of life has snuck up on them. This intermingling of the stages of life recurs later, when the second stage of Emily’s life, her marriage, is suddenly cut short when she dies in childbirth.
While Our Town spans the course of many years, from 1899 through 1913, it also collapses its events into the span of one day. It opens with a morning scene and ends with a nighttime scene: Act I begins just before dawn, and Act III ends at 11 P.M. The play also metaphorically spans the course of a human life, tracing the path from birth in Dr. Gibbs’s delivery of twins in the opening scene, to death in Emily’s funeral in the final scene. The span of a life parallels the span of the day: birth is related to dawn, and death is related to night. Wilder’s attention to natural cycles highlights his themes of the transience of life and the power of time. While a single human life comprises only one finite revolution from birth to death, the world continues to spin, mothers continue to give birth, and human beings continue to exist as just one part of the universe.
Morning scenes are prominent in each of the play’s three acts: Act I depicts the ordinary morning activities of the townspeople, Act II portrays the Gibbs and Webb families on the morning of Emily and George’s wedding, and Act III includes Emily’s return to the morning of her twelfth birthday. Despite differences in context and circumstance, each morning scene appears strikingly similar to the others, which emphasizes the lack of change in Grover’s Corners. In each of the three scenes, Howie Newsome delivers milk and a Crowell boy delivers newspapers. Yet while stability is clearly a feature of life in the town, Wilder shows that it often leads to indifference. Because each day appears more or less the same as the previous one, the townspeople fail to observe or appreciate the subtle, life-affirming peculiarities each day brings.
Wilder treats each of the three mornings differently, which highlights the subtle differences between them. He presents the first morning as merely an average day, but as foreign observers, we appreciate the novelty of the experience. On the morning of the wedding, Wilder shows how impending events disturb the morning rituals and create a unique experience. Lastly, Wilder presents the morning of Emily’s twelfth birthday through the eyes of her dead soul, a perspective that gives the morning a truly extraordinary and beautiful transience. Wilder implies that though mundane routines and events may generally be repetitive, the details are what make life interesting and deserve attention.
The Manipulation of Time
Events do not progress chronologically in Our Town. The Stage Manager has the ability to cue scenes whenever he wishes, and can call up previous moments in the lives of the characters at will. The most prominent of these manipulations of time are the flashbacks to Mr. Morgan’s soda fountain and to Emily’s twelfth birthday. Wilder explicitly shuffles the flow of time within the play to engage, please, and inform his audience in three ways. First, Wilder uses the lack of chronological order to engage his audience by overturning their expectations of the theater. As opposed to showing us the progression of a day, or of a life, Wilder shows us disparate moments, reordering them in a way that best reflects his—and the Stage Manager’s—philosophical themes. Second, the Stage Manager’s informal treatment of the flow of time adds to the play’s pleasing conversational tone. The Stage Manager’s desire to flash back to George and Emily’s first date at the drugstore makes him seem just as curious about the origins of the couple’s relationship as we are. Third, by including flashbacks within a linear narrative, Wilder reminds the audience how swiftly time passes. The characters spend precious time flashing back in their own minds, appreciating past moments in retrospect rather than recognizing the value of moments as they occur in the present.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Time Capsule
In Act I, the Stage Manager briefly mentions a time capsule that is being buried in the foundation of a new building in town. The citizens of Grover’s Corners wish to include the works of Shakespeare, the Constitution, and the Bible; the Stage Manager says he would like to throw a copy of Our Town into the time capsule as well. The time capsule embodies the human desire to keep a record of the past. Accordingly, it also symbolizes the idea that certain parts of the past deserve to be remembered over and above others. Wilder wishes to challenge this latter notion. He has the Stage Manager place Our Town into the capsule so the people opening it in the future will not only appreciate the daily lives of the townspeople from the past, but also their own daily lives in the future.
The self-referential notion of placing the play into the time capsule also carries symbolic weight. The fact that Our Town is actually mentioned within Our Town clearly shows Wilder’s intent to break down the wall that divides the world of the play from the world of the audience. By mentioning his own play within his play, Wilder acknowledges that his text is artificial, a literary creation. Even more important, however, the Stage Manager’s wish to put the play into the capsule lends historic significance to the audience’s watching of Our Town. He implies that even the current production of the play—its sets, lights, actors, and audience—is in itself an important detail of life.
Howie Newsome and the Crowell Boys
Each of the three morning scenes in Our Town features the milkman, Howie Newsome, and a paperboy—either Joe or Si Crowell. Throughout the play, the Stage Manager and other characters, such as Mr. Webb in his report in Act I, discuss the stability of Grover’s Corners—nothing changes much in the town. Howie and the Crowell boys illustrate this constancy of small town life. They appear in 1901, just as they do in 1904 and in the flashback to 1899. Because Grover’s Corners is Wilder’s microcosm of human life in general, Howie and the Crowells represent not only the stability of life in Grover’s Corners, but the stability of human life in general. The milkman and the paperboys embody the persistence of human life and the continuity of the human experience from year to year, from generation to generation. Moreover, the fact that Si replaces his brother Joe shows that the transience of individual lives actually becomes a stabilizing force. Growing from birth toward death, humans show how the finite changes in individual lives are simply part of stable cycles.
The Hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”
A choir sings the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” in the background three different times throughout the play. In part, the repetition of the song emphasizes Wilder’s general notion of stability and tradition. However, the Christian hymn primarily embodies Wilder’s belief that the love between human beings is divine in nature. The “tie” in the song’s lyrics refers to both the tie between humans and God and the ties among humans themselves.
The three scenes that include the hymn also prominently feature Emily and George, highlighting the “tie that binds” the two of them. The first instance of the song comes during a choir practice, which occurs simultaneously with George and Emily’s conversation through their open windows in Act I. The second instance comes during the wedding ceremony in Act II. The third instance comes during Emily’s funeral, as her body is interred and she joins the dead in the cemetery, leaving George behind. By associating this particular song with the play’s critical moments, Wilder foregrounds the notion of companionship as an essential, even divine, feature of human life. The hymn may add some degree of Christian symbolism to the play, but Wilder, for the most part, downplays any discussion of specifically Christian symbols. He concentrates on the hymn not because of its allusion to the fellowship between Christians in particular, but rather because of what it says about human beings in general.
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