Our Town

by: Thornton Wilder

George Gibbs

Well, I think that’s just as important as college is, and even more so. That’s what I think.

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If Emily displays an awareness—even if only after death—of the transience of human existence, George Gibbs lives his life in the dark. George is an archetypal all-American boy. A local baseball star and the president of his senior class in high school, he also possesses innocence and sensitivity. He is a good son, although like many children he sometimes neglects his chores. George expects to inherit his uncle’s farm and plans to go to agriculture school; he ultimately scraps that plan, however, in favor of remaining in Grover’s Corners to marry Emily. Indeed, all of George’s achievements prove less important to him than Emily. She is George’s closest neighbor since early childhood, and he declares his love for her in all-American fashion, over an ice-cream soda.

The revelation of Emily’s death at the start of Act III draws attention to the thematic significance of George’s life. The fact that George lays down prostrate at Emily’s grave vividly illustrates Wilder’s message that human beings do not fully appreciate life while they live it. The group of dead souls looks on George’s prostrate body with confusion and disapproval, and Emily asks, rhetorically, “They don’t understand, do they?” Instead of mourning for his lost wife, the dead suggest, George should be enjoying his life and the lives of those around him before he too dies. Wilder forces the audience to pity George, partly because of the tragedy he has suffered in Emily’s death, but also because he epitomizes the human tragedy of caring too much about things that cannot change. At the same time, seeing George’s pitiable condition, we realize that the dead souls’ demand that George stifle his emotions is difficult, if not impossible. In this light, Wilder implies that perhaps the demanding dead souls “don’t understand” either.