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There’s something way down deep that’s
eternal about every human being.
See Important Quotations Explained
There’s something way down deep that’s
eternal about every human being.
The stage has been set with three rows of chairs, representing
gravestones. At the end of the intermission, Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, Mrs.
Soames, and Wally Webb, among others, take their seats. All of these
characters have died in the intervening years between Act II and
Act III, and the stage has become the local cemetery, situated at the
top of a hill overlooking Grover’s Corners. The Stage Manager appears
and announces that another nine years have passed—it is now the
summer of 1913. The Stage Manager talks about the dead, telling
us that the dead lose interest in the living and in earthly matters.
He says that “everybody in their bones knows that something is eternal,”
and that the dead spend their time waiting for this eternal part
of their selves to emerge.
A few living people have been hovering at the back of
the stage and now come to the foreground. The Stage Manager introduces Joe
Stoddard, the town’s undertaker, who is watching over a freshly dug
grave, and Sam Craig, a cousin of Emily Gibbs. We learn that Sam
left Grover’s Corners twelve years ago to go west and has returned
to town for Emily’s funeral. Sam reads the headstones, represented
by the characters sitting in chairs. He sees his Aunt Julia, known
to us as Mrs. Gibbs, and Mr. Stimson, who, we learn from Joe, hanged
himself in his attic. Sam asks Joe how Emily died, and Joe replies
that she passed away in childbirth.
A funeral party enters with a casket. Among the mourners
are George, Dr. Gibbs, and the Webbs. While the living characters
huddle at the back of the stage, Mrs. Soames and Mrs. Gibbs talk
dispassionately about the cause of Emily’s death. Mrs. Soames reminisces
about George and Emily’s wedding. A group standing by the grave
begins singing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” Emily emerges from
the funeral party and joins the characters in the cemetery—her body
has just been interred. She sits in an empty chair beside Mrs. Gibbs
and tells her mother-in-law all about the improvements she and George
had been making to their farm. Emily suddenly stops, seemingly struck
by an epiphany, and looks at Mrs. Gibbs. “Live people don’t understand,”
Emily says. Sitting with the dead, now one of them herself, Emily
remarks how distant she feels from the living.
Even so, Emily says, she still feels like one of the
living, and against the advice of the other dead souls, she decides
to go back and relive one happy day from her life. With the assistance
of the Stage Manager, Emily goes back to 1899,
to the day of her twelfth birthday. It is dawn, and we witness another
typical Grover’s Corners morning. As Constable Warren, Howie Newsome,
and Joe Crowell, Jr. chat in the street outside Emily’s house, Mrs.
Webb comes downstairs to fix breakfast. Mr. Webb has been away in
another town for the last few days, but now he returns home with
a surprise gift for his daughter. When Mrs. Webb gives the young
Emily her presents, however, the scene becomes unbearable for Emily’s
deceased soul. Overcome by her observation that human beings go
through life without savoring their time on Earth, Emily tells the
Stage Manager that she is ready to go back to 1913 and
return to the cemetery.
Emily again takes her place next to Mrs. Gibbs. The dead
talk and watch the stars come out over Grover’s Corners. Emily exclaims that
she should have listened to the dead and stayed in her grave. Simon
Stimson angrily replies that Emily now understands how the living
waste time, trampling on the feelings of others and existing in a
self-centered world of “ignorance and blindness.” Mrs. Gibbs defends
the living, telling Simon that he has not told Emily the whole truth.
Still contemplating the stars, one man among the dead recalls his
son telling him that starlight takes millions of years to travel
to the Earth from its source.
George appears and, overcome with grief, throws himself
down in front of Emily’s grave, prompting several disapproving comments from
the dead souls. As Emily watches her husband lie prostrate on the
ground, she asks Mrs. Gibbs, “They don’t understand, do they?” The
Stage Manager reappears and draws a dark curtain across the stage.
He offers a few closing remarks about Grover’s Corners as it settles
down for the night. Looking at the stars, he says that the Earth
may be the only place in the universe where life exists. Winding
his watch, he ends the play by telling the audience to go home and
get some good rest.
Dramatically speaking, very little happens over the course
of these three acts, but thematically the play spans the whole of
human life, beginning with Dr. Gibbs’s delivery of twins, continuing
through daily life and a wedding, and concluding with burial and
death. The three separate focuses of Our Town—“Daily
Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Death”—reflect the course of life
from its beginning to its middle to its end. Appropriately, the
tone of the play changes from act to act. Act I focuses on a rather
mundane day in Grover’s Corners, and the dialogue is straightforward
and informational. In Act II, an increased complexity in the language
conveys the heightened state of feeling. Emily and George’s conversations,
both in high school and on their wedding day, are full of subtleties
and periods of awkwardness that demonstrate the couple’s deepening
emotions. The tone of Act III differs strikingly from that of the
earlier scenes. The disinterested dialogue of the dead characters,
contrasted with the emotional speeches of live characters in this
and other acts, confers a sense of solemnity and inevitability upon
death. This last section of the play takes on an almost mystical,
religious quality. The Stage Manager’s Act I remark that the play
will be included in a time capsule to preserve “simple facts” about
life suggests that perhaps Emily’s death will represent just another
recorded event for future generations to study. Emily’s experience
in Act III, however, shows how the play also delves into emotional
response, as she exclaims the flaws and joys of a complex human
The sorrowful, emotional atmosphere of Act III stems
not from Emily’s death, but from the realization that most people
do not cherish life the way they should. Ironically, according to
Emily’s experience during her flashback, the living despair about
the end of life, but do not make much effort to cherish life while
they still have it. Emily, however, is only able to realize how
precious her life is after she has died. Even the dead characters
who insist that Emily should not relive her life do so because it
seems they once made the same attempt to return themselves. The
dead already have made the painful realization that Emily will soon
reach. Wilder reveals to his living audience that most people “don’t
understand” that the power of life exists not only in the moments
of great passion and joy, but in the details of everyday existence
as well. When George prostrates himself on Emily’s grave at the
end of the play, the dead react as if the time for emotion has passed.
The ritualistic quality of the funeral further emphasizes
the quality of timelessness and the lack of change that we see in
the first two acts. The townspeople view death as a normal facet
of life, and though grief-stricken, they follow ceremonial conventions.
Joe Stoddard prepares Emily’s grave as he has prepared many graves before,
and the funeral party sings a hymn just like the many funeral parties
before them. Moreover, the song, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,”
appears twice earlier in the play—once during choir practice in
Act I, and again during the wedding in Act II. The fact that we hear
the song again in this last act underscores the idea that death
is just one part of an unchanging human existence.
Even though Wilder focuses on a primarily Christian—and
specifically Protestant—town, in the final act he leaves the question
of religion up in the air. In Act I, the Stage Manager discusses
the multiplicity of churches in the town, emphasizing the idea that
faith can take many forms. The choir scene in Act I takes on a decidedly
comic tone with the drunken Stimson as choir director, undermining
the notion of the church as a sanctuary. We do not see prayers or
church services figure heavily in the daily lives of the two families.
Even in the Stage Manager’s “sermon” in Act II, he refrains from
using the word “God” in reference to a higher power. In Act III,
though Mrs. Gibbs tells Emily to stay and prepare for “what’s ahead”
rather than return to the world of the living, Wilder does not clarify
where the afterlife will lead.
Instead, Wilder concludes Our Town with
references to the unfathomable nature of the universe, echoing similar
references from earlier in the play. The dead man’s remark about
the millions of years it takes for starlight to reach the Earth
implies that human beings comprise only a small portion of a larger
framework. Yet, even so, the Stage Manager says that human life
is probably unique and that therefore it has an activity and perhaps
a divinity all of its own.
In his opening remarks to Act III, the Stage Manager
indicates that the “eternal” lies in each and every human being
and in the interactions between human beings. However, the Stage
Manager’s insistence that most people fail to recognize the eternal
in themselves and in those around them during their earthly lives
highlights Wilder’s contention that though life is transient, it
is nonetheless precious. Watching the dead souls, the Stage Manager
asks, “Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come
out clear?” His meaning is ambiguous, but it seems that Wilder is
indicating that human beings should engage the eternal while on
Earth. They do not need to wait until the afterlife in order for
their eternal nature to shine forth.
The appearance of Simon Stimson reintroduces the play’s
sociopolitical discussion in this final act. With Stimson’s comment
that people “move about in a cloud of ignorance . . . always at
the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another,” Wilder yet
again gives voice to the social critics who contend that people
who blind themselves to the social ills of the world are wasting
their time on Earth. Even so, Wilder quiets such relentless criticism
through Mrs. Gibbs’s rebuttal, putting to rest the notion that life
consists only of “ignorance and blindness.” Wilder acknowledges
that greed and injustice exist in the world, and he does not deny
that they probably exist in Grover’s Corners too. However, like
Mrs. Gibbs, Wilder maintains that much good exists in the world