Our Town

by: Thornton Wilder

Symbols

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.