Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Act 2 | Summary

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Summary

The stage is still set with the tables and chairs demarcating the Gibbs and Webb kitchens, but the ladders and bench that appeared in Act 1 have been removed.

The Stage Manager is sitting in his usual spot. He watches as the audience reenters after the intermission, then addresses them.

Three years have gone by since Act 1, and he explains, "The sun's come up over a thousand times." "The First Act was called "Daily Life." This act is called "Love and Marriage." I reckon you can guess what [Act 3 is] about," continues the Stage Manager. He then gives a quick summary of the action leading up to his scene.

The date is June 7, 1904, and the High School Commencement has just been held. "That's the time most of our young people jump up and get married." Like Act 1, this one opens in the morning—a rainy morning. As Mrs. Gibb and Mrs. Webb walk into their kitchens, the Stage Manager informs the audience both women cooked three meals a day, raised two children each, and did the housekeeping. In an example of situational irony, though the two women never got a summer vacation, neither of them suffered a nervous breakdown.

Howie Newsome, the milkman from Act 1, enters; so does the paper boy, Si Crowell, who is the younger brother of Joe, the paper boy in the First Act. Howie and Si chat briefly, commiserating the fact that George Gibbs—"about the best baseball pitcher Grover's Corners ever had"—will no longer be playing. Presumably this is because George has graduated from high school, but Si thinks it's because he's getting married.

Constable Warren joins the two men and tells Si back in 1884 the town had a baseball player who was even better than George Gibbs. He and Si exit, and Howie continues to the Gibbs house. Mrs. Gibbs says she will need extra milk and cream with so many relatives arriving for the wedding. At the Webb house, Mrs. Webb asks for extra milk as well. As Constable Warren and Mrs. Gibbs have done, she asks Howie what he thinks the weather will be; as Howie told the Constable and Mrs. Gibbs, he repeats he thinks the rain is clearing up.

As Howie continues on his way, Dr. Gibbs enters the kitchen. "Well, Ma, the day has come. You're losin' one of your chicks," he says. Mrs. Gibbs can't bear the reminder. She is sure George and Emily are too young to get married. How can Emily manage to take care of George as well as his mother did? More cheerful than his wife, Dr. Gibbs reminds her that, on their own wedding day, he felt as though he was marrying a total stranger. Mrs. Gibbs says she felt the same way. Weddings are "perfectly awful things," she says.

Now Dr. Gibbs gives voice to his own fears. He feels shocked every time he imagines George as a family man; he supposes George and Emily will have a lot of troubles. He confides that when he and Mrs. Gibbs married, he was afraid they would run out of conversation after the first few weeks, and they share a laugh.

George passes briskly through the kitchen and announces he is on his way to see Emily. His mother orders him to put on his overshoes first, adding that once he is married he is free to kill himself, but until then he must "live wisely."

George vaults over the puddles and arrives at the Webbs' house. He startles Mrs. Webb, who tells him she can't ask him in; a groom is not supposed to see his bride until they're in church. George protests, but Mr. Webb backs up his wife. Mrs. Webb heads upstairs to guard Emily so she won't come down and catch sight of George. Left in the kitchen, George and Mr. Webb have an awkward conversation about the meaning of marriage. George wishes people could marry "without all that marching up and down." Mr. Webb commiserates but adds that women control weddings. Nevertheless, he says, marriage is a wonderful thing.

George asks how old Mr. Webb was when he got married. Mr. Webb answers he had already graduated from college but adds the ages of the bride and groom aren't important, "not compared with ... uh ... other things." He refuses to elaborate and moves on to describe the advice his own father gave him before his wedding. His father urged him to train his wife to obey and never to let her know how much money he has. Mr. Webb took the opposite of his father's advice and—in another instance of situational irony—has been happy ever since. "And let that be a lesson to you, George, never to ask advice on personal matters," he says. He and George change the subject to something more comfortable—raising chickens—but Mrs. Webb reenters the kitchen and shoos George out so Emily can come down for breakfast. A dejected-looking George slowly goes back home.

At this point the Stage Manager speaks to the audience again. How do things like weddings begin? The play will now flash back to the time George and Emily realized they were meant for each other, but before the scene begins, the Stage Manager wants the audience to remember how it felt to fall in love. He advises keeping that feeling in mind as they watch the young couple.

The Stage Manager sets a board across two chairs to demarcate Mr. Morgan's drugstore. George and Emily come down Main Street. George asks to carry Emily's books, and she passes them over somewhat stiffly. When George asks why she is angry at him, Emily confesses she doesn't like the way George has changed over the past year. He has become conceited and stuck-up, she says, and much too interested in baseball. George thanks her for her candor, but he is clearly unhappy. So is Emily, who tells him she thinks a man should be perfect. Her father is perfect, and in her mind George's father is, so why can't George follow suit? Girls can't be expected to be perfect, "because we girls are more—more—nervous."

Suddenly sorry she'd lectured George, Emily begins to cry. George asks her to have an ice-cream soda at the drugstore with him, and Emily agrees. When they're sitting down, George thanks Emily for speaking to him this way and promises he'll change. He asks Emily to write him while he's away at State Agricultural College the following year. Emily promises, though she is worried letters from Grover's Corners might seem dull to him once he is a college man.

Abruptly, George says he may not want to go to college after all. Surely finding someone you're "very fond of" is more important than more education. If he improves his character, could Emily find it in her heart to—he breaks off, but Emily understands, and agrees.

When George and Emily have left the stage, the Stage Manager announces it's time for the wedding. Stagehands ready the stage by replacing the chairs and tables with pews and a small platform. In center stage the Stage Manager—now assuming the role of minister—says, "For a while now, the play gets pretty serious." He then delivers three pieces of seemingly unrelated information. Even at the best weddings, people feel confused; Nature is the star of the show, not the characters onstage; and millions of ancestors are witnesses at this wedding.

Handel's "Largo" is heard on the organ, and the wedding begins. Everyone concerned files into the church. Mrs. Webb, who is weeping, says Emily also cried that morning, explaining, "There's something downright cruel about sending our girls out into marriage this way." She confesses she couldn't bring herself to "say anything" to Emily, presumably referring to the facts of sexual life and hopes Emily's friends have prepared her somewhat.

As the choir begins to sing "Love Divine, All Love Excelling," George heads toward the front of the church—but suddenly falters. Mrs. Gibbs hurries toward him to see what's the matter. George blurts out he doesn't want to grow old; why is everyone pushing him this way? "All I want to do is to be a fella," he explains. Can't she get him out of this? Mrs. Gibbs tells him she's ashamed of him, and George suddenly snaps back to being a happy groom.

The choir launches into "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds." Emily, who is about to head down the aisle with Mr. Webb, is also having second thoughts. She begs her father to take her away. Surely there is a place the two of them could live. Emily could work for her father, maybe even keep house. Mr. Webb quickly signals to George and leads Emily up to her fiancé. "I'm giving away my daughter," he tells George. "Do you think you can take care of her?" George says he'll do his best. He and Emily exchange a few quick words about how much they love each other. The wedding march is heard, and the pair slip into their places: George at the front of the church, Emily on her father's arm. The wedding begins, with the Stage Manager playing the part of the minister.

As Emily and George recite the traditional vows, Mrs. Soames's delighted exclamations about the loveliness of the wedding drown out the minister's voice. The ceremony ends, the bride and groom kiss—and everything freezes. The Stage Manager muses aloud about the number of weddings he has performed. "Do I believe in it? I don't know."

The wedding march begins to play. Emily and George walk happily down the aisle. Again Mrs. Soames prattles on about how lovely they look. A bright light shines on the newlyweds, and the Stage Manager announces the second Act is over.

Analysis

The Wedding

What may seem most striking about Act 2—for both playgoers and readers—is the fact Emily and George are so very young. On their wedding day few people feel absolutely prepared to be married, but most modern readers will feel Emily and George cannot possibly be ready for such a big step, as they've just graduated from high school.

The Stage Manager comments that just after High School Commencement is when most couples in Grover's Corners get married. Yet contrary to what many people think, Americans at the turn of the 20th century didn't usually wed that early. In 1910, three years after this scene is set, the median age for first marriages in the United States was 25.1 for men and 21.6 for women. In 1940, two years after Our Town was first staged, this figure had dropped only slightly; the median age was 24.3 for men and 21.5 for women. Emily and George really are marrying young.

By this point it is clear Wilder is not aiming for actual realism. There is no plot reason to make Emily and George wait longer for their wedding. Act 2 depicts an archetypal portrait of marriage—of what it means, and has always meant—when two people marry. As the Stage Manager says (slipping in a foreshadowing of Act 3), "Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married." As Mrs. Gibbs echoes a few minutes later, "People are meant to go through life two by two." George and Emily are standing in for most human beings, and the younger they are, the more poignant the scene will be.

Troubled Communication

Though Wilder makes it clear every character involved understands the gravity of the day, their language is inadequate for expressing their feelings. When Mrs. Gibbs wails that George will "catch his death of cold within a week," she doesn't mean it. What she is saying is, "I'm not prepared to turn my son over to another woman"—only, of course, people don't say that kind of thing in Grover's Corners. Mr. Webb and George struggle to talk across a thicket of unspoken topics and end up, with relief, on the subject of chicken-raising.

In the flashback to their first "important" conversation, Emily and George have comic trouble expressing themselves. Right after scolding George for thinking only about baseball, Emily declares, "Now I can see it's not the truth at all. And I suddenly feel that it isn't important, anyway." The conversation is definitely important; it's language that's failing Emily and George. The topic is too big for the words they have on hand, and huge emotions simmer under their trivial-sounding chat. "I guess this is an important talk we've been having," George concludes as they head for home.

Mrs. Webb confesses she hasn't been able to tell Emily the facts of life, though she knows leaving her daughter ignorant is cruel. "I couldn't bring myself to say anything ... The whole world's wrong, that's what's the matter," she says. Though not telling her daughter about sex is a pretty big omission, it hardly means the whole world is wrong—but at that moment, it feels that way to her. She uses overwrought language to express the gulf between what she wishes she could say and what she is actually able to say.

Nature

"Nature's been pushing and contriving ... A number of young people fell in love and got married," says the Stage Manager at the beginning of Act 2, describing what has happened in the previous three years. Later, just before the wedding, he says, "The real hero of this scene isn't on the stage at all," again referring to nature. Repeating his earlier words, he adds, "We've seen nature pushing and contriving for some time now." What he means is nature is "pushing" to pair people up. "People were made to live two-by-two."

By "nature," Wilder does not mean "the instinct to procreate." (The Stage Manager barely mentions children in Act 2.) Rather, nature is the need for love and connection all humans feel. Achieving this love and connection, however, is a struggle—hence the pushing and contriving.

The main hindrance to George and Emily's getting together is their own awkwardness and shyness, which they must both work hard to overcome. But the adults around them throw up hurdles as well. At the beginning of Act 2, Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs seem more worried than excited about the step their son is about to take. The bulk of their breakfast conversation is about how nervous they were before their own wedding. Where the discussion might be expected to end with a statement on the order of "but look how happy we are now," Mrs. Gibbs concludes with, "'tain't very choice, but I always find something to say." Though the Gibbs' have been married for more than 20 years, reticence keeps them from expressing their love for each other in ways other than they can.

At the Webb house Mrs. Webb bars George from seeing Emily. Later, both Mrs. Webb and Emily will cry at the thought of the wedding. Mrs. Webb proves unable to talk to Emily about sex—a discussion that would likely have helped her daughter adjust more easily to marriage.

But of course nature wins in the end. It is interesting Mrs. Gibb and Mr. Webb are called on to do their own "pushing and contriving" when both George and Emily try to back out of the wedding. It is the nature of parents to comfort their children—and, if necessary, to withhold comfort. At this moment neither of the young lovers feels ready for marriage, and perhaps they are not—but this wedding is going to happen. There is no backing out now. Mrs. Gibbs practices a bit of tough love to shake George out of his stage fright. Mr. Webb makes it clear he will no longer serve as Emily's protector; George will assume this role from now on. When Emily and George fall into each other's arms—their temporary resistance quelled—it is as if they are falling back into line with nature's plans for them. Reaching this point has been quite a struggle.

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