Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Act 3 | Summary

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Summary

During the intermission, the lights stay up on the stage while the Stage Manager sets up a dozen ordinary chairs on the right side of the stage. He arranges the chairs in three openly spaced rows facing the audience. As the audience will learn, these are graves in the town cemetery.

The townspeople who have died since the end of the second act enter and silently sit down, staring straight ahead. They include Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, Mrs. Soames, and Wally Webb. A few extras fill the rest of the spaces—all but one.

The Stage Manager takes his place and announces nine years have passed. It is now summer, 1913. Grover's Corners has seen a few changes, he says, but not many. He describes the view from the cemetery—hills and lakes and, in the distance, the White Mountains. Next he gestures at the cemetery's oldest (imaginary) gravestones: the ones from the 17th century and the ones belonging to Civil War veterans. Finally he gestures at the actors onstage, naming the characters the audience has already met.

The Stage Manager then begins an extended monologue about grief and eternity. People "just wild with grief" have buried their loved ones in this cemetery, and gradually "an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here." The dead, too, have "quieted down." Gradually, they have lost interest in their former lives and become "weaned away from earth," becoming indifferent to what goes on in the world as they wait to experience eternity.

Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, and Sam Craig, Emily Gibbs's cousin, now come onstage. Sam recognizes Joe, but for a second he himself is unrecognizable to the undertaker. Reading some of the gravestones, Sam is momentarily startled to find his aunt, Mrs. Gibbs; he had forgotten she had died. Calmly, Mrs. Gibbs explains to Simon Stimson that Sam is her sister's son. Simon confesses he has always felt uncomfortable when living people are around. Meanwhile, Sam Craig is still reading headstones. When he reaches Mr. Stimson's, Joe Stoddard explains that Simon, whose life had always been hard, hanged himself in the attic. He goes on to say Emily died in childbirth, leaving behind her husband George and their four-year-old son.

A procession of townspeople enter, along with four pallbearers bearing an imaginary casket. The townspeople are all under umbrellas. Everyone gathers around Emily's (imaginary) grave on the left side of the stage.

Mrs. Soames asks Mrs. Gibbs whose funeral it is and is surprised to learn it is Emily's. She remembers Emily as one of the brightest girls ever to graduate from the town's high school. "I called on them at their new farm," she adds, "just before I died."

As the townspeople begin to sing "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds," Emily suddenly comes out from among them. She is dressed in white and looks a little dazed. Slowly she walks to the group of chairs and sits down next to Mrs. Gibbs. She and the dead exchange greetings, and Mrs. Gibbs tells Emily to rest herself; the townspeople will be gone soon.

Unlike the rest of the dead, Emily keeps looking around her. She tells her mother-in-law about the farm she left behind (Act 1), which she and George were able to improve thanks to a $350 legacy from Mrs. Gibbs. She tells one dead townsman her son is spending the day with his family. Then, abruptly, she asks when the feeling of "being ... one of them" will subside. "Just wait and be patient," says Mrs. Gibbs.

The mourners exit, and the dead make desultory remarks about the weather. Then the stage falls silent again, but Emily can't settle down. She tells her mother-in-law she knows she can "go back there again ... into living." Why shouldn't she return and live her life all over again?

Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, and the Stage Manager try to dissuade her. "It's not what you think it'd be," says Mrs. Soames. The Stage Manager explains that returning to life isn't simple. "You not only live it," he says, "but you watch yourself living it." He continues, "You see the thing that they—down there—never know." He does not explain further, but Emily will soon find out for herself what he means.

Mrs. Gibbs tells Emily her task now is to forget about life, to think only of what is ahead, whatever may come her way. But Emily is still determined to go back, perhaps to the day she first knew she loved George. Mrs. Gibbs advises her to return to the least important day of her life, saying, "It will be important enough." Emily asks if she can at least choose a birthday and settles on her 12th. The Stage Manager says the day will begin at dawn.

It is now February 11, 1899, and the left half of the stage becomes very bright—"the brightness of a crisp winter morning." Emily walks toward Main Street, marveling at the sights of her childhood. She sees the house she grew up in, where her mother will soon be making breakfast; she sees several other figures from her childhood and watches in delight as they chat on the street. Howie Newsome, the milkman, brings the usual delivery to the Webb house, and he and Emily's mother have their usual conversation about the weather. When Mrs. Webb calls the children to come downstairs, Emily calls back, taking her part in the remembered scene. No one notices she is not the "real" 12-year-old Emily, but the strain is visible as she speaks the lines she said that day. "I can't bear it," she says of her parents—"they're so young and beautiful ... I can't look at everything hard enough."

At the Stage Manager's nod Emily enters the kitchen, where Mrs. Webb hugs her and points to her birthday presents before returning to the stove. As Mrs. Webb chats, Emily becomes increasingly anguished. "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me," she begs. She is beginning to realize what the Stage Manager meant: the living don't pay attention to what is most important. "Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another."

When her father calls her from offstage, Emily breaks down. Sobbing, she tells the Stage Manager she can't go on, explaining, "It goes so fast ... all that was going on and we never noticed." She begs him to take her back to her grave, but pauses to say goodbye to her world—goodbye to all the wonderfully ordinary things people never take the time to see, like sunflowers and coffee and sleeping and waking up. Through her tears, she asks if human beings ever "realize life" while they live it. Bluntly, the Stage Manager says, "No." Then he adds, "the saints and poets, maybe—they do some."

Emily returns to her grave—the chair beside Mrs. Gibbs. She sees now why she should have listened to her dead companions. Simon Stimson says angrily, "Now you know—that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness." Mrs. Gibbs retorts there's more to life and Simon knows it. Then she gestures to a star she wants Emily to see. "A star's mighty good company," says one of the dead men. Another man muses it takes millions of years for the light from a star to reach earth.

As Emily and the dead look on, George Gibbs enters and walks slowly to Emily's grave. He sinks to his knees and then falls full-length at Emily's feet. The onlookers make mild protests, and Mrs. Soames says George should be at home. Emily says to Mrs. Gibbs, "They don't understand, do they?" Mrs. Gibbs answers, "No, dear. They don't understand."

The Stage Manager reappears, pulling a dark curtain across the scene. As he walks, he describes Grover's Corners at night. A few lights are still on; the stars are out. The Stage Manager says although scholars aren't sure, there don't seem to be living beings "up there." There is only life on earth, "straining away all the time to make something of itself." He adds the strain of living is so bad people need to lie down and take a rest every 16 hours. As he winds his watch, he realizes it is 11:00 P.M. He tells the audience to get a good rest, too, and wishes them good night.

Analysis

Emphasis on Numbers

In his essay "On Drama and the Theater," Wilder states, "I have set [Grover's Corners] against the largest dimensions of time and place. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are 'hundreds,' 'thousands,' and 'millions.'" He goes on to explain that Emily Webb Gibbs's struggles are infinitesimal when set against the lives of the billions of girls who lived before her and will live after her.

Looking back over the play, the piling-up of large numbers becomes clear. The time capsule in Act 1 is expected to be opened a thousand years from now. The sun comes up a thousand times between Acts 1 and 2. Once in a thousand times, says the Stage Manager, a wedding may be interesting. In Act 3 Emily comments it seems thousands and thousands of years since she died and a thousand years since she knew anyone living.

"Million" occurs in the play even more frequently than "thousand," most often in reference to human lives. In Act 2 Mrs. Webb assures George millions of people have followed wedding superstitions, "and you don't want to be the first to fly in the face of custom." The Stage Manager mentions the millions of ancestors witnessing Emily's and George's wedding. In Act 3 the dead Simon Stimson speaks bitingly of the way humans waste time as though they had a million years to live. One of the last dead souls to speak in the play mentions the millions of years it takes for a speck of light from a star to reach earth.

The recurrence of these vast numbers stresses the point that in one sense, a single human life is entirely insignificant. But in mentioning the speck of light reaching earth after millions of years, Wilder is also making the point that every insignificant life on earth has meaning.

On one hand, Emily is only one of billions of girls. On the other, the trauma she suffers when she returns to life in Act 3 is often considered one of the most wrenching scenes in American literature. The tension between these opposites underlies the entire play. When Emily perceives that a second in a life is precious and meaningful, she also realizes it is impossible for living beings to recognize this fact.

The Value of Life

At the beginning of Act 3, Emily suddenly looks at Mrs. Gibbs and comments, "Live people don't understand, do they?" She asks the older woman the same question at the end of the play, when George is stretched out on her grave. The first time, Emily means live people don't understand what it feels like to be dead. The second time, she is saying they don't understand what it is to be alive. The implication is that George should not be wasting his time on earth grieving for her—not when life matters so much. "Goodness! That ain't no way to behave," comments one of the women among the dead as George collapses. Even sentimental Mrs. Soames (far less silly after death than she was in life) says George, "ought to be home."

To the audience this may seem harsh. Grieving for a loved one is not behaving badly. But as the Stage Manager points out at the beginning of the act, most of the dead souls in the cemetery have been "weaned away from earth" for a long time, and "slowly get indifferent to what's goin' on in Grover's Corners." Although the dead aren't suffering like Emily, it is hard to imagine anyone in the audience envies these placid, colorless souls—and painful to know Emily's ardent nature will soon fade away.

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