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Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of Emily's first remark?

As she begins her breakfast, Emily says, "I'm the brightest girl at school for my age. I have a wonderful memory." Though modern readers will notice Emily downplays her intelligence whenever she's with George, she's definitely proud to be smart. Wilder establishes this fact as soon as possible, for several reasons. First, Emily needs to be smart. She must learn an immensely hard lesson in Act 3—and she must learn it fast. The Stage Manager suggests Emily's dead companions have been "weaning" themselves from life for a long time, which would be a boring process to watch. For maximum dramatic impact, Emily needs to make her break with earth quickly and decisively; she needs to get the message right away. Because it's been made clear Emily is a bright girl, her sudden realization of what living humans get wrong is completely believable. Second, the stress on Emily's intelligence adds poignance to the fact that she will die young. As a girl in the early 20th century, Emily doesn't care about "using" her brain; she has no plans to go to college or to enter a profession. Nevertheless, it's sad to know that such a brilliant character will die in childbirth; not even her son will get the benefit of her sharp mind. In a play where Wilder purposely de-emphasizes his characters' individuality, Emily stands out. Wilder may be foreshadowing Emily's death in Act 1 when the Stage Manager announces that Joe Crowell, the paper boy—who, like Emily, is the head of his class—will be killed in World War I. "All that education for nothing," says the Stage Manager. He doesn't mean this literally; he's talking about how sad it is to see youthful potential snuffed out.

In Act 1 of Our Town, why does Emily ask her mother if she's pretty?

After school, Emily and George Gibbs have a conversation that reveals their dawning attraction for each other. Though nothing they say is actually romantic, they agree to set up a communication system between their bedroom windows so they can do homework together in the evenings. "You could give me a kinda hint or two," says George. "I don't mean the answers, Emily, of course not." Emily says she thinks hints are allowed, and continues, "so—ah—if you get stuck, George, you whistle to me." There's a touch of romantic interest here, though Emily may not quite be conscious of it. George takes things a step further by mentioning he's going to take over his uncle's farm. "You mean the house and everything?" asks Emily. Just then Mrs. Webb comes outside, and George says a hasty goodbye. Again, they haven't said anything momentous, but the conversation sounds as if they're both sniffing around the notion of a shared future. Mrs. Webb noticed what was going on. "George Gibbs let himself have a real conversation, didn't he?" she asks. Emily begins to talk about her speech at school, but then abruptly asks, "Mama, am I good looking?" Clearly the chat with George has made an impact on her. She continues, "Am I pretty enough ... to get anybody ... to get people interested in me?" Emily, her mother, and the audience know that by "anybody," she means George. Although she was first to talk about George, Mrs. Webb now seems to decide Emily's had enough romance for the moment. "Emily, you make me tired. Now stop it," she snaps. Still, both she and Emily will look at George differently from now on.

In Act 1 of Our Town, why does Wilder specify that there should be no curtain on the stage?

It takes a lot of work to create a fictional world. In a traditional play the audience is supposed to be kept from seeing any of the work lest it destroy the illusion that the action onstage is real. As long as the curtain is down, actors can be out of character and technicians can make last-minute adjustments to the set. Once the curtain goes up, the characters are supposed to be perceived as real people, not actors; the set is supposed to be the real world, not just painted scenery. Of course the members of the audience realize they're watching staged action and written dialogue—but convention holds that the play will be more immersive if they don't see what takes place backstage. The curtain sets up a barrier between the real world and the fictional world of the play. In Our Town Wilder purposely removes this barrier. He wants the audience to be aware that what they're seeing is staged.

How could it be said that Grover's Corners is the real star of Our Town?

In Our Town the audience learns more about Grover's Corners than about any of the characters. In each of the three acts, the Stage Manager describes one or another aspect of the town at length: its layout, some of its businesses, its history. In Act 3 he gives an extended monologue about the town's cemetery. In Act 1 he even brings in two speakers—Professor Willard and Mr. Webb—to tell the audience more about the town. None of the people in the play get anything close to this much exposition, and the audience never learns much about the characters' inner lives. Speaking of the cemetery in Act 3, the Stage Manager says, "People just wild with grief have brought their relatives up to this hill ... We're all glad [the dead are] in a beautiful place." Though these lines are moving, they're generic. The Stage Manager mentions no individuals. The ending of Act 3 is particularly striking in this way. The audience has just witnessed the wrenching scene where Emily relives a day of her childhood and returns to the cemetery shattered by the experience. When the Stage Manager comes onstage, he makes no reference to the previous scene and mentions none of the characters in the play. Instead, he says, "Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners." He winds his watch and comments, "eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners" before he says goodnight. Even the main characters in Our Town are relatively generic. People come and go. Grover's Corners, the site of so much human drama, is the only thing that remains.

In Our Town when Dr. Gibbs chastises George for failing to chop the wood (Act 1), what does the doctor's speech reveal about his character?

Earlier in the act, Mrs. Gibbs asks her husband to speak to George about working harder at chopping the wood, his assigned household task. Dr. Gibbs approaches the topic indirectly, by asking George how old he is. This is something he already knows, but he's preparing George by reminding him that he's no longer a child. Next, he asks what George wants to do when school's over, though again he must know the answer, and George must know that he knows it. When George answers that he hopes to be a farmer, his father asks if he'll be willing to do all the chores a farming life demands. Confused, George asks, "What do you mean, Pa?" Again, Dr. Gibbs goes at his point indirectly. He "heard a funny sound," he says, and found that it was Mrs. Gibbs in the backyard chopping wood. "I suppose she just got tired of asking you. She just gave up." A couple more sentences, and he's handing his son a handkerchief; evidently his message has gotten across, and George is tearing up. Dr. Gibbs can be brusque with his wife, but with his son he's gentler. Immediately after delivering his little speech, he raises George's allowance, "because [he's] getting older." By reinforcing George's good behavior in advance, he makes it clear that he trusts him to do the right thing. Thornton Wilder's own father was strict and demanding. "There are times," Wilder once wrote to his brother, "when I feel his perpetual and repetitive monologue is trying to swamp my personality." In Our Town both Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb are kind and tolerant fathers. Perhaps Wilder was writing about the sort of father he wished he'd had.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of Emily's remark, "I'm going to make speeches all my life"?

Emily is proud of the speech she makes in school—proud enough to tell her mother it was "like silk off a spool," even though her teacher made her change topics at the last minute. But she won't get the chance to make speeches all her life. Her early marriage and early death will prevent her from achieving her ambition. Yet in one sense, Emily's wish will be granted. Her last speech, at the end of Act 3, is an ardent expression of the play's most important theme. Although Emily is denied her childhood wish to make speeches all her life, her last words will become one of the most memorable passages in American literature.

In Our Town what are some of the ways the Stage Manager acts like a divine or supernatural being?

The Stage Manager's role in Our Town is complex and mysterious. On one level, he seems to be a humble, plain-spoken man. On another, he seems godlike. When he sets the stage and introduces the play, he essentially brings a world into being. He's also in charge of populating that world; no one enters a scene in Act 1 until he has introduced them. He can summon characters like Professor Willard, and he can send them on their way. The Stage Manager can see the future as well as remember the past. He knows which of the characters he's introducing will die and when it will happen. He can also manipulate time, flashing back to earlier times to enrich a scene in the present. When he holds up the (imaginary) time capsule and says he's going to put a copy of Our Town into it, he seems to straddle two worlds—the world of the play, and the real world. He can also communicate with both worlds. Sometimes he addresses the audience and at other times the characters in the play. The Stage Manager can speak to the dead as well as the living. He's even able to bring a dead soul—Emily—back to life. To a degree the Stage Manager even appears to control the audience. At the end of Act 1, he announces, "You can go and smoke now, those that smoke." At the end of the play, he dismisses the audience by telling them to get some rest.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what do Simon Stimson's musical directions to his choir reveal about him?

This is the first time Stimson appears in the play. If he is drunk, as some of the choir members will later allege, he doesn't sound it. Anyone who has sung in a church choir—and Thornton Wilder sang in several choirs in college—will appreciate what Stimson is saying makes sense. Singing too loudly is a common choral mistake, and he's right to point it out. His suggestion, "You leave loudness to the Methodists" shows that he has a sense of humor. He doesn't belittle his choir, and he seems cheerful. Simon Stimson is good at his job, and he makes a good first impression. But a few minutes later the audience sees him walking down the street. As the stage direction says, there is "only a trace of unsteadiness in his walk." (Why "only"? Maybe Wilder is making it clear that Stimson's not as badly off as the choir ladies thought.) Without a word, he'll refuse the constable's offer of help. His wife is out looking for him, something she wouldn't do unless she were used to his behavior. "I don't know how that's goin' to end," says the constable. There's a sad contrast between Stimson in church and Stimson out on the street. The audience will never learn exactly what's troubling him—but knowing he has a cheerful, competent side makes his dark side seem even sadder.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what does "the legacy" represent for Mrs. Gibbs?

Mrs. Gibbs is excited to think that selling a piece of furniture might bring in enough money to let her visit France, something she's wanted to do all her life. She confides this secret wish to Mrs. Webb, not Dr. Gibbs. As she explains, her husband thinks "It might make him discontented with Grover's Corners to go traipsin' about Europe." Every two years, Dr. Gibbs visits Civil War battlefields, "and that's enough treat for anybody, he says." Clearly, it's enough treat for him—but not for Mrs. Gibbs. Having made a straightforward request that was firmly denied, Mrs. Gibbs turns to more manipulative tactics. She tells her husband that it's her duty "to make plans for you to get a real rest and change"—presumably by visiting France. Dr. Gibbs sees through this ploy and refuses to discuss the matter. As the audience will learn in Act 3, poor Mrs. Gibbs will get the money but never get to take the trip. Instead, she will leave the $350 to George and Emily, who will use it to buy a cement drinking fountain for their livestock. It's poignant that Mrs. Gibbs calls the money a "legacy." A legacy is money a person inherits, not money received from a sale (even if the object sold was itself inherited). Perhaps Mrs. Gibbs says "legacy" because she can't bring herself to think of the money as something she could use to treat herself. In the end the $350 will become a legacy—for someone else—and the closest Mrs. Gibbs will get to France will be the French toast she makes for her husband on the morning of George's wedding.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of Jane Crofut's letter from the minister?

Rebecca Gibbs tells her brother, George, that her friend Jane Crofut has received a letter with an unusual address on the envelope. The address begins with Jane's name and address and moves on into increasingly vast territory—the Western Hemisphere; the solar system—before ending with the line "the Mind of God." "And the postman brought it just the same," Rebecca announces triumphantly. That part's not surprising. After all, the address contains all the information the postman needs, and he can just ignore the rest. It's not the postman who matters here. Wilder's message is that although Jane Crofut is one speck of life in a vast universe, she is still important and worthy of attention. In "the Mind of God," there's room even for the most insignificant individual. A major theme in Our Town is that seemingly trivial acts—and, by extension, seemingly trivial people—have priceless value. In a small way the envelope's address may foreshadow Emily Webb's death—in which case it's important that George be the person whom Rebecca tells about it. To become one with "the Mind of God," perhaps it is necessary for a person to die. Maybe George will remember Jane Crofut's letter after he loses Emily and will be comforted by it.

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