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Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the contrast between Professor Willard's speech and Mr. Webb's?

Both men have been asked to provide some information about Grover's Corners, but the facts Professor Willard provides are comically dull and uninformative. When he mentions "recent" developments in the geological history of the town, he's talking about things that happened two to three hundred million years earlier. Similarly, he mentions "highly interesting fossils"—interesting to paleontologists, maybe, but not to anyone who wants to know what Grover's Corners is like. It's no wonder the Stage Manager cuts him off before he can discuss the town's weather, or what he calls "the meteorological situation." Mr. Webb's information contains much more interesting information. Even the relatively dry facts he provides about town demographics help give a clear picture of what Grover's Corners is like. He seems humorously dismissive of the three questioners planted in the audiences, but his answers to them are packed with information about the town. Professor Willard spouted statistics about geology; Mr. Webb makes it clear the people in Grover's Corners love nature. The Professor says he's "very proud" of the fact that Grover's Corners is located on "some of the oldest land in the world"; Mr. Webb celebrates the people who live there.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of Dr. Gibbs's remark that there's nothing to be done for Simon Stimson?

"I guess I know more about Simon Stimson's affairs than anybody in this town," Dr. Gibbs tells his wife when she complains about Stimson's drunkenness. "Some people ain't made for small-town life," he continues. On one level Dr. Gibbs is making a plea for tolerance. He understands what Stimson has gone through, and as a doctor, he must keep this information confidential. "Some people ain't made for small-town life" can be seen as a broadminded way of excusing Stimson's behavior. Examined more closely, though, this piece of dialogue reveals some problems. Mrs. Gibbs isn't trying to pry information out of her husband; she's just expressing concern. But Dr. Gibbs seems to want to quiet his wife rather than listen to her. He disapproves of gossip, and he doesn't want her indulging in it. His answer may reveal his eagerness to end the conversation, rather than a desire to discuss a problem with his own wife. More tellingly, Dr. Gibbs's remark is coldhearted. He's a doctor. Shouldn't his first instinct be to help a sick man? Instead, he says there's nothing to do "but just leave it alone." Simon Stimson, the town drunk, is the only self-destructive character in the play, and when he's onstage, Grover's Corners suddenly stops feeling like a little paradise. Act 1 makes it clear that Stimson's behavior worries many people in Grover's Corners, yet no one steps in to help him. In Act 3 the audience will learn that he has hanged himself. The town's benign indifference may have killed him.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is revealed about Mrs. Soames's character when she talks about Simon Stimson?

Mrs. Soames is the embodiment of the classic town gossip—easily excitable, prone to believe the worst of people, and eager to talk behind people's backs. In Act 1 she bursts out with her complaint about Simon Stimson while she and Mrs. Gibbs are admiring the moon, spoiling what should have been a contemplative moment. In Act 2 her loud exclamations about the beautiful wedding will drown out what should be the most moving parts of the marriage service; even the audience may feel impatient with her at this point. (Characters who provide comic relief are often as annoying as they are funny.) In Act 2, however, Mrs. Soames is at least saying something positive. It might be said that she's made some spiritual progress. And in Act 3 she will redeem herself by defending the beauty of life. Fittingly, the person she'll be talking too will be Simon Stimson.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of Mr. Webb's answer to the "Lady in a Box"?

"Is there any culture or love of beauty in Grover's Corners?" asks the lady in a box. The question is meant to sound pretentiously artsy, and Mr. Webb's plainspoken reply seems gently mocking. "There ain't much—not in the sense you mean," he says. Presumably, what the Lady means is high culture: opera, art galleries, ballet. Of course Grover's Corners is too small for such urban activities; the example of "culture" Mr. Webb offers is comically plebian. "There's some girls that play the piano at High School Commencement; but they ain't happy about it," he explains. He moves on to describe the beauty that Grover's Corners residents really appreciate: the natural kind. Sunrises, birdsongs, and the changing seasons—that's enough for this town, Mr. Webb seems to say. American literature often pits the wholesome pleasures of simple country folk against the interests of the elite, as though the beauties of nature are morally superior to the beauties of art. But Mr. Webb's speech can be seen as narrow-minded. A town where "culture" is undervalued is missing out on something important.

In Our Town what function do the characters Rebecca Gibbs and Wally Webb serve?

Rebecca and Wally are minor characters in Our Town. Wally has just a couple of lines at the breakfast table, and Rebecca's speech at the end of Act 1 is the last time she'll speak in the play. But these characters do have a function besides padding out the Gibbs and Webb families and making a couple of funny remarks. Both of them are associated with sudden death. As the Stage Manager says at the beginning of Act 1, Mrs. Gibbs will die of pneumonia while visiting Rebecca. Wally himself will die of a burst appendix on a camping trip and will end up in the cemetery in Act 3—a shocking sight to the audience, who only learn of his death when they see him sitting with the other dead souls.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of the objects placed in the new bank's cornerstone?

The expression "time capsule" was not yet in use at the turn of the 20th century. At that point the American custom was to seal important objects inside the cornerstones of civic buildings. But "time capsule" is now so common that it's often used as shorthand in discussions of Our Town. Time capsules—whether sealed into cornerstones, buried, or sent into space—contain important cultural indicators: works of art or literature, photos, and other objects that will give people in the future a sense of what life was like when the capsule was created. Generally, time capsules contain items from daily life as well as key archaeological indices. The Stage Manager says that the Grover's Corners cornerstone will hold a Bible, issues of the town newspaper and The New York Times, and copies of Shakespeare's plays and the Constitution. The Stage Manager feels that these items aren't quite enough. What's needed, he says, is something that will contain "a few simple facts about us." So he's going to include a copy of Our Town to better illustrate "the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century." Since Our Town is all about the value of ordinary life, the Stage Manager is making a good choice. But he's also talking about a play in which he's actually appearing at the time he mentions it. He's thus making it clear that he realizes he's a character in a play. Wilder is using metadrama to break the "fourth wall" between the audience and the action being watched onstage.

How does Wilder use time to unite Our Town's three acts?

Each act in Our Town is introduced by the Stage Manager, who informs the audience of the date and time. As the Stage Manager explains in Act 2, each act in Our Town depicts a crucial stage of life. Act 1 represents daily life; Act 2, love and marriage; and Act 3, death. One way Wilder gives structure to the play is that each act starts in the morning and ends at night. In each act the Stage Manager is the first character onstage. At the beginning of Act 1, he comments on the wonderful brightness of the morning star; at the end of Act 3, the dead souls in the cemetery are talking about the stars. The same characters populate the first scene in Acts 1 and 2: the milkman Howie Newsome and the Crowell brothers—first Joe, and then Si—both paper boys. The opening of Act 3 introduces the undertaker Joe Stoddard and a man with the same initials as Si Crowell (Sam Craig, there for the funeral), making for a loose continuity between this act and the previous two. In the first two acts, the whistle of the 5:45 A.M. train for Boston is heard; in the ending of Act 3, the Albany train goes by. (A small detail: a train from New Hampshire to Albany would travel west, and in many cultures, the notion of heading west symbolizes heading toward either death or God.) Act 3 may begin in the morning, but that's unimportant. The crucial morning in Act 3 is the one Emily revisits: the morning of her 12th birthday. The Stage Manager tells her, "We'll begin at dawn ... the sun's coming up." Wilder provides another link to the beginnings of Acts 1 and 2 when the Stage Manager tells Emily that her father has come home on the early-morning train. Act 1 begins in May, when flowers begin to bloom; Act 2 begins in July, when vegetables begin to ripen. Emily's birthday in Act 3 is on February 11, and it's bitterly cold—a fitting symbol for death and the loss of hope.

In Acts 1 and 3 of Our Town, what is the significance of Polish Town?

Polish Town is part of Grover's Corners, but it's "across the tracks," in the poorer section of town. In Act 1 Dr. Gibbs appears onstage, at dawn, having just delivered twin babies in Polish Town; in Act 3 Constable Warren appears, at dawn, having just rescued a man who "darn near froze to death, down by Polish Town thar." The two events in Polish Town mirror the play's larger themes of life and death. Casually dismissive language is used to refer to Polish Town. In Act 1 the Stage Manager says, "Polish Town's across the tracks, and some Canuck families." ("Canuck" is a derogatory term for Canadians, often French Canadians.) He lumps the "foreigners" together "way back there." Dr. Gibbs says the twins arrived "easy as kittens." Constable Warren is almost jolly when he talks about the Polish Town man he rescued. "Got drunk and lay out in the snowdrifts. Thought he was in bed when I shook'm," he says. For these characters—and, by extension, all of Grover's Corners—the residents of Polish Town are inferior to the people on the right side of the tracks.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of the belligerent man's question to Mr. Webb?

Like the lady in a box, the belligerent man speaks with ludicrous pomposity when he asks, "Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality?" His phrasing makes it clear that he expects the answer to be "no." (Otherwise, he would have asked something more along the lines of, "What is the town doing to fight social injustice?") Mr. Webb's answer must surprise him. "Oh, yes, everybody is—somethin' terrible," he begins. But then he continues, "Seems like they spend most of their time talking about who's rich and who's poor." Mr. Webb is not really answering the question; he's making a joke at the expense of the belligerent man, who snaps, "Then why don't they do something about it?" and leaves before he gets an answer. But the belligerent man's question is a valid one, even if it's phrased in stilted and accusatory language. How does Grover's Corners help its less privileged townspeople? Mr. Webb expands on his first answer, saying, "We do all we can to help those that can't help themselves and those that can we leave alone." A vague reply, and one suggesting that either he doesn't know how the poorer townspeople get help or he simply doesn't care. Mr. Webb is a nice man, but like the majority of the people in Grover's Corners, there are some things he doesn't want to think about.

What is the significance of the Stage Manager's remark in Act 2 of Our Town that neither Mrs. Gibbs nor Mrs. Webb ever had a nervous breakdown?

The Stage Manager is paying a backhanded tribute to both women by reminding the audience of how hard and for how long they have worked. "No summer vacation," he says, and at the turn of the 20th century it was largely true that even when their husbands or children got time off from work or school, women had to keep cooking. Even on this important day, when Emily and George are getting married and each household expects lots of guests, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are downstairs making breakfast as usual. The Stage Manager's next remark has a different tone. Quoting from the poem "Lucinda Matlock," he says, "You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life ... It's what they call a vicious circle." The first part of the sentence fits in with Our Town's message. Unless the Stage Manager genuinely believes that loving life leads to a downward spiral, he is making a joke. But it's true both Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb have to work most of the time, whether they like it or not.

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