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Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Act 2 of Our Town, what is the subtext of all the talk about wedding superstitions?

There's a reason the chat between George and his father-in-law-to-be is so awkward. Underlying everything they say is the knowledge that George and Emily will be having sex sometime within the next 24 hours. Mr. Webb casually refers to it by saying, "On her wedding morning a girl's head's apt to be full of ... clothes and one thing and another." "A girl's apt to be a mite nervous on her wedding day," he continues. "I wish a fellow could get married without all that marching up and down," George complains. Mr. Webb answers, "Every man that's ever lived has felt that way about it, George, but it hasn't been any use. It's the womenfolk who've built up weddings." This is going too far for George, and Mr. Webb quickly dials things down by telling him marriage is a wonderful thing. Only a couple of lines later, however, he alludes to sex again. "Age hasn't much to do with it ... not compared with ... uh ... other things." Both George and Mr. Webb know what those "other things" are, but they both pretend not to. The conversation is too uncomfortable for them.

In Act 2 of Our Town, what is the significance of Constable Warren's reference to the baseball player Hank Todd?

When Si Crowell, the paper boy, wonders how George Gibbs can bear to retire from baseball "just to get married," Constable Warren tells him about another baseball great back in 1884. The player's name was Hank Todd, and "even George Gibbs couldn't touch him." The moral of the constable's story—"Yes, sir; that's the way it goes"—probably won't cheer up Si, but that's not Wilder's intention. Throughout Our Town, Wilder takes every opportunity to stress the continuity and stability of life. One baseball player leaves, another comes along to take his place; so it has always been and always will be. Each individual is vitally important, yet at the same time all people are part of a natural cycle that cannot be halted.

In Act 2 of Our Town, what is noteworthy about Mrs. Gibbs saying she hopes Howie Newsome's wife will come to the wedding?

Mrs. Gibbs's remark is interesting not from a literary point of view but from what it shows about social customs in Grover's Corners and about small-town weddings at the turn of the 20th century. There's nothing to suggest that the Gibbs and Newsomes are friends; social stratification flourishes in Grover's Corners, making it unlikely that a doctor and his wife would socialize with their milkman. Nevertheless, Howie and his wife have been invited to George's and Emily's wedding. Perhaps this wouldn't happen in a real New Hampshire town of the era, but in Grover's Corners, the connections between people are strong. The exchange between Mrs. Gibbs and Howie Newsome is rather informal. "Tell your wife I hope she gits there to the wedding," says Mrs. Gibbs, and Howie answers, "She'll be there if she kin." In 21st-century America, even in very small towns, it's hard to imagine a wedding invitation being treated so casually. The custom now is to send "Save the Date" cards well in advance of the invitations and to keep a careful headcount so as to plan the guests' food. People don't drop in without warning or suddenly decide they can't make it. This is one of those literary details that unexpectedly reveals something readers would never have known otherwise.

In Act 2 of Our Town, why does Mrs. Gibbs nag George to put on his overshoes?

For modern playgoers George Gibbs is marrying unbelievably young. As his father says, he's hardly old enough to shave. For his mother—as for most mothers—he's still her baby, and the idea that she's about to lose him makes him seem even younger. When George protests that it's just a step to Emily's house, Mrs. Gibbs protests, "You'll catch your death of cold and cough all through the service." The service is in a few hours; it's impossible for George to catch a cold that fast. But before he can object again, Dr. Gibbs also jumps into the quarrel. "George, do as your mother tells you!" he snaps, as if his son were still 10 years old. Mrs. Gibbs adds that as soon as George is married, he can "kill [himself] in all weathers"—a strong hint that a mother is better at caring for her son than his wife will be. It's natural she would feel protective of him on this special day, but the remark is a bit mean-spirited. As the Stage Manager says, "People are so put together that even at a good wedding there's a lot of confusion way down deep." The modern reader may wonder why George doesn't just walk out of the house instead of grudgingly following orders. He might expect to be treated as an adult today of all days. But as the wedding scene will make clear, George isn't feeling very adult himself right now. When he tries to escape the wedding, it will be Mrs. Gibbs who has to remind him he's a man now. Shaking some sense into him is exactly what a good mother would do in that situation.

In Act 2 of Our Town, what is the significance of the Stage Manager's taking on the roles of Mr. Morgan and the minister?

On several occasions the Stage Manager plays the part of a secondary character. In Act 2 he plays two roles that formalize the attachment between Emily and George. As drugstore owner Mr. Morgan, he's an informal witness for the "important talk" when they pledge themselves to each other. Mr. Morgan even pays for their sodas, symbolically finalizing the deal. A few minutes later, the Stage Manager transforms into the minister for the wedding. Mr. Morgan was fine for the "officiant" at Emily's and George's semi-engagement in the drugstore, but they now require a more important authority figure to bless their union. The Stage Manager has already delivered several important speeches about the meaning of life; delivering another, about marriage, wouldn't be out of place. But his wedding speech takes on more meaning when it's delivered as a sermon from a minister.

What does the audience learn about George Gibbs in the drugstore scene from Act 2 of Our Town?

George and Emily are having sodas at the drugstore—and beginning to realize they're in love—when George broaches the question of whether he should go on to State Agriculture College after high school. Though he has always planned on college, he's suddenly wondering whether he might prefer to stay with Emily in Grover's Corners. He and Emily fumble towards each other through a thicket of anxious talk with the subtext, "Are we meant for each other? If we're separated for three years, will we meet new people, or will we still end up together?" Then George takes the plunge. "I guess new people aren't any better than old ones," he says. "I won't go." It's touching that George thinks love is more important than education, but for a modern audience it's almost inconceivable George might choose to marry at 18 rather than attend college. Even in 1907 he's not necessarily making the right choice. He and Emily both realize the advantages of higher education; he can certainly learn more at college than from "the pamphlets the government sends out." Whether George should or should not go to college is not Wilder's dramatic concern; this isn't a play about making choices. Agricultural college is the device Wilder uses to get George to declare his love for Emily; he could have used any device. Still, it's telling that George uses the language he does. Even granting that emotion is making him tongue-tied, his reasoning is rudimentary. "I don't want to go away ... I don't need to go and meet the people in other towns." Not wanting to meet other people "in other towns" is precisely the reason George should leave home for a while. His attitude is provincial and somewhat immature. But Act 2 is called "Love and Marriage," and love and marriage are what are going to take place. Besides, Wilder has already established that George isn't as intelligent as his future wife.

In Act 2 of Our Town, what is the function of Mrs. Soames's loud chatter during the wedding?

There's probably someone like Mrs. Soames at every wedding. It wouldn't be quite right to say that Wilder wrote her into this scene just to spoil the wedding, although she does manage to drown out the ceremony with her second-rate observations. She provides comic relief, of course, but she also provides a sort of reverse-foreshadowing of Emily's death. "I always say: happiness, that's the great thing! The important thing is to be happy," explains Mrs. Soames. The inanity of the remark makes it funny, but the audience knows this marriage will end in death and sorrow. Act 2 ends with the "radiant" couple coming down the aisle, but Mrs. Soames has the last word. It's chilling to see her cheerful ignorance of what the future holds.

In Act 2 of Our Town, what does Mrs. Webb mean when she says, "The whole world's wrong"?

"I suppose there's nothing to cry about," says Mrs. Webb as she makes her way to her seat at the wedding. In fact, like Emily, she's in a highly emotional state. She's worried her daughter is going into marriage unprepared for what will happen on her wedding night; she's sorry that she "couldn't bring [herself] to say anything." Earlier in Act 2, Mr. Webb and George had an awkward conversation where the subject of sex hovered just under their actual words. To judge from this speech, Mrs. Webb and Emily have never talked about sex at all. Something else that seems wrong to Mrs. Webb is knowing Emily will be eating her breakfast "in someone else's house." This is an odd thing to say. Unless Emily and George plan to move in with someone else, Emily will be eating breakfast in her own house with George. But at that moment, her mother is distraught that she and Emily will no longer live under the same roof. Mrs. Webb doesn't really think the whole world's wrong, but at that moment her own world is in chaos.

In Act 2 of Our Town, why do George's baseball teammates harass him just before the wedding?

"There used to be an awful lot of that kind of thing at weddings in the old days," comments the Stage Manager after shooing George's friends off the stage. He's referring to crude fertility rites and other coarse customs associated with weddings in ancient times. The three boys, whistling and catcalling, are clearly joking about George's upcoming wedding night. "We know what you're thinking," they taunt. "Don't disgrace the team, big boy." Act 2 is filled with talk about sex, but only these boys' remarks are overtly sexual. As they run away, laughing, to play baseball, perhaps George wishes he could go with them. Immediately after they leave, he has second thoughts about getting married, and it takes some sharp words from his mother to get him back on track.

In Act 2 of Our Town, why does the Stage Manager say that weddings are interesting only "once in a thousand times"?

Although the Stage Manager has presided at lots of weddings, he's still not sure whether he believes in the institution of marriage. Why not? True, he knows what the audience, presumably, does not yet realize—Emily will die in the last act. Yet his ambivalence here doesn't seem related to Emily's future. Rather, he's perturbed by the sheer number of weddings that have taken place throughout human history and by the implacable march of events they set in motion. "M ... marries N ... millions of them." Each individual wedding is important to the participants, but in the aggregate they're all the same; millions of newlyweds will be swept along toward death. This is the only time in Our Town when the Stage Manager seems pessimistic and unsure of himself. He's not talking to the audience at this point; his thoughts are far away. When he suddenly snaps back to attention, his smile "removes any sense of cynicism from the next line." That line is, "once in a thousand times it's interesting." His smile may set the audience at ease, but the interlude has created a feeling of unease that will persist into Act 3.

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