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Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Act 3 of Our Town, why doesn't Wilder mention what music is on Simon Stimson's gravestone?

Sam Craig, looking at Simon Stimson's grave, asks, "Why, it's just some notes of music—what is it?" The reader expects Joe Stoddard to know the answer. Carving notes on a tombstone instead of words is unusual, and Stimson has only been dead for a few years. Wouldn't the name of the tune have passed into town legend? Joe Stoddard may not know much about music, but he is the undertaker. These are the kinds of facts he can be expected to know. But Wilder has kept Simon Stimson a man of mystery all along. Joe says the name of the music "was wrote up in the Boston papers at the time." If Stimson's death got into the Boston papers, he must have been well-known outside of Grover's Corners. Many townspeople speak of his having suffered and of his not fitting into small-town life. Though Grover's Corners knows him only as the musical director at the Congregational Church, he must have had an illustrious past. By keeping this piece of information away from the audience, Wilder enhances the sense of mystery associated with Stimson. He must have been talented; something bad happened to bring him to (or keep him in) Grover's Corners; and he could never make himself fit in. Stimson is unknowable, and that makes him unforgettable.

In Act 3 of Our Town, what is significant about the fact that Emily dies in childbirth?

Our Town begins with a birth (the twins in Polish Town) and ends with a death (Emily's). But the play is not structured so that Emily's death parallels the birth of the twins. A more obvious Act 1/Act3 pairing is the twins' birth and the rescue of the unconscious man pulled out of the snow in Polish Town. Being pulled from a snowdrift, unconscious, is a fitting match to being born, fully conscious. Emily's death has a deeper meaning. One of Our Town's main themes is that time passes quickly and certain events seem to merge. When the Stage Manager introduces Joe Crowell in Act 1, he informs the audience only minutes later that Joe is going to die. On the morning of Emily's and George's wedding in Act 2, the Stage Manager steps in to introduce a flashback to the time they realized they were in love. Flashing back and forward between time periods makes the point that life's beginning and end are virtually simultaneous. Emily dies bringing new life into the world. Birth and death merge in the event, mirrored by the fact that when Emily dies, she is "reborn" into the world of the dead. Her last goodbye is to sleeping and waking up—which is just what has happened to her in Act 3.

In Act 3 of Our Town, what does Emily mean when she asks Mrs. Gibbs, "Live people don't understand, do they?"

This is a difficult line. The stage directions explain that Emily starts speaking, "with a touch of nervousness," to keep herself from thinking about her funeral. Being bothered and nervous seem more like the feelings of a living person, not the dead ones Emily is joining. Indeed, a few lines later, she wonders how long it will take before she stops feeling like "one of them." Although she knows she's dead, she still feels a link to the world of the living, but this hardly seems surprising. So what is it that "they" don't understand? The line only becomes clear when Emily repeats it later in the act. Her last line in the play is, "They don't understand, do they?" It's the second time Emily has asked her mother-in-law this question, but Mrs. Gibbs answers it differently here. The first time Emily says, "Live people don't understand, do they?," Mrs. Gibbs answers, "No, dear—not very much." When Emily repeats the question at the end of the play, Mrs. Gibbs says, "No, dear. They don't understand." When Emily asks the question the first time, she's saying the living don't understand what it's like to be dead. When she asks it the second time, she means the living don't understand what it is to be alive.

In Act 3 of Our Town, what has changed about Mrs. Soames's personality, and what accounts for the change?

Mrs. Soames, a comically irritating character in the first two acts, seems quite different in Act 3. Hearing that Emily died in childbirth she muses, "childbirth ... I'd forgotten all about that. My, wasn't life awful ... and wonderful." A more profound remark than one would expect from the woman who babbled away all through Emily's wedding. In Act 1 Mrs. Soames does nothing but gossip about Simon Stimson. In Act 2 she can't stop repeating how beautiful Emily's wedding is. In Act 3, after a brief comment about the wedding, she goes on to praise Emily's intelligence and the beauty of the farm Emily and George shared. There's no gossip and no repeating herself. She speaks simply and with obvious fondness for Emily. When Emily asks about returning to life, Mrs. Soames says, "Emily, don't. It's not what you think it'd be ... It isn't wise. Really, it isn't." Again, her speech is plain, direct, and meaningful. Her last line is about George, who's come back to the cemetery. "He ought to be home." She knows George needs to be with the living, not the dead. As the Stage Manager says, the dead are waiting for "something important, and great. Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear?" Dying has improved Mrs. Soames's character. As she prepares for eternity, she no longer wastes her words on anything mean or trivial.

In Act 3 of Our Town, when Emily begs, "oh, Mama, just look at me," how does her statement echo her conversation with Mrs. Webb in Act 1?

In Act 1 Emily desperately wants her mother to tell her she's good looking. Mrs. Webb assures her she is; "All my children have got good features." This isn't what Emily wants to hear, so she tries again. "What I mean is: am I pretty?" And again Mrs. Webb disappoints her, saying, "I've already told you, yes ... You have a nice young pretty face." To this Emily complains, "Oh, Mama, you never tell us the truth about anything." Emily is asking a different question from the one her mother is answering. What she really wonders is whether she's pretty enough for boys, specifically George Gibbs, to notice her. Either Mrs. Webb doesn't realize this, or she doesn't want to engage in talk about boys. This disappoints Emily, who's trying to get her mother to see her the way she wants to be seen. There's an echo of this conversation in Act 3, when Emily begs, "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me ... Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another." Emily now realizes that living people don't see things clearly, even the happiest moments, because no one takes the time to look.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what does the discussion between Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs suggest about their power as women?

Wilder was raised by parents who believed in women's rights and were strong supporters of women's suffrage. There is no reason to think he opposed gender equality. But he set Act 1 of Our Town in 1904, and the conversation between the two women suggests that both are aware they're less powerful than their husbands. Mrs. Gibbs begins by saying, "if I don't tell somebody I'll burst." If Mrs. Webb is the first person to hear that the Gibbs family's highboy (piece of furniture) is worth $350, this means Mrs. Gibbs hasn't told her own husband. Why is she keeping the news from him? Because she wants to spend the money on a trip to Paris, and she knows Dr. Gibbs doesn't want to go. Trying to make the trip happen will take some manipulation on her part. Mrs. Gibbs confesses to beating around the bush. Instead of telling her husband what the highboy is worth, she hints that if she happens to come into a legacy, she'll "make him" take her on a trip. Knowing what she means by "trip," Dr. Gibbs refuses. "Better let well enough alone," he says. Mrs. Webb tells her friend to go ahead and sell the highboy and then "just keep droppin' hints from time to time." Perhaps worrying the talk has gone too far, or unwilling to keep trying for the trip, Mrs. Gibbs backs down. She's sorry she mentioned the highboy at all. It doesn't occur to either woman that Mrs. Gibbs could just take the money and treat herself to the trip; she doesn't have to get her husband's permission. Nor does either woman mention the possibility that Mrs. Gibbs could insist on going. Instead, they both assume that to get something her husband disapproves of, a woman must either hint or lie.

In Act 3 of Our Town, why does the Stage Manager suggest that saints and poets are the only people to "realize life" while they're living it?

Saints spend their days in the service of God. Whether they're praying in the desert or helping others, the goal is to work wholeheartedly, putting their whole mind to the task. Ideally, every waking moment is focused on what they're doing because they regard life as a gift from God. Poets dedicate themselves to expressing their experience and their observations as clearly and accurately as they can. Because poems are more compact than prose, a poet must carefully choose each word he or she uses. For both saints and poets, recognizing the value of every moment is—so to speak—part of the job description. But since both saints and poets are human, they're incapable of "realizing life ... every, every minute." They can only do it part of the time.

In Act 3 of Our Town, what is noteworthy about Simon Stimson's description of life?

When Emily admits she shouldn't have tried to return to life, Simon Stimson turns on her savagely. Now, he says, she understands what being alive was like. Ignorance, cruelty, self-centeredness—"That's the happy existence you wanted to go back to." Stimson is entirely misreading Emily's experience back on earth. True, she didn't know that revisiting her life would hurt so much, but the reason she's upset in this scene is that she's realized how precious even her ordinary life was. She wishes she had cherished every moment of existence. "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you," she says. Stimson assumes Emily now knows how painful life was. After all, that was his own experience. He hurt other people and was hurt by them; he was "always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another." He hated his life so much he finally ended it. It never occurs to him that Emily might have loved her own life. And he's clearly still so unhappy that he scolds Emily even though she's admitted she was wrong.

At the end of Act 3 in Our Town, why does the Stage Manager pull a curtain across the stage?

One reason has to do with stagecraft. It just feels better for the audience to see a final curtain. Wilder specifies that no curtain be used at the beginning of the play or the beginnings and endings of each act. He wants the audience to be aware a play is taking place; wants to remove anything separating the audience from the action; and wants people to see the backstage activities that would normally be hidden by a curtain. But the emotional impact of the play's ending would suffer if the departing audience could watch the set being taken down. Our Town needs to end with the Stage Manager's final speech, not with the sight of a bunch of stagehands moving around. The closing curtain doesn't drop down from the ceiling; the Stage Manager operates it. This enhances his mysterious authority. It is he, not some anonymous force, who has the power to end the play and send the audience on their way. Finally, pulling the curtains closed is what people do when they go to bed, and in his last speech, the Stage Manager is saying goodnight.

In Act 3 of Our Town, what is the significance of Joel's father's remark about the amount of time it takes a star's light to reach earth?

"He used to say it took millions of years for that speck o' light to git to the earth," says Joel's father. The phrase "speck o' light" suggests how insignificant the star seems when people on earth look up at it. It's one tiny bit of light among an infinite number of other stars, just as a human life seems insignificant when one considers the billions of people who have lived and died and the billions more to come. At the same time, the tiny light has managed to cross an inconceivable distance. Although the star is millions of light years away, it can be seen from earth—another symbol of human life. No matter how unimportant people's lives seem against the backdrop of history, each person still has a place in the universe.

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