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Our Town | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In Act 3 of Our Town, what is the mood of the Stage Manager's closing speech?

The Stage Manager's speech is calm and soothing, like a children's bedtime story. It evokes a feeling of peace after the previous scene. Bedtime stories are supposed to help their listeners relax, and the first line, "most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners," fits in well with this idea. Wrapping things up, the Stage Manager lists some of the things he mentioned at the play's beginning, with slight changes. In Act 1, at the railroad depot, Shorty Hawkins was flagging the 5:45 A.M. train to Boston; now he watches the night train to Albany pass by in the other direction. In both acts only a few lights are on, and the stars are out. In Act 1 the Stage Manager commented on the brightness of the morning star; now, by contrast, he says the night stars are "doing their old, old crisscross journeys," making them sound ancient. When he says stars are "just chalk ... or fire," he again invokes the feeling of a bedtime story. The peaceful mood changes slightly with the Stage Manager's last couple of lines. In contrast to the stars, the earth is "straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself." It makes the effort of life on earth sound futile. But it only registers for an instant before the Stage Manager wishes the audience good night.

In Act 3 of Our Town, why does one of the dead souls comment, "that ain't no way to behave"?

The comment is slightly disapproving, at odds with the idea that the dead are "weaning" themselves from the earth. If the speaker were fully "weaned"—fully detached from life—she wouldn't care how living people behave. As Emily has just seen, only the dead understand how precious each second of life is. Perhaps the speaker thinks George would be better off back at home, feeling grateful for his life. But how can he possibly do that on the evening of his wife's funeral? The dead woman has forgotten what it's like to lose someone you love. She implies that George doesn't understand, but it could be said she's the one who doesn't get it. She's forgotten what it felt like to lose a loved one.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the importance of the characters who ask questions from the audience?

Though they're planted in the audience, the three questioners are not meant to fool anyone into thinking they're real. The audience immediately realizes they're actors, partly because each questioner asks something a bit comical and self-important. As Wilder must have known, people who ask questions from an audience are often delighted to have an audience of their own. Are the questioners primarily actors or members of the audience? There's no right answer. Besides providing comic relief, their function in the play is to bring together the action onstage and the watchers in the theater. In the same way that the stage is curtainless and the Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience, the questioners enhance the feeling that the audience is part of the story.

In Our Town why is the hymn "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds" used at both Emily's wedding and at her funeral?

Like many Christian hymns, "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds" praises and links both earthly and heavenly love. The first verse extols the love between "kindred minds" on earth as being "like to that above." In other words, a married couple's love for each other is akin to God's love for humanity, making marital love sacred. As the hymn progresses through its six verses, the text moves from joy to pain. The second and third verses discuss the ways in which praying to God is paralleled by sharing "our mutual woes and burdens" with the people we love. Verse 4 explores the pain humans feel when loved ones die; verse 5 explains that the hope of being reunited with loved ones in heaven "revives our courage by the way" (on earth); and the last verse makes it clear that when people ascend to heaven after death, they will be set free from "sorrow, toil, and pain, and sin" and able to love one another "through all eternity." As the Stage Manager makes clear in Act 3, the dead souls in the cemetery are "waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out." They have already experienced earthly emotions; now they are "wean[ing] away from earth," purifying their souls as they await the next stage. "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds" is a fitting illustration of this process.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is the significance of Rebecca Gibbs's remark about money?

When George complains his younger sister has saved up "more'n a dollar," Mrs. Gibbs tells Rebecca, "I think it's a good thing to spend some every now and then." Coming from a mother, this may seem like odd advice; wouldn't Mrs. Gibbs want her daughter to be thrifty? But the line is in keeping with the play's theme that the pleasures of everyday life should be experienced fully. Saving up her money—especially at her age—won't necessarily make Rebecca as happy as using it. "Mama, do you know what I love most in the world—do you? Money," 11-year-old Rebecca says. It's a funny line and meant to be that way. Though Mrs. Gibbs might be expected to be shocked at such crassness, she doesn't engage. "Eat your breakfast," she tells Rebecca. This suggests she knows her daughter is too young to understand that loving money "most in the world" is considered bad for one's character. Mrs. Gibbs is displaying the kindly tolerance a good mother should show on a busy weekday morning. Money isn't mentioned often in Our Town, and when it's brought up, it doesn't seem very important. In Act 1 the Stage Manager seems to treat the "Cartwright interests" with some disdain. Dr. Gibbs gives George a raise in allowance without quibbling or trying to increase the household chores he expects George to do. George grandly orders strawberry sodas for himself and Emily in Act 2—and is then unable to pay for them—but Mr. Morgan doesn't care. Mrs. Gibbs doesn't get as far as using her "legacy" to pay for a trip to Paris, but she does give it to George and Emily, who happily use it to improve the farm. Neither business interests nor financial worries have much of a place in Grover's Corners, or at least not with the play's main characters.

In Act 2 of Our Town, why does the Stage Manager say it's important that Emily becomes the treasurer, and George the president, of their class?

The Stage Manager is being funny; he doesn't really think high school class offices are important, but he knows their new roles are important to George and Emily. And it can be said that the election results foreshadow the future roles of the pair once they're married. As a traditional early-20th-century husband, George will "run" the farm while Emily takes care of the day-to-day affairs like correspondence and the budget. Her combined roles will be just as important as his, if not more so, but they won't have the same prestige. Note that at the turn of the 20th century, it's most unlikely Emily could hope to be president of the class even though she's probably better qualified. The brightest student in the school might do a better job than the best baseball player. But as the Stage Manager has hinted, these offices aren't really that important.

In Act 3 of Our Town, how would you characterize the dead people in the cemetery?

Wilder's portrait of the dead is strikingly original. Except for Simon Stimson (who always seems to go against the tide), the souls in the cemetery are so detached and matter-of-fact that they're barely interesting in themselves; what's interesting about them is how blandly affable they seem. Their conversation doesn't become interesting until Emily joins them. As she takes her place in the cemetery, Emily still retains the warmth and ardor of a living person. When she expresses a longing to return to earth, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Soames are spurred into dismay and agitation. "Don't do it," they beg, hinting that they've both already experienced the heartbreak of going back to life and would like to spare Emily the same. Again, this is unconventional. Many literary ghosts would love to be human again, but the souls in Our Town have shed those desires. Once Emily has accepted her fate, her dead companions return to their state of calm dispassion. The process is chilling to watch. These characters are neither in heaven nor hell. They're in a state of suspended animation no living person could either fear or envy.

In Act 1 of Our Town, what is missing from the items that will be placed in the new bank's cornerstone?

The only items the Stage Manager mentions for the cornerstone are documents: a copy of the Constitution, an edition of Shakespeare plays, a Bible, the treaty of Versailles. There are no concrete objects—no tools, cooking implements, jewelry, pottery, clothing—nothing that will give a tactile sense of what life in the early 20th century was like. The Stage Manager explains, "some scientific fellas have found a way of painting all that reading matter with a glue—a silicate glue—that'll make it keep a thousand—two thousand years." Wilder surely knows many physical objects have survived for centuries before being excavated, and that these objects have been just as illuminating as written materials. It's not thematically clear why the bank's cornerstone will contain only books and manuscripts. Perhaps, as a literary man, Wilder is simply less interested in non-written material than in historical documents; perhaps he wants the contents to be consistent. In either case, if societies a thousand years in the future can't read English, they won't learn much about life in Grover's Corners.

In Act 2 of Our Town, what is missing from the conversation where George and Emily realize they are "meant for one another"?

The phrase "meant for one another" answers the question and avoids the word "love." Similarly, neither George nor Emily uses the word in this conversation. They barely even allude to the emotion. Emily speaks of liking George "a lot." George tells her he's celebrating, "because I've got a friend who tells me all the things that ought to be told me." They discuss writing each other while George is in agricultural college, worry that each will forget the other, and agree it's "important" to find a person who "likes you enough to be interested in your character." As they reach an understanding, George repeats the word "important"; "So I guess this is an important talk we've been having." Why such reticence? It's not just that Emily and George are so young that the word "love" makes them squirm. When the Gibbs and Webb parents discuss the couple, they don't say "love" either. The reason is partly cultural. New England reserve prevents the characters from speaking frankly about emotional matters. More damning is the fact that—as the audience sees in Act 3—human beings are unable to speak aloud about the things that matter most.

In Act 3 of Our Town, what is significant about the Stage Manager's description of the cemetery?

Although Our Town has a few Christian trappings—the wedding in Act 2, for instance, and several Protestant hymns—it is not an overtly Christian play. The Stage Manager's description at the beginning of Act 3 makes the cemetery sound heavenly, but not like the traditional view of heaven in the early 20th century. Heaven is traditionally described as being above the earth, or overhead; the cemetery is on a hilltop with a broad view of the sky and the surrounding mountains. The mountains mentioned are actual New Hampshire landmarks, and the towns the Stage Manager lists are real New Hampshire towns. After listing them, he points down and adds, "there, quite a ways down, is Grover's Corners." In other words, this cemetery isn't part of Grover's Corners at all. Grover's Corners is even farther away from this hillside than the other towns the Stage Manager mentions. It's hard to think of a real New England town that doesn't have its own cemetery. It's even harder to imagine any town creating a cemetery that's far above on a "windy hilltop." Digging graves, transporting coffins, and holding funeral services far from home would be most impractical. Why has Wilder located the cemetery in this remote spot? There are several possibilities. Since the conventional view of heaven is absent from this play, perhaps Wilder wants a funeral setting that at least suggests heaven, with "sun and moon and stars" and blue mountains. He may also want to stress a more pagan setting than a traditional cemetery. Although the wedding in Act 2 is set in what's clearly a Protestant church, there is no mention here of crosses or other traditional Christian symbols. This cemetery evokes native societies that deal with their dead by setting them out on rocks or mountaintops rather than burying them. The Stage Manager speaks of mourners being comforted by "time ... and sunny days ... and rainy days ... 'n snow," rather than by a church setting. And he seems to suggest that waiting for eternity is better accomplished away from civilization than in it.

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