Book Review: Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Our Town delves into the relationship of two young neighbors, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whose childhood friendship blossoms into romance and then marriage. When Emily dies during childbirth, the circle of life depicted in each of the three acts—childhood, adulthood, and death—is complete.

Our Town, widely regarded as one of the greatest American plays of all time, premiered on Broadway in 1938 and is still performed on stages around the world on a daily basis.

You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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Without further ado, let’s get started.

Our Town Summary

Act 1. Daily Life

The Stage Manager speaks while pointing to different parts of the stage: “Up here is Main Street. … Here’s the Town Hall and Post Office combined. … First automobile’s going to come along in about five years; belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen, [who] lives in the big white house up on the hill.” A train whistle is heard, and the early birds of the town start to appear. The newsboy and the milkman begin their rounds just as the doctor is finishing his. They stop for a brief exchange of gossip: the school teacher is getting married, the doctor just delivered twins, and the milkman’s horse refuses to adjust to a change in route.

Now Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs are spotlighted in their respective kitchens, preparing breakfast. Mrs Gibbs calls up to her children, George and Rebecca, and, as they appear, complains to her husband that George isn’t helping out with the chores. Mrs Webb reminds her son Wally to wash thoroughly. The Gibbs daughter, Rebecca, doesn’t want to wear her blue gingham dress. George negotiates for a raise in his allowance. Each child is reminded to eat slowly, finish his breakfast, stand up straight. … The day has begun.

Later, coming home from school, Emily Webb promises to give George Gibbs some help with his algebra. At the Congregational Church, choir practice can be heard. In the Gibbs home, George and his father engage in a “serious” talk about growing up. Returning from choir practice, Mrs Gibbs prattles on about the drunken choir organist, Simon Stimson. The town constable makes his rounds to ensure that all is well, and the Stage Manager calls an end to this typical day in Grover’s Corners.

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Act 2. Love and Marriage

“Three years have gone by,” muses the Stage Manager. “Yes, the sun’s come up over a thousand times. …” The date is now July 7, 1904. It’s been raining. As Mrs Gibbs and Mrs Webb reappear in their kitchens, he continues: “Both of those ladies cooked three meals a day – one of ‘em for twenty years and the other for forty – and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house… and never a nervous breakdown. It’s like what one of those Middle West poets said: 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.”

Howie, the milkman, makes his deliveries to Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs, and at each house you hear talk of the same two breakfast-table conversation topics: the weather and the upcoming wedding of Emily and George. The chitchat is typical of things people say before weddings. Mrs Gibbs worries aloud about the inexperience of the bride and groom; the doctor reminisces about being a groom himself. His fear was that he and his new wife would run out of things to talk about – which, he chuckles, hasn’t been the case at all.

When George comes downstairs and is about to leave for a visit with Emily, his mother reminds him to put on his overshoes. But Emily’s mother, though she invites George into her kitchen, won’t let him see her daughter. Traditionally, she says, a groom is not allowed to see his bride on the wedding day until the ceremony begins. Mr Webb placates his jittery young son-in-law to be: “There is a lot of common sense in some superstitions.”

The well-nigh groom sits down to a cup of coffee with his just as anxious future father-in-law. Mr Webb makes various attempts at small talk and reassures George that his nervousness about impending matrimony is typical. “A man looks pretty small at a wedding…all those women standing shoulder to shoulder making sure that the knot is tied in a might grand way.”

He then shares with George the advice his own father gave him when he married, stern counsel to keep his wife in line and show her who’s in charge. George is puzzled until Mr Webb goes on: “So I took the opposite of my father’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since.”

The Stage Manager interrupts this scene by dismissing the characters on stage and telling the audience that he wants to show them “how this all began – this wedding, this plan to spend a life-time together. … I’m awfully interested in how big things like that begin.” He takes two chairs from the Gibbs’s kitchen, arranges them back-to-back, with two planks across and two stools in front, to serve as Morgan’s Main Street Drugstore Counter.

Emily and George again enter, now as high-school sweethearts. They call goodbye to their friends. Over an ice cream soda, George asks Emily if she’ll write to him while he is away at college. She admits her concern that George will lose interest in Grover’s Corners – and in her – once he’s away.

He unhappily contemplates this possibility for a moment, then decides that he shouldn’t go: “I guess new people aren’t any better than old ones.” He struggles to explain that he has decided to stay because of the way he feels about her, and, in half-spoken sentences, the two manage to express their love. The act culminates in a moving wedding scene, containing all the elements of potential sorrow and abundant happiness.

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Act 3. Life and Death

Nine years have passed, and we are gazing at a cemetery on a hill. We see that many of the townspeople we came to know in the first two acts have passed on. The Stage Manager slowly speaks: “Whenever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense. … We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names … that something has to do with human beings.” And so the dead stand, patient and smiling, awaiting not “judgment,” but greater understanding of eternity.

Into the midst of the dead is led a young mother. Emily and her second baby have just died in childbirth. She timidly approaches the assemblage, glancing wistfully back toward the mortal life she has just departed. Gradually recognizing the spirits before her, Emily suddenly realizes that none of these people truly understood or appreciated the greatness of being alive! There had been no appreciation of life’s little, fleeting moments; no ability to stop and absorb life’s essence; no comprehension of the deep human value of the moment.

Emily is given the choice to return to earth and relive a day in her life. The dead – including her mother-in-law, Mrs Gibbs – try to discourage the idea, warning her that returning to earth will be too painful. Nonetheless, Emily elects to re-experience one of the happiest days of her life – her twelfth birthday.

As the day unfolds, however, Emily’s excitement turns to disillusionment. She feels no joy in watching herself with her father and mother and her little brother Wally; the day is wasted with trivial preoccupations. She cries to her mother: “Just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Then, pangs of remorse fill her – her life, just like the lives of her family members and Grover’s Corners neighbors, was never fully savored either. It came, was lived in self-centeredness and petty preoccupations, then swiftly departed – all quite meaningless. The suicidal Simon Stimson appears and offers a poignant yet bitter comment: “Life is a time of supreme ignorance, folly and blindness.”

Unable to endure this disturbing vision, Emily hurries back to her body’s resting place. There she finds George, her husband, weeping by her grave.

Too late, she now understands: Our time on earth is an irreplaceable gift, one to be treasured and relished every moment; life is a fragile gift that is delivered to us in pieces, and it only achieves meaning as we cherish and blend the pieces – even the seemingly insignificant pieces – into a full, universal whole.

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Our Town Review

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town provides the audience with an informal, intimate and compelling human drama. Wilder was dissatisfied with the unimaginative, stilted theatrical productions of his time: “[They] aimed to be soothing. The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.”

Our Town, with its far-reaching theme and unmistakable symbolism, was a far cry from the typical bland depression-era play (though, ironically, “the magic of the mundane” is the play’s major theme).

Though set during the early 20th Century, Grover’s Corner is anyplace and all places, anytime and all times. A constantly shifting verb tense throughout the play reveals that something strange is happening here with time. Pantomime and conversation simultaneously enact life’s continuum of time and place.

The principal actor is the Stage Manager, who remains on stage the entire time explaining much of the action. He is aware of the present, and privy to both the past and the future. He knows the characters’ feelings, and alternately takes on the roles of narrator, philosophical druggist, host, master of ceremonies, commentator and friend to the audience.

Wilder creates types rather than individuals in Our Town. Every audience member can say, “Yes, I know someone like that. He’s just like so-and-so,” or “I know what he’s feeling. I’ve felt that way myself.” This sense of “recollection” permeates the play to both thrill and haunt us with reminders of our common – and fragile – humanity.

By using the barest of scenery and props, Wilder reinforces that our hopes and despairs and loves begin and end not with things, but in the mind and the soul, as our lives unfold through one another. This focus on “absolute reality” allows us to see Emily’s simplest pleasures and cares (algebra lessons, birthday presents, etc.) through childlike eyes. Her timelessness helps the audience understand, just as she herself comes to understand, the seamless relationship between past, present and future. Her commonplace experiences (marriage, family …) contrast sharply with her death experience, where she finally comes to appreciate the commonplace. The play motivates the audience to treasure everyday life just as it is.

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