Study Guide

Our Town Analysis

By Thornton Wilder

  • Tone

    Morbid but hopeful

    From the beginning of the play, the Stage Manager introduces the characters only to give their death dates. It’s like he’s making us read a book backwards – we already know what happens (hint: everyone dies). However, it’s not until the last act that we the audience begin to understand the meaning of all the morbid overtones. When Emily realizes all the wasted moments of her past, the pain is too much to bear, and we too realize all the moments we take for granted. But we’re not dead. We have the opportunities to cherish life that Emily does not.

  • Genre

    Magical Realism, Drama

    The whole dead person wandering among the living thing? That’s not reality! It must be magical realism! Also, the Stage Manager manages (pun!) to step into scenes and as an old woman, a drugstore clerk, and a church minister. Not so realistic. The "realism" part of "magical realism" covers the breakfast scenes, the drugstore romance, the wedding, etc.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    Our Town, Our Town… Yes, this play is about your town. It could be anyone's town. Grover’s Corners, the town in which Our Town is set, might be out in the boonies of New Hampshire and the dustbin of the past, but by titling his play Our Town, Wilder hints that Grover’s Corners exists outside of New Hampshire, and outside of the early 1900s. The events and themes that occupy the citizens of Grover’s Corners are universal – hence the title, Our Town.

  • Setting

    Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire

    Our Town is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire (population: 2,642). Key scenes take place at the Gibbs and Webb houses, a drugstore counter, and the town cemetery. But wait! Is it really taking place in Grover’s Corners? Remember that this entire play is being "controlled" by the Stage Manager, as if he’s standing in front of a giant movie screen and hitting "stop," "go," "rewind," and "fast forward." Our Town is a play about this Stage Manager guy showing us a bunch of scenes from a fictional town named Grover’s Corners.

    So…make the jump with us, please…Our Town actually takes place in the present day. The Stage Manager exists in the present, even as the scenes he shows us exist in the early 1900’s. Our Town thus always remains contemporary and relevant.

    Moreover, the citizens of Grover’s Corners have an awareness of scale that manifests itself several times during the play. This awareness is both historical (the Stage Manager constantly alludes to old Greek and Roman civilizations) and spatially (the letter address that includes the Universe and the Mind of God, and Mrs. Gibbs’ dreams of traveling to Paris). This allows audiences to anchor Grover’s Corners in relation to the rest of the world.

  • Writing Style

    Nice n' Folksy-Like

    Our Town takes place in a rural setting, in a time far removed from texts and tweets. As a result, the style will strike most modern readers as, well, old-timey. Now, when we say old-timey, we're talking more Andy Griffith than Blazing Saddles. The town of Our Town is a small, rural community in 1930s America, and characters say things like this about it: "Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s'far as we know" (I.40).

    With a line like this Thornton Wilder accomplishes two things at once. First, we learn that the town is, indeed, a kind of sleepy little village where nothing much happens. Secondly—and this relates to his choice of writing style—we get some authentic small-town dialect. Whoodoggies! (Actually, that's a bit too Southern.) The "s'far," though, lets us know that the Stage Manager, and the other characters, are coming from a rural setting, with a simple (though, as we read on, profound) outlook.

    Another part of Wilder's style that helps to convey that outlook comes from the ready references to nature. Of course, living in a rural setting will make nature more important for anyone. That's clearly the case for these characters. Where New Yorkers might experience the natural world by taking a trip to REI, the characters in this play have nature all around them: "No, ma'am, there isn't much culture; but maybe this is the place to tell you that we've got a lot of pleasures of a kind here: we like the sun comin' up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a good deal about the birds" (I.240).

    Again, the writing style and content underscores the importance of the natural world as a source of pleasure for the characters, which is in keeping with the play's broader themes. It may not be a sophisticate hubbub of hipster t-shirts and the latest smartphones, but Grover's Corners is a place where simplicity should not be confused with dullness. As the writing style reflects, these still waters run deep. And you can bet the farm on that.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Life

    The play is an allegory of life structured over three days. Wilder begins the play at the crack of dawn, when the town is waking up, and concludes the play with the dead in the cemetery. The repetition of the sun’s cycle parallels the life cycle, with one important distinction. The human lifespan is not as long as the sun’s. And unlike a sun, when a person dies, he does not rise again. There is hope, however, in the human life cycle: reproduction. Significantly, Emily dies while giving birth to her second child. Although it is unclear whether her baby lived, we do know she has at least one child to survive her and continue the circle of life.

    Spare Props

    Wilder calls for no scenery at the opening of the play, making the Stage Manager carry on a few basic chairs and tables. When Doc Gibbs walks onstage from a doctor’s call, he mimes his doctor's bag, just as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb pantomime cooking. Wilder’s set is simple: no frills and no clutter. The clean stage keeps focus on the characters’ interactions, not on the specifics of Grover’s Corners.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    The Stage Manager functions as the narrator of the play and our tour guide throughout Grover’s Corners, selecting what the audience members (and readers) get to see. The Stage Manager uses his power to ask characters to leave the stage, to actually enter the scene himself, and to pose questions that help us interpret the play.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage

    George flirts with Emily, effectively hitting her with Cupid’s arrow

    Emily is growing up and becoming aware of boys – not just any boy, but the boy next door: George Gibbs. She asks her mother whether she’s pretty or not and dreamily sits outside at night after George flirts with her. Will George fall for a different girl? Keep turning that page, avid readers.

    Dream Stage

    Over strawberry ice cream sodas, mutual attraction is revealed.

    George and Emily have their whole future ahead of them. Not only are they presumably dreaming about their future, we the audience are doing the same.

    Frustration Stage

    George and Emily have misgivings about marriage.

    Both George and Emily experience moments of anxiety to the tune of "I don’t wanna grow up."

    Nightmare Stage

    Not Applicable.

    There is no nightmare stage in Our Town, which only emphasizes how quick the transition can be between the happiest day of your life (your wedding day) and your day of death. Death doesn’t always give warning signs.

    Destruction or Death wish Stage

    Emily dies and decides to visit the real world again.

    Without any warning, we move to the third act only to find that Emily has died during child labor. Once dead, Emily is determined to return to the real world, but realizes that watching old events is painful because the living humans don’t recognize life’s transience.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    We witness an ordinary day in the Webb and Gibbs households.

    We become acquainted with Grover’s Corners: its layout, its prominent people, and its daily routines. They play focuses on two families in particular, and the romance developing between two of the children. This is the initial situation because at the same time that the ordinary is established, potential drama is established in the growing attraction between Emily Webb and George Gibbs.

    Conflict

    George is acting conceited and Emily tells him so.

    Though Emily and George used to get along great, with Emily helping out George on his homework, George now acts a bit full of himself. Emily tells him so, and they make up.

    Complication

    On Emily and George's wedding day, both get cold feet.

    Both George and Emily experience a moment of anxiety to the tune of "I don't wanna grow up."

    Climax

    George and Emily marry.

    Their marriage is the culmination of childhood flirtations.

    Suspense

    Emily dies and joins her various relatives and friends at their gravesite. Despite their warnings, she wants to return to her previous life.

    What will Emily do now that she has died? Her fellow dead offer crystal-clear warnings against returning to the living world, but Emily remains obstinate. What will happen to Emily after she decides to return to the living?

    Denouement

    Emily realizes that her fellow dead were correct; remaining among the living is not a good idea.

    Emily begs to be taken back to her gravesite after she realizes that being among the living is rather depressing.

    Conclusion

    Emily returns to her gravesite. The dead welcome her.

    Emily admits to her compatriots that they were correct. Returning to the living was a bad idea. Meanwhile, George cries over her grave.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Daily Life: The Webb family and the Gibbs family eat breakfast and go to work/school and the women gossip.

    Act II

    Love and Marriage: Emily Webb and George Gibbs get hitched.

    Act III

    Death: Emily’s ghost wanders into the past.

  • Allusions

    Literature and Philosophy

    Shakespeare (I.246)Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (I.189)The Bible (I.189, I.246)

    Historical Figures

    U.S. Constitution (I.246)

    Pop Culture

    The New York Times (I.245)