Study Guide

Our Town Mortality

By Thornton Wilder


And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then (I.307).

Unlike life, theatrical text is immortal.

Some babies that weren’t even born before have begun talking regular sentences already; and a number of people who thought they were right young and spry have noticed that they can’t bound up a flight of stairs like they used to, without their heart fluttering a little (II.7).

Time passes rapidly.

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings…There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being (III.25).

What is this something? Whatever it is, it’s linked to humanity.

I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another (III.245).

During her visit back to the living, Emily is overwhelmed by the brief nature of life.

Mrs. Gibbs died first – long time ago, in fact. She went out to visit her daughter, Rebecca, who married an insurance man in Canton, Ohio, and died there – pneumonia – but her body was brought back here. She’s up in the cemetery there now – in with a whole mess of Gibbses and Herseys – she was Julia Hersey ‘fore she married Doc Gibbs in the Congregational Chuch over there. (I.50)

We learn about Mrs. Gibbs’s death before we even meet see her character on stage. Her death is relayed factually, supporting the Stage Manager’s statement about knowing everybody’s relevant facts.

Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright – graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France. – All that education for nothing. (I.76)

We meet Joe as an innocent eleven-year-old newspaper boy only to learn about his death moments later, showing us that life is quick and unpredictable.

I never felt so alone in my whole life. And George over there, looking so…! I hate him. I wish I were dead. Papa! Papa! (II.340)

Emily hates the feeling of loneliness on her wedding day to the point of wishing for her own death. Coupled with the third act of this play, her words ring as sadly ironic.

Yes, an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here. People just wild with grief have brought their relatives up to this hill. We all know how it is…and then time…and sunny days…and rainy days…’n snow…We’re all glad they’re in a beautiful place and we’re coming up here ourselves when our fit’s over. (III.23-4)

Death is a shared experience in Grover’s Corners.

Why, this is my Aunt Julia…I’d forgotten that she’d… of course, of course. (III.47)

Even a death in the family can be momentarily forgotten.

SAM CRAIG: He was organist at church, wasn’t he? – Hm, drank a lot, we used to say.
JOE STODDARD: Nobody was supposed to know about it. He’d seen a peck of trouble. Behind his hand. Took his own life, y’know?
SAM: Oh, did he?
JOE: Hung himself in the attic. They tried to hush it up, but of course it got around. He chose his own epy-taph. You can see it there. It ain’t a verse exactly. (III.58-61)

For some, death is more attractive than life.