Study Guide

Our Town Themes

By Thornton Wilder

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Our Town delivers a message for how we should live our lives: to the fullest. We should appreciate every moment because we never get a second chance. The play jumps from Emily’s wedding day to her funeral in the blink of an eye, emphasizing the idea that our lives are fleeting.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. To what extent does Our Town suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to life?
    2. Why doesn't Emily appreciate her life until she has passed away?
    3. What is the effect of this play being centered in a small town with ordinary routines?
    4. What is the effect of beginning the play with an ordinary breakfast scene? How does "an ordinary breakfast scene" change throughout the course of the play?

    Chew on This

    The prominence of mundane, ordinary occurrences in Our Town reflects the idea that life is not to be cherished only for its big events, but for day-to-day living.

  • Mortality

    From the very beginning of the play, death is present in the Stage Manager’s narration. He makes it clear that the events we’re about to witness are told in retrospect, and this understanding casts a pall over the everyday occurrences we witness. The characters onstage (with the exception of the deceased Emily) do not recognize the brevity of their lives.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. To what extent does Our Town suggest an immortal human life?
    2. Which character is most conscious of his or her morality?
    3. Would the characters live their lives differently if they were aware of their mortality?

    Chew on This

    Our Town’s brevity as a play reflects it's deeper point regarding the brevity of life.

  • Marriage

    Marriage in Our Town is shown as a big step, the penultimate moment of a young person’s life. Love and companionship are prized as giving meaning to life. Yet marriage in Our Town is not entered into lightly, as we see when Mr. and Mrs. Webb reminisce over the early days of their marriage, and when George and Emily have their moments of hesitation.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Think about George and Emily’s wedding. What are they worried about? What are their parents worried about? Which concerns overlap? Which diverge?
    2. To what extent do the Stage Manager’s views on weddings concur with his other views? To what extent do they conflict?

    Chew on This

    Weddings in Our Town do not indicate success or failure of the actual marriage.

  • Love

    In Our Town, love is centered on the family: marital love, fatherly love, etc. Love is an integral part of the characters’ lives, although sometimes they may take it for granted. The love that infuses their lives only strengthens the tragedy of death.

    Questions About Love

    1. Do George and Emily love each other? How do you know?
    2. How does love relate to the theme of mortality?
    3. How does love function after death in Our Town?

    Chew on This

    Our Town has a very one-dimensional view of how love operates.

  • Visions of America

    Despite the universal themes of Our Town, its setting in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire does anchor it in a very particular slice of America. More specifically, as Our Town takes place in small-town, turn-of-the-century America, it offers us a very particular vision of American life: you take your date to a soda shop, milk is delivered fresh every morning, fathers dispense allowances, and mothers take care of the household. Drinking is limited to town drunks, and sex before marriage is a huge no-no.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What is the daily routine for the town? Is everything predictable? What isn’t?
    2. To what extent does the size of Grover’s Corners impact the story being told?

    Chew on This

    The town of Grover’s Corners is a character in Our Town whose development mirrors the development of Emily and George.

  • Friendship

    Friendship in Our Town plays second fiddle to family and romance. While this is evident when George and Emily’s friendship blossoms into romance, friendship also serves an important role in illuminating some of the characters’ thoughts. (Being a play, we must hear thoughts being voiced, instead of merely reading them on the page.) For example, we learn only through friendly conversation that Mrs. Gibbs wishes to travel, and that Simon Stimson is an alcoholic.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. If all the friendships in the play were somehow eradicated, to what extent would the play be affected?

    Chew on This

    Friendship plays a minimal but essential role in Our Town.

  • Gender

    In Our Town, gender roles are very traditional. None of the women or men breaks from the mold: mothers take care of the house and children, fathers work and dispense allowances. The schoolteacher quits teaching once she gets married.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Are there any characters who defy traditional notions of womanhood? How would it affect the play if there were?
    2. Who wears the pants in the Gibbs and Webb households? The women? The men? Or are they equal partners?

    Chew on This

    The traditional gender roles in Our Town reinforce the idea of Our Town as an outdated play with no resonance for our time.

    Despite the traditional gender roles in Our Town, the play still has enormous relevance for our time.

  • Choices

    Our Town contains two pivotal choices. The first is when George forgoes vocational school in favor of marriage to Emily. This decision can be viewed in various ways: the triumph of love over career, the sacrifice love requires, etc. Regardless, it is an important choice in the play. The second pivotal choice is Emily’s decision to relive her past despite the warnings of other dead people. Her decision calls attention to the play’s biggest theme: that of life’s transience.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Of the decisions that will significantly change these characters’ lives, which seem the most difficult for the characters to make? Why? How do these decisions relate to other themes in the play?
    2. What choices are presented to the characters in Our Town?

    Chew on This

    The range of choices for the characters in Our Town is tightly circumscribed and therefore limits the play’s world.

  • Religion

    We are given the religious demographics of Grover’s Corners: ninety-seven percent of the citizens are Christian. Religiosity plays a minor role in Our Town as the ethical and moral backdrop underlining the way Grover’s Corners citizens live their lives.

    Questions About Religion

    1. If the play didn’t tell us that the vast majority of citizens of Grover’s Corners were Christian, would we have other hints?
    2. How is the after-life represented?

    Chew on This

    Despite what the statistics tell us, religion in Our Town is actually deeply ambiguous.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    In Our Town, the abuse of alcohol is used to illuminate the dark side of small town life. Other than a brief attempt by Mr. Webb, no one reaches out to Simon Stimson (the town drunk). Instead, Simon’s antics are a source of gossip for the town. His presence in the play serves to show that not everything is peachy in Grover’s Corners.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Is alcohol viewed in a positive or negative light in Our Town?
    2. What is the effect of having the town drunk be a character? Of him being the church choir director?

    Chew on This

    Simon Stimson’s problem with alcohol shows that even small towns are not utopias.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Because the play spans thirteen years during the turn-of-the-century and centers on a small town, we "see" modernizing influences: people are locking their doors at night, buying automobiles, etc. Our Town makes it clear, however, that modernization doesn’t actually change the heart of the town. This is in keeping with one of the larger messages of the play: modernization may continue, but mortality and love will never change.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Is the small-town, turn-of-the-century character of Grover’s Corners essential to Our Town?
    2. What are the costs and benefits of modernization of Our Town?
    3. To what extent does modernity interfere with life in Our Town?

    Chew on This

    The encroachment of modernity has close to no impact on what truly matters in Grover’s Corners.

    The encroachment of modernity functions in Our Town as a mechanism for showing the rapid pace of time.