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Free Study Guide for Our Town by Thornton Wilder-Book Summary


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The protagonist of the play is not a single character, but all of the small town people who live in Grover’s Corners and take life for granted.


Each of the protagonists within the group of character in Grover’s Corners is his/her own antagonist. They casually go about life, not appreciating the small things that make life worth living.


The climax occurs when Emily’s spirit returns to her twelfth birthday. As she watches herself and others go through the daily routine of life, she realizes that no one really seizes the moment or appreciates what they have in life. They ignore the trivial, the essence of living, and wait for the big things, like birth, marriage, and death. As a result, life is passing them by.


The play ends as a tragedy. Not only does Emily die at an early age, leaving behind George and a four-year old son, the characters in Grover’s Corners never change; they never stop to appreciate the insignificant things that are so important to truly living. Emily is so disturbed by what she sees when she returns to earth, that she chooses to go back early to the land of the dead, which is less frightening to her than the land of the living and missed opportunities.


Act I, entitled “Daily Routine,” creates the picture of ordinary people engrossed in their daily routine against the backdrop of Grover’s Corners, a small New Hampshire Town. The Stage Manager describes the setting and introduces the audience to the Webbs and Gibbs, the families that are the main characters of the play. After the introduction, Howie Newsome, the milkman, and Joe Crowell Jr., the paperboy, arrive on their daily errands. Doctor Gibbs comes on stage; he is returning from Polish town, where he has delivered twins to Mrs. Goruslawski.

Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webbs are busy getting their children ready. After they depart for school, the mothers visit with each other. The day then passes in ordinary activity. When school is out, Emily and George walk towards home together. Emily agrees to help him with his homework. As the couple moves off stage, the Stage Manager returns and gives some additional background information about the town. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are then seen returning from choir rehearsal at the church; they gossip about Simon Stimson, the church organist who drinks too much. As the people of Grover’s Corners prepare for bed, Constable Warren patrols the town. The Stage Manager enters to announce the end of Act I.

Act II opens with a monologue from the Stage Manager. He informs the audience that the play is moving forward three years in time; he also tells that the act is titled “Love and Marriage.” Emily and George, who have been sweethearts for many years, are engaged; their families are eagerly preparing for the wedding. Mrs. Gibbs is worried about her son, but her husband tries to allay her fears. George goes to Emily’s house but is prohibited from entering by his future mother-in-law; she claims that it is bad luck for the groom to see the bride on the day of the wedding.

The Stage Manager comes forward to reveal how Emily and George became a couple. One day on the way home from school, Emily upbraids him for being so into baseball that he neglects his family and friends. George readily admits that he has allowed baseball to become more important than many things, but not more important than she. Emily is overwhelmed at his admission, and before long they profess their love for another other. The Stage Manager then announces that he is to play the role of a minister for the wedding. He goes on to philosophize about marriage.

Before the wedding, Mrs. Webb is sad, for she feels like she is losing her daughter; she is also worried because she feels Emily is ignorant about the facts of life. During the ceremony, George and Emily are obviously nervous, but they manage to both say, “I do.” Mrs. Soames, a guest at the wedding, continuously gushes about this being the loveliest wedding she has ever attended.

At the opening of the third act, entitled “Death,” nine years have passed. The setting is a cemetery, and many of the characters seen previously in the play are among the dead, who now roam the stage as spirits. Emily is among them; she has just passed away during the birth of her second child and was been tearfully laid to rest by her family and friends. As a newcomer to the spirit world, she is uneasy and restless. She expresses her strong desire to go to earth again and relive her past -- at least for a single day. The other spirits try to dissuade her, but she persists. When she is allowed to chose one day to revisit, Emily picks her twelfth birthday.

Emily’s return to earth disillusions her; she is amazed to realize that human beings do not appreciate life; they seem to take everything for granted. Unable to endure the agony of the truth, Emily sadly returns to her grave before the end of the day. When her husband visits her grave that night to shed tears of grief, Emily realizes that George, like all humans, do not understand the truth about death - or life. The play ends with the Stage Manager appearing for the final time to bid farewell to the audience.

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