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


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Major Theme

The playís major, unifying theme is the shame of taking life for granted and not appreciating every moment of every day. During the course of the play, Wilder points out that life is fleeting, and death often comes unexpectedly; therefore, it behooves people to live their lives to the fullest every moment and to let family and friends know that they are loved and appreciated.

Minor Theme

Closely related to the major theme of the play, the minor theme emphasizes the pattern of life. People are born, form a daily routine, marry, have children, grow old, and die. The structure of the play supports this important theme. The play opens at dawn (the birth of a day) with a discussion about the twins born in Polish town. Act I then quickly begins to describe the insignificant details of the daily routine in Groverís Corners, closing at night with the patrolling of the constable. The second act is devoted to love and marriage, with the wedding of George and Emily. The Stage Manager points out that the natural outcome of a marriage is to have children. Act III is set in a cemetery and centers on death. Emily has died prematurely, giving birth to her second child. And the pattern of life goes on.


The mood of the play is very calm and ordinary, to the point of seeming almost boring. As a result, Wilder uses the mood to emphasize the theme of his play, that people are not excited about living. Most people, just like the Gibbs and Webbs, go through life experiencing the day to day with little joy or sorrow. They simply let life pass them by smoothly and predictably.

Thornton Wilder - BIOGRAPHY

Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. His parents, Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Thornton Wilder, were wealthy and conservative. They imparted to Thornton deep moral and religious values. Thornton spent much of his childhood in Hong Kong, for in 1906 his father was appointed Americaís Consulate General there. In Hong Kong, he attended Chinese missionary schools and received a good education. After high school graduation, he attended Oberlin College for two years and went on to graduate from Yale University in 1920, where he received a degree in classical literature with honors. While pursuing an advanced degree at Princeton University, Wilder taught at Lawrenceville School, where he remained on staff from 1921 until 1928. He received his masterís degree in English in 1926 and then went on to study archeology at the American Academy in Rome. During his student years, Wilder also began to write. He published his first novel, The Cabala, in 1926. He also wrote a play entitled The Trumpet Shall Sound.

After graduating from Princeton, Wilderís literary career began in earnest. He published The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927; it became a landmark American novel and brought Wilder popular success. It also won him his first Pulitzer Prize. He then turned his attention to drama and published The Angel that Troubled the Waters in 1928. In 1930, he became a faculty member at the University of Chicago. In the same year, he also published his next novel, The Woman of Andros, and dabbled in scriptwriting for motion pictures. His next novel, Heavensí My Destination, was published in 1935. Wilder then turned his full attention to drama, for which he is now best remembered. He produced Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942. He won another Pulitzer Prize for the two of them.

When the United States joined World War II, Wilder enlisted and served in Europe. For his outstanding military efforts, he received the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Legion díHonneur; he was also given honorary membership in the Order of the British Empire for his wartime contributions. After the war, Wilder returned to writing and teaching.

In 1948, Wilder published a novel, The Ides of March, about Julius Caesar. Between 1950 and 1951, he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in poetry at Harvard. In 1952 he became the chief of the American delegation to the UNESCO Conference of Arts in Venice, Italy. In 1954, he produced the play entitled The Matchmaker, followed by A Life in the Sun in 1955. In 1962, he retired to a small town in Arizona to nurse his frail health. He continued his writing career there and produced two plays in 1964: The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Ages of Man. In 1968, he produced Eighth Day, for which he won a National Medal for Literature. Wilder published his last novel, Theophilus North, in 1973. He passed away in 1975 in Hamden, Connecticut, where he had been staying with his sister, Isabel Wilder.

Besides winning several Pulitzer Prizes for Literature, Wilder received many other accolades in his lifetime. In 1963, he received a Presidential Medal. He was also conferred honorary degrees from New York University, Yale University, Kenyon College, College of Wooster, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Oberlin College, University of Hampshire, and University of Zurich.

Background to the play

Our Town , which came to be heralded as a Poetic Chronicle of Life and Death, was Wilderís first major play and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for literature. The first performance of the play took place at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22, 1938; it then moved on to play in Boston and New York, where it met with tremendous success. Audiences felt that there was something very human and universal about Groverís Corners; everyone could identify with someone in this small town.

Wilderís passionate plea in the play is to appreciate every moment of every day, for life is a fleeting thing. With troubles rapidly expanding in Europe and war becoming a looming reality, people were inundated with the negative aspects of life. To see Our Town was to escape from the negative and rejoice in the ordinary; it reaffirmed faith in the unchanging moral values of small town living. It was obviously the balm that audiences needed in the midst of a pessimistic and changing world.

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