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