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

 

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STUDY GUIDE FOR OUR TOWN BY THORNTON WILDER


ACT III, SECTION 2


Summary

While Joe Stoddard is supervising the newly dug grave, Sam Craig, Emily’s cousin through marriage, saunters in. Since he has lived in Buffalo the last twelve years, he does not recognize Joe and introduces himself. He explains that he has come to Grover’s Corners to attend Emily’s funeral. Joe says that he hates it when a young person, like Emily, must be laid to rest.

Sam tries to identify the names on some of the tombstones. He finds the grave of his aunt, Mrs. Gibbs, and of Simon Stimson. He wonders if they and the other deceased people have chosen their own epitaphs. Simon’s epitaph is most appropriate, because it includes musical notes. Seeing Sam’s interest in Simon’s grave, Joe tells him that that the choir director had committed suicide. Sam then asks Joe about Emily’s death. He is told that she passed away during the

birth of her second child and left behind a little boy about four years old.

The spirit of Mrs. Gibbs appears; she calls forth the rest of the spirits and tells them that Sam is her nephew. The spirit of Simon Stimson states that he always feels uncomfortable when the living are around. Their conversation is interrupted by four men, who enter and carry an invisible casket. Following the casket are many familiar faces, including Emily’s bereaved husband George and Doc Gibbs. The spirit of Mrs. Soames asks about the new arrival to the graveyard. Mrs. Gibbs states that it is her daughter-in-law, who died in childbirth. Mrs. Soames thinks about the beautiful wedding of Emily and George; she also remembers visiting their new farm.

The spirit of Emily emerges from the procession; she is dressed in white with her hair tied back. She appears to almost be in a trance. She looks longingly at the living and then crosses over to take her seat among the dead. As soon as she exchanges greetings with her fellow spirits, she feels as if she has been away from the living for thousands of years; however, since she is still a newcomer amongst the dead, she is nervous and uneasy.

Emily immediately strikes up a conversation with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs. With animation, she describes to her the farm that she and George had purchased. Mrs. Gibbs does not seem interested. Emily then turns to Mr. Carter and tells him that her boy is spending the day at his place. Like Mrs. Gibbs, Mr. Carter seems totally uninterested in the activities of the living. Emily asks Mrs. Gibbs how long she will feel sad about not being amongst the living; her mother-in-law advises that she must be patient.


The funeral service that has been going on finally comes to an end, and the procession leaves the cemetery. Emily decides that she will revisit the world of the living and survey the life she had lived on earth. Mrs. Gibbs warns her against it, and the other spirits join in trying to dissuade her. She, however, will not change her mind. She decides that she will go back and relive her twelfth birthday. The Stage Manager correctly states that going back into the world will surely disappoint Emily.


Notes

Act III is slightly different from the earlier acts in method. In Act I and Act II, the Stage Manager supplied the background information, but in this section, minor characters give important descriptions. The section opens in the cemetery with a new grave being prepared. Appropriately, the weather is rainy and gloomy. Joe Stoddard, the undertaker working on the preparation of Emily’s grave, describes the town and its inhabitants to Sam Craig, Emily’s cousin by marriage. Through the conversation of the two men, the audience learns about Mrs. Gibbs' death, Simon Stimson’s suicide, and Emily’s death during childbirth.

Like in earlier scenes, this section focuses simultaneously on two disparate things. This time it is the world of the living and the world of the dead. The funeral procession unsettles the spirits in the graveyard. They are uncomfortable when the living are close at hand, for they have tried to put behind their earthly ties. When they see the living, however, they think about life. Mrs. Soames says that it was both terrible and wonderful. Stimson disagrees, thinking it was all horrible; it is not a surprising attitude from a man who was an alcoholic and committed suicide.

Except in the presence of the living, death has liberated the spirits from the turmoil and suffering of life. It is ironic that the “coffined” ones have been set free, while the living ones seem to be “shut up in little boxes,” blind to the beauty of their existence and incarcerated by the narrowness of their vision. This is exactly what Emily will discover when she revisits her home.

As the citizens of Grover’s Corners attend Emily’s funeral, she leaves the world of the living behind to join the spirit world. Dressed in white and sporting a ribbon in her hair, she does not look any older than she did at her wedding in Act II. Her youthful appearance adds to the tragedy of her death. Because she is a newcomer to the spirit world, she is restless and uneasy. She still clings to her human memories and longs to be a part of life. She tries to talk to Mrs. Gibbs about the farm that she and George purchased, but her mother-in-law has no interest. When she talks about her four-year-old son to Mr. Carter, he is equally disinterested. Emily cannot understand, for all of her attention is still focused on those people back home. She decides she cannot stand it and must go back for a visit. Mrs. Gibbs and all the other spirits try to convince her not to go; they say that the dead must forget the past. But Emily is insistent. Mrs. Gibbs tells her it will be best to select an unimportant day for her visit. She chooses her twelfth birthday as the day she will relive. The Stage Manager comments that she is sure to be disappointed in what she sees, for her visit will allow her to see the present and the past and will lay bare the dismal picture of humans living mechanically without appreciating life and all its wonders.

Wilder does many things in Act III to unify it to the two earlier acts. First and foremost, he keeps the attention of the audience focused on Emily, the most important character of the play. It is her funeral that is being shown on stage. Additionally, he has her dressed in white with her hair pulled back in youthfulness. It is a clear and intentional reflection of Emily as the bride in Act II. Mrs. Soames also helps to unify the play. Still the romantic at heart, she thinks back to Emily’s lovely wedding in Act II. In his simplicity of his play, Wilder is weaving a classic masterpiece.

 

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