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


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Emily chooses February 11, 1899, her twelfth birthday, as the day to go back and visit on earth. The Stage Manager reminds her of some incidents that came before her birthday. Her father had been away to give a speech at Hamilton College, where he had attended school.

Upon her return to Grover’s Corners, Emily is delighted to see all the familiar buildings and people. She is surprised, however, to see Howie Newsome and Constable Warren because she knows they are now dead. She quickly turns her attention to her own home. Her mother and father are discussing Mr. Webb’s trip and Emily’s birthday. Mrs. Webb stops her conversation and calls her children for breakfast. Emily is struck by the youthfulness of her parents; she cries out, “I can’t bear it. They are so young and beautiful, why did they ever have to get old? I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

A twelve-year-old Emily comes downstairs for breakfast; her mother instructs her not to gobble everything down just because she is excited about her birthday. When Emily has finished eating, Mrs. Webb gives her a present; it is one of her grandmother’s outfits. She also tells her about Wally’s gift. The spirit Emily does not care about the presents; she just wants her mother to stop what she is doing and really look at her twelve-year-old daughter for a minute as though she “really” saw her.

The spirit Emily breaks down into sobs, “I can’t, I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” Finding the scene too painful, she wants to leave. She asks the Stage Manager to take her back “up the hill --to my grave.” As she bids farewell to Grover’s Corners, she exclaims, “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize. . .Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

When Emily returns to her grave, the spirits have gathered in the darkness of night to enjoy the stars. Emily soon sees George arriving in the cemetery; he throws himself down at Emily’s grave and weeps. Emily looks at her mother-in-law and remarks, “They don’t understand, do they?”

The Stage Manager steps onto the stage as the faint chime of a clock is heard in the background. He reports that everyone in town has gone to bed; it is 11 o’clock in Grover’s Corners. The stars are twinkling, probably because there is no life on them. The Stage Manager comments that everyone on earth seems to be straining themselves ‘to make something’ out of life. The strain is so bad that every sixteen hours they must lie down and rest. He states that the audience now needs to go home and retire for the night.


The last section of the last act of the play serves as a flashback to the first act. The spirit Emily has returned to Grover’s Corners to watch herself and her family on her twelfth birthday. It is early morning, and Howie Newsome is out delivering the milk. Emily is shocked to see him since she knows that he is dead.

At her own home, there is a familiar scene. Emily watches her mother as she converses with her father and prepares breakfast. She calls Emily and Wally to come and eat, as she has done several times previously in the play. When a twelve-year-old Emily appears, Mrs. Webb reminds her to eat slowly in spite of her excitement. After she is through eating, Mrs. Webb gives her the first birthday present.

As she watches the events of her twelfth birthday, the spirit Emily is struck by the beauty and youthfulness of her parents. She wonders how they grew so old without her realizing it. Wilder is clearly stating that time passes very rapidly during life; therefore, it is important to seize every moment and appreciate life to the fullest. Emily, however, sees that her mother misses out on the important things; she is too busy cooking and cleaning and organizing to stop and appreciate her lovely family. Emily gives a silent, but passionate, plea to her mother to look at her twelve-year-old daughter as if she really saw her; her mother’s failure to respond to her shows the inability of humans to cherish life while they are alive.

Emily is crushed by what she sees on earth. It is apparent to her that the people do not take the time to appreciate living. They do not think about ticking clocks, sunflowers, good food, ironed dresses, hot baths, sleeping, or waking; they take it all for granted. Emily is so disappointed in this reality that she asks the Stage Manager to take her up the hill to her grave.

When Emily returns to the spirit world, the others understand her disappointment; after all, they had advised her against going back. In a typically negative fashion, Simon Stimson states that humans just move about in a cloud of ignorance, acting with self-centered passion and trampling on the feelings of others. The other spirits recognize the truth in Simon’s criticism, but they believe that life has it share of good things too.

The images of the last scene of the section are very powerful. The spirits have gathered to enjoy the dark night and stare at the stars. They seem to have moved on to a higher plane, both literally and symbolically. In contrast to their comfortable peace is George Gibbs’ misery. He throws himself on Emily’s grave and weeps for her death and his loss. Emily now understands how little George knows about death - or life.

The re-appearance of the Stage Manager signals the end of the play. He talks about how the earth always seems to be straining as people rush to make the most of life. Unfortunately, in the rush they miss out on the important things in life, like enjoying children, appreciating sunflowers, sharing laughter, and really knowing one’s family.

The Stage Manager looks at his watch and then tells the audience it is time for them to go home. He says, “You need rest too,” just like the people in Grover’s Corners. The simple ending is the perfect conclusion to a play built on simplicity.

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