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


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Emily Webb (Mrs. George Gibbs)

Emily is the main character of the play whose life and death is followed throughout all three acts. At the beginning of the play, she is a bright young student who is careful to excel in all that she does. She makes very good grades and has been elected as the secretary/treasurer for her senior class in high school. She is also very aware of her abilities. Without conceit, she admits, “I’m the brightest girl in school for my age. I have a wonderful memory.” It is also obvious that Emily is a popular girl. George complains during the play that she is always busy and surrounded by friends.

As a sixteen-year-old girl, Emily has become interested in boys. When George approaches her and asks to carry her books, she is thrilled. She also eagerly agrees to help him with his algebra homework and to have a soda with him. Additionally, she uses the opportunity to scold him for not paying his friends more attention; of course, she is really concerned about him not paying her attention. Because of her interest in boys, Emily is also very conscious of her appearance. She asks her mother if she is pretty and complains about having to wear a plain blue dress to school. Another time she tries to walk as if she were an elegant lady.

Several times during the play, Emily is prone to romanticism. She tells George that she expects her man to be perfect, and then tells him that he could reach perfection. She also enjoys nature, taking time to smell the heliotrope and gaze at the moonlight. Her dreamy ways, however, do not get in the way of her being practical and helpful. She boldly tells George that he has been acting in a conceited way, hoping to change him. She also willingly helps her mother and is seen stringing beans with her.

It is not surprising that Emily chooses to marry George. She has grown up with him and always been attracted to him. On her

wedding day, however, she is very nervous and unsure of her decision. Her mother admits that she is probably too young for matrimony and really knows little about life. Mrs. Webb hopes that some of Emily’s friends have told her what is in store for her in marriage.

In the last act of the play, it is Emily who teaches the audience the theme of the drama. Dying during the birth of her second child, Emily is too young and unprepared to face or accept death. Unlike the older spirits who have embraced the peace of death, she longs to return to earth and the familiar things in Grover’s Corners; she misses her husband and her four-year-old son. As a result, she decides she will go back to her hometown; she chooses to relive her twelfth birthday. The journey back is a horrible mistake. As she watches herself as a twelve-year-old girl, she realizes how she and her family had no appreciation of life. They took everything for granted. Disillusioned by this callous disregard for the wonders of living, Emily bids farewell to Grover’s Corners to return to the peace of her grave. In the process, she teaches the audience to appreciate everything in life - the ticking of a clock, the smell of a sunflower, the wonder of a mother’s love, and a thousand other little things taken for granted each day.

George Gibbs

George Gibbs is the high school hero of Grover’s Corners; he is the champion pitcher of the baseball team and president of his senior class. Unfortunately, his successes go to his head. He begins to act in a conceited way and ignores his family and friends for baseball. It is Emily Webb, his neighbor and future wife, who makes him see the errors of his way.

In many ways, George is a typical teenage boy. He does not like to help with the chores around the house and often lets his mother do things that he should be doing. He finds school hard and constantly asks Emily, the brightest girl in class, for help on his homework, especially in algebra. He fights with his younger sister, even throwing soap at her. He is a bit disorganized, ordering sodas for Emily and himself and then realizing he has no money to pay for them. He is also worried about his limited funds and begs his mother to talk to his dad about increasing his allowance from a quarter a week to fifty cents a week. He also has a developing interest in girls, especially Emily Webb. In the first act, he carries her books home, buys her a soda, and tells her he loves her.

Like Emily, George is sometimes a dreamer. He wants to be a farmer and believes if he goes and works for his Uncle Luke, a farmer, instead of going to college, he will some day inherit the farm and be successful. Also like Emily, he is very nervous on the day of his marriage. He is not sure that he is ready to accept the responsibilities of being a husband and worries that he is growing old. His mother, Mrs. Gibbs, tells him that she is ashamed of his last minute change of heart; her scolding is enough to make George realize that he only has the last minute jitters.

In the last act, George is only seen once; but Emily clearly indicates that he has been a good husband, father, and farmer. One of the most touching moments in the entire play is when he comes to her grave on the night of her funeral. Stricken with grief over the loss of his wife, he throws himself on the grave and weeps. Emily, who has revisited earth and returned to the cemetery, can only exclaim that George understands so little about death or life.

The Stage Manager

The Stage Manager is an unusual creation in Wilder’s play; he serves as the narrator, the master of ceremonies, a choric voice, and a character playing various roles. His omnipresence throughout helps to unify this unique drama.

At the beginning of the play, the Stage Manager is assigned the task of ridiculing typical theatrical conventions. He keeps reminding the audience that they are in a real theater watching a fictitious drama. He also adds some scenery and props to the barren stage for those in the audience who feel that they need some. In talking directly to the audience about what he thinks and what he is doing, he establishes a rapport, much like a Greek chorus in classical drama. He also disseminates a great deal of background information for the play.

The Stage Manager defines the setting of the town, giving details about the appearance of Grover’s Corners. He also introduces characters and tells a little bit about them. At times he even tells what is to happen to the characters in the future, seemingly unbound by time or space. For instance, during the play he points at Doc Gibbs and says he will die in 1930; he adds that a hospital will be constructed in his memory. In addition to giving flashforwards, the Stage Manager also gives numerous flashbacks. He is the one that narrates the tale of how George and Emily became a couple.

In Act II, the Stage Manager becomes a philosopher. He comments on the action that takes place on the stage and gives his opinions about life and death, which are really those of Thornton Wilder. He also plays the roles of Mr. Morgan, the pharmacist, and the minister at the wedding. In Act III, the Stage Manager becomes increasingly vocal about his ideas, often answering the questions posed to him by characters in the play. He also cautions Emily about going back to earth and states that she is sure to be disillusioned. When she is ready to return to the land of the dead, she turns to the Stage Manager and asks him to take her back to the hill. From the beginning of the play to the very end, the Stage Manager steers the direction of the drama, interacts with the characters, plays various roles, and guides the audience to a better understanding of the theme. Most importantly, he holds the play together by his omnipresence.

The Mothers (Mrs. Myrtle Webb and Mrs. Julia Gibbs)

The mothers of George and Emily are neighbors and best friends. They are also cast as character types. They are typical wives and mothers, fretting over domestic trifles, concerned about the well-being of their children, and caring for their husbands. Since their entire lives revolve around their families, their daily routines are much the same. They awaken early to prepare breakfast and get the children off to school. During the day, they shop, cook, and clean; sometimes they find time to visit with a friend, but they often share practical advice or continue to work during the visit. The Stage Manager is amazed at the stamina of these women. He remarks that they have “cooked three meals a day-one of ‘em for twenty years, the other for forty...brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house, -- and never had a nervous break down.”

In spite of the concern that they show for their children, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs do have an outside life. They both sing in the church choir and fret about Stimson’s alcoholism. Additionally, Mrs. Gibbs dreams of traveling to Paris, France, even though she realizes it will never happen. Both mothers admit that they have done a poor job of preparing Emily and George for matrimony. As devoted mothers, they do too much for their children. Mrs. Gibbs agrees to approach her husband about giving George an increase in allowance instead of making him do it himself; she also tells him he must put on his overshoes the day of the wedding before he can go outside. In a similar vein, Mrs. Webb chooses the dress that Emily will wear to school, and when she objects, she insists that Emily wear it any way. When Mr. Webb sees his daughter peering out the window late one night, he warns her that her mother had better not catch her up so late on a school night. It is no wonder that these two mothers worry that neither George nor Emily is ready for the responsibility of being a spouse.

The Fathers (Editor Webb and Dr. Frank Gibbs)

The fathers of George and Emily are small town professionals, intelligent and dedicated to their work; they are often seen during the play talking about their jobs. In the first act, Doc Gibbs talks about delivering the Goruslawski twins; he is also seen fretting about Stimson’s alcoholism, Joe Crowell’s knee, and Mrs. Wentworth’s stomach ailment. Editor Webb is called upon to give a social and political account of Grover’s Corners; after giving an excellent, detailed report, he agrees to answer questions from the audience. Obviously, both men are quite sure of themselves and their abilities.

Doc Gibbs and Editor Webb are both devoted fathers, concerned about bringing up their children correctly, and good husbands, who provide for their wives. Doc Gibbs tells George that he must do more to help his mother with her daily chores if he is to receive more allowance. In addition, he reminisces with his wife about what they were like when they first married and admits he was afraid that they would run out of things to talk about. Editor Webb worries about his daughter staying up late and being too romantic. He also talks to the constable about keeping an eye on his son to make sure he stays out of trouble. In the end, both fathers are pleased that their children are marrying one another. Mr. Webb assures Emily, when she has cold feet about the wedding, that George will make a wonderful husband and be a good provider and father.

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