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


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Our Town is an unusual play in structure. It intentionally contains little action, in order to support the theme; nothing exciting or suspenseful happens in any of the three acts, just as nothing exciting happens in Groverís Corners. The play also ignores most dramatic conventions. In the beginning, the Stage Manager saunters on to an empty stage to talk directly to the audience; he tells them that the play is ready to begin. He then describes the appearance of Groverís Corners and its inhabitants.

The play also ignores the unity of time and place. Between the first and second acts, three years pass. Then between the second and third acts, another nine years pass. In addition, the omniscient Stage Manager has repeated flashbacks to the past and flashforwards to the future, further negating a unity of time. The play also has many locations. Although the entire play takes place in or around Groverís Corners, each act has a different and distinct key setting. In Act I, most of the action takes place in the homes of the Webbs and the Gibbs; often the activity in both homes is seen on stage at once, in order to emphasize the sameness of things in this small town. The second act is set largely at the church, where Emily and George are married. The last act is set in the cemetery outside of town and in the home of Emily during her revisit to her twelfth birthday. Not surprisingly, these acts are entitled by the main concern of each. Act I is called ďDaily Routine,Ē Act II is Love and Marriage, and the final act is called Death. In spite of the lack of unity provided by time and location in the play, character serves as a great unifier. The Stage Manager and Emily are seen throughout the drama.

Since the structural hallmark of the drama is the content of each act and its relationship to the rest of the play, it is important to understand all the acts and how they fit together into a whole in spite of the more than twelve years that

pass. Wilder captures the daily routine in the first act by showing characters like the milkman and the paperboy doing their daily rounds, the town constable discussing trivialities like the weather, and the mothers fretting about their children. Act II, entitled Love and Marriage, centers on the wedding of Emily and George. The last act, entitled death, is about Emily dying and going back to earth. In the process of presenting the three acts, Wilder is really depicting the whole of life - from birth, through growth, daily routine, and marriage, and finally to death. Within this span, little remarkable takes place, and the citizens of Groverís Corners ignore the wonders of life to be found in the trivial and commonplace. It is only when Emily comes back from the grave that she realizes that people really do not appreciate life while they are alive.

Another structural feature that holds the plot together is the continual presence of the Stage Manager. The play begins when he casually saunters on stage and talks to the audience. The act ends with his telling the audience that they can go have a smoke during intermission. In similar fashion, he opens and closes Act II and Act III. Additionally, he interrupts the play many times to make a comment on give important background information. As a result, the Stage Manager greatly contributes to the plot of the play becoming a unified whole.


The central theme of the play is based on the inherent goodness and beauty of existence and mankindís failure to appreciate them. The theme is worked out by the structuring of the acts around the stages of life. Act I deals with birth and everyday life. The act is cluttered with ordinary people, daily routine, family relationships, and growing up. Act II, which focuses on love and marriage, continues to reveal the ordinary things in life. The third act centers on death in juxtaposition to life. It is only after Emily revisits the earth as a spirit that she realizes that humans fail to appreciate the beauty of life; they do not cherish the joys of birth, family ties, flowers, warm breakfasts, education, and thousands of other things that are taken for granted. Instead, they fret about the most inconsequential matters and fail to relate to one another. Death, therefore, becomes the healer that ends the pain and conflict of living.

Through his play, Wilder tries to teach the audience to seize the moment and enjoy living. There are no guarantees about a certain life span, as evidenced by the premature deaths of Emily Webb and her brother, Wally; tomorrow may be too late. By calling the drama Our Town and portraying ordinary people and events, the people in the audience and the readers of the play can identify with the theme and apply it to their own lives.


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