Our Town Summary and Analysis
Act II - "Love and Marriage"
The Stage Manager welcomes the returned audience by saying that three years have passed, and "the sun's come up over a thousand times." Many young people have fallen in love and gotten married, as nearly everyone does. "The First Act was called the Daily Life," says the Stage Manager, in the only place where these titles are identified. The second act is "Love and Marriage," and the third act, "I reckon you can guess what that's about."
It's 1904, just after the commencement at the high school, the time when most of the town's young people get married, and that's just what's about to happen to George and Emily. Events are recycled from the First Act to show the continuity of life-for instance, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb begin fixing their family breakfasts, just as they did at the play's beginning; the Stage Manager describes how these women cooked three meals a day for decades, and "never a nervous breakdown."
Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs sit down to breakfast and talk about how George and Emily seem too young to be out in the world alone. They reminisce about their own wedding, predicting that the newlyweds will have their rocky times but nevertheless that marriage is for the best: Mrs. Gibbs says, "People are meant to go through life two by two. 'Tain't natural to be lonesome." George comes downstairs and goes next door to visit his girl but Mrs. Webb won't let him inside because a groom can't see his bride on the wedding day. Mr. Webb offers that there is sense in some superstitions as Mrs. Webb leaves George and his future father-in-law to chat awkwardly.
The Stage Manager then introduces a flashback to the conversation when George and Emily first knew they were meant for each other, when George had just been elected President of the Senior Class and Emily had been elected Secretary and Treasurer. While walking home from school, George asks Emily why she's been treating him so funny lately. Emily says she doesn't like that he's become so caught up in baseball, and he's gotten conceited. George is grateful for the honest criticism. Over a shared ice cream, George tells Emily about his plan to attend agricultural college; over the course of talking to her, however, he realizes that maybe he doesn't need to leave Grover's Corners and meet new people after all. "I guess new people aren't any better than old ones." George alludes that if he were to stay he'd want to go steady with her, and Emily says that she "always [has] been" his girl. George concludes, "So I guess this is an important talk we've been having."
The Stage Manager moves the action to the wedding, in which he himself plays the minister. He alludes to the sacredness of marriage, saying that the "real hero" of the scene is God, for whom he is merely standing in. Following the Stage Manager's sermon, the wedding begins. Both George and Emily have crises at the thought of taking this major life step, but their elders reassure them and the wedding continues. Their vows fade out as Mrs. Soames gossips to the audience about the loveliness of the wedding and how she always cries. The wedding scene ends in pantomime and freezes in a tableau, while the Stage Manager/Minister talks to the audience. He suggests that weddings are all the same and, instructing the audience to "remove any sense of cynicism from the next line," he continues, "Once in a thousand times it's interesting."
The tableau breaks, Mrs. Soames' gossip continues and the bride and groom descend into the auditorium and run up the aisle joyously. The Stage Manager dismisses the audience for the second intermission.
The opening monologue of the second act, describing the passage of three years in terms of a thousand risings of the sun, contrasts with the motif of the moon in the closing scenes of the first act. Each day ends with a moon and begins with a sun. These two constants, marking both the unity and temporality of human life-its phases, its journey across the sky-tie each day to the next, just as the human lives within the play undergo cyclical changes.
Thus the Second Act continues the First Acts emphasis of the continuity and repetition of human life. The actions of the characters, presented in pantomime, are all cyclical - daily or seasonal activities, like fixing breakfast and feeding chickens and stringing beans. Even the changes that have occurred are placed within a context of memory so that they don't seem like changes at all, just more repetitions. For instance, when the newsboy is distressed at losing George's pitching arm the Constable points out a previous ball player who had also quit the game to get married. The same will happen again, George will be replaced as a ball player.
Even the seemingly extraordinary-this is, after all, a wedding day-is made ordinary by such perspective. Wilder makes sure to contextualize George and Emily's wedding as one of many million such weddings, whose participants have followed ritual superstitions "since the cave men." Wilder does not disparage this repetition; rather, he praises it, suggesting that these superstitions make an awful lot of sense. Superstition, however irrational it may seem, is another way of passing on tradition, and tradition, at least in Our Town has the glowing virtue of the test of time. Anything that has survived so many generations of scrutiny, the play suggests, must be worth something.
The play does not suggest that all human life is strictly cyclical, just that it is overwhelmingly so. Still, the exceptions to tradition are presented as important. The Stage Manager says of weddings that only "once in a thousand times it's interesting." This line rings with the earlier talk about nature being interested in both quantity and quality. Nature reproduces itself endlessly; everything repeats and re-cycles and renews. But every once in a while there's an anomaly, something truly out of the ordinary, and it is through those anomalies that nature can evolve. Likewise, human life cycles through birth and marriage and death, birth and marriage and death, each life fundamentally the same as the last - but one time in a thousand, something interesting happens, and that's how society naturally changes. Of course, even those changes are ordained-even the unusual is limited to "one in a thousand," and thus, in its unique way, is also cyclical.
The wedding itself balances two meanings, so to speak, of getting married-a wedding as a symbolic, public act, and a marriage as a private life-long connection. Much talk in the second act distinguishes the ceremony of a wedding from the lived fact of a wedding. When George complains that he wishes "a fellow could get married without all that marching up and down," Mr. Webb reasons that it's the women "standing shoulder to shoulder making sure that the knot's tied in a mighty public way." But Mr. Webb values the institution of marriage, even as he belittles its outward trappings. And at the wedding itself, both Emily and George panic when confronted with the ceremony and symbols of the wedding, but they are talked back into continuing down the aisle by appeals to what their marriage will really mean. Both the wedding-the public approval of the bond-and the marriage-the private bond itself-are important to the reproduction of a society, to its stability and endurance.
Similarly, the play Our Town balances symbols of things with things themselves. Wilder writes that all theater is symbolic. When Juliet kills herself, the actress who plays Juliet does not actually kill herself; in other words, what we watch on stage is not life - it is like life. Wilder uses this self-evident truth of theater to his advantage by making the artifice of the theater as noticeable as possible, eliminating the symbols like houses and costumes (or, when symbols are used, calling constant attention to their symbolic rather than real status) and concentrating on the meanings behind the symbols. Thus he hopes to offer a depersonalized human drama to act as a template, as it were, for our own everyday human dramas-which we can costume and "prop" with our own particular clothes, people, places, things, selves.
Our Town Essays and Related Content
- Our Town: Major Themes
- Our Town: Essays
- Our Town: Questions
- Our Town: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Thornton Wilder: Biography
- Our Town Summary
- About Our Town
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Act I - "Daily Life"
- Summary and Analysis of Act II - "Love and Marriage"
- Summary and Analysis of Act III - "I guess you can reckon what that one's about"
- No curtain. No scenery.
- Related Links on Our Town
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources