Our Town

Our Town Summary and Analysis of Act III - "I guess you can reckon what that one's about"


Stagehands place three rows of chairs on one side of the stage - these are graves in the cemetery. Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, Wally Webb, and Mrs. Soames begin the Act seated in these chairs, and the Stage Manager tells us that nine years have gone by, and it is now 1913. Grover's Corners is being slowly brought into modernity - more people have cars and lock their doors at night, but change comes slowly. The Stage Manager introduces us to the cemetery, pointing out the old graves, from the Revolution and the Civil War, and the new graves of the people we know. He suggests that the grief with which we bury our dead fades, but still there is something eternal in us having to do with human life. The dead, the Stage Manager says, begin with a fierce attachment to the living, just as the living have an attachment to the recent dead, but that this attachment fades as the dead wait "for the eternal part in them to come out clear."

Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, and Sam Craig, who has been away from Grover's Corners for twelve years but has returned for Emily's funeral, discuss the recent dead in the graveyard, mentioning Mr. Stimson's suicide. Then the funeral procession enters carrying black umbrellas. Mrs. Gibbs informs the other dead folk that the funeral is for her daughter-in-law, Emily Webb, who died in childbirth. As the mourners sing "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds" Emily appears dressed in white and sits down next to Mrs. Gibbs. Emily is still quite attached to her life and the other dead people listen with polite interest to her talk about her family; they allude that soon she will lose those feelings of connection.

After the mourners leave, Emily realizes that she has an opportunity to relive her memories. Mrs. Gibbs tells her not to, saying it would be painful. Emily appeals to the Stage Manager, who says that she would not only live a day, but also watch herself living it, knowing the things that living people don't. Emily doesn't understand why that would be painful. Mrs. Gibbs recommends that, if Emily must relive a day, she choose an unimportant one, and Emily picks her twelfth birthday.

And so it is dawn on February 11th, 1899. As in the first two acts, the newspaper and the milk are delivered, and Mrs. Webb comes in to begin making breakfast. Emily can't believe how young her mother looks, and says she didn't know her mother was ever that young. With difficulty, Emily speaks the same lines that she spoke as a twelve-year-old girl. The day unfolds just as it did; Emily, however, experiences everything quite differently, with a sense not of participation but of loss. "I can't look at everything hard enough," she says. With her family presenting her gifts and coasting through the day, Emily finally can't bear it and she cries out, "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me." But Mrs. Webb doesn't hear a word she says, and goes on as usual.

The lights change and we're back in the cemetery. Emily breaks down sobbing, saying that she didn't realize, that "all that was going on and we never noticed." She has one last look at Grover's Corners, and says goodbye to "clocks ticking..." The dead discuss with the Stage Manager the inability of living beings to appreciate the life they have. The Stage Manager suggests that "The saints and poets, maybe" are the only people with a shot at seeing life. After this discussion the Stage Manager appears and draws a curtain over the scene. He winds his watch and looks at it, saying, "Hmm... Eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners. - You get a good rest, too. Good night."


Our Town begins with birth and death - Dr. Gibbs delivers twins even as the Stage Manager tells us of the deaths to come of Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs. And so it ends, with Emily's death in giving birth to her child. So the cycle continues - and in other ways as well. Act Three is similar to those that precede it, though the subject matter is much darker. All three Acts, for instance, feature the hymn "Blessed Be the Tie that Binds." When it is first sung in Act I, it binds together all the characters as they go about their evening activities in the moonlight. In Act II, at the wedding, the hymn binds Emily and George in matrimony. Finally, in Act III, it binds Emily to the dead, and therefore to all the people who came before her, and all of us who will come after. The whole of humanity, the major coordinates of birth, death and love are interwoven into one substance at the close of the play.

Despite these consistencies, however, the Third Act of Our Town has long been seen as more the exception than the rule. A cheery, funny, sentimental play becomes, at its end, a dark and rather stiflingly sad rumination on the entrenched human inability to appreciate the lives we lead. "Such sobbing and nose-blowing you never heard," wrote Wilder in a letter after observing audience reactions in the Boston try-out. "Matinee audience, mostly women, emerged red-eyed, swollen faced, and mascara-stained. I never meant that."

Whether he meant it or not, the final Act of Our Town-and especially Emily's famous monologue delivered to her oblivious mother, where she cries, "Look at me!"-is sure to bring a lump to the throat, no matter how mediocre the production. Even though Wilder has attempted to keep Emily from emerging as too distinct a personality-even though he has hammered home throughout the play its allegorical character, the interchangeability of human lives-this death is still largely the reason that the play is so effective (and affecting). Perhaps this is because Wilder's intention is successful-we see ourselves in Emily, our own family, our own neglect for our own mother's, and our own horror at the possibility of our own premature death. We cry not for Emily, but for ourselves-for humanity writ large. Thus her death is the most powerful expression of the play's basic argument-that in the commonest events (and death, after all, is the commonest event that there is) lie the most extraordinary meanings of our lives. Only on the other side of possessing the mundane beauty of life can we fully appreciate the gift that we have. Just as youth is wasted on the young, Wilder suggests, so too life is wasted on the living.

Not that the dead are all that interested in life. In death, the individuals of Grover's Corners lose what little interest in life they possessed in the first two Acts. Critics of the play sometimes suggest that the dead representations of the townsfolk lose all of the little personality they ever possessed-that while they are always walking cliches, in death they devolve to utter ciphers. This isn't completely true: each of the dead characters represents him or herself quite clearly in terms of his or her prior personality-the misanthropic Mr. Stimson is still misanthropic, the motherly and supportive Mrs. Gibbs is still full of good advice. What has changed is the extent of their connection to human life: they have moved (or at least they are in the process of moving) from caring about the particulars of life-so-and-so's birth, such-and-such's death-to understanding life in its absolute terms-life, love and death in themselves.

Which brings us to the million-dollar question: what are they waiting for? We may assume that they are waiting for the second coming of Jesus - after all, these characters were faithful churchgoers. But, despite the presence of a wedding and a Christian hymn, Our Town is not specifically Christian. More importantly, its vision of the afterlife has little to do with heaven and hell. Everyone in Grover's Corners ends up in quite the same place - even Mr. Stimson, whose suicide is forbidden by Christian tradition - where "all those terribly important things" like "enemy 'n enemy... money 'n misery" don't matter any more.

So what are the dead waiting for, if not the second coming? "Aren't they waiting," offers the Stage Manager, "for the eternal part in them to come out clear?" It is worth noting here that Thornton Wilder himself was not a Christian but a Platonist-he believed in a division between Absolute spirit and Particular vessels of that spirit, in other words, between humanity and individual human beings. Perhaps, then, the dead in Our Town are passing away from their particularity, then, toward the realm of spirit, where they will become one with humanity itself.

Thornton Wilder, by presuming the perspective of those beings closest to understanding the spark of humanity within the human being-that is to say, the dead-concretely represents the paradox at the heart of his plat: our daily routine is both cosmically insignificant and eternally important. We are insignificant as individuals-as beings-but vastly valuable as containers of eternity-as humans. He represents this balance of insignificance and eternity, throughout the play, in ritualistic, relatively unimportant human gestures, which the dead see as imbued with great meaning. Value, at the last, consists not in rituals themselves-not in the presents that are given-but in how the unconsciously lived rituals of a human society bind us to each other-but in the connection that the giving of a gift represents. The tie that binds, Wilder suggests, is common humanity. And this shared humanity, consisting almost wholly of small gestures and quotidian commentary, is all in life that we can hope to appreciate.