Our Town is clearly a representation - and largely a celebration - of small-town American life. Nearly every character in the play loves Grover's Corners, even as many of them acknowledge its small-mindedness and dullness. Its sleepy simplicity, in fact, is its major point of attraction for many characters. Dr. Gibbs, for instance, who refuses to travel, thus cultivates his ignorance of life outside of Grover's Corners in order to remain content within it; his son, too, decides not to go away to college because everything he could want is available at home.
Of course this staunchly conservative position creates some of the major problems in the play. Mrs. Gibbs and her daughter have much interest in the outside world - Mrs. Gibbs would love to travel, and Rebecca innocently wonders about the moon and the larger world - and this desire to escape the confines of Grover's Corners puts them at odds with the homebodies in the family. Simon Stimson provides a more forceful negative example of the stifling effects of Grover's Corners: he turns to the bottle in order to escape the monotony of everyday life in the small town, while his "good Christian neighbors" turn a blind eye.
Appreciating the Present
A constant theme in the play is the human tendency to miss the simple joys of their lives. Throughout the play, characters learn of opportunities and experiences missed while paying attention to other, less important things. For instance, Emily tells George in the second Act that she was always receptive to the possibility of loving him, but that he was too busy with baseball to notice her; George realizes at that moment that the thing he had always wanted most, Emily's love, was available to him all along. And in the third Act, when Emily returns to her twelfth birthday, it agonizes her to see how rushed life was, how seldom they took stock of their happiness; she begs her mother to pause for a moment and just look at her, look at how happy they were. In the end Emily realizes that living people don't understand how fleeting and precious their lives are.
Routine as Ritual
Each day is very much the same as the last in Grover's Corners. The train whistle marks the start of day, Howie Newsome brings the milk, Constable Warren goes about his rounds, a Crowell boy delivers the newspaper, the mothers come downstairs to fix breakfast. With each new day in the play, these seemingly insignificant events become more and more important as we - along with Emily - learn the value of the smallest details of life. Rather than seeing this routine as boring or empty, we come to understand its richness and importance. A day at Grover's Corners is like a ritual, full of hidden meaning, signifying the health and contentedness of the community.
Ritual as Connectedness within a Community
Related to the idea of "routine as ritual" is the related notion that ritual connects the individual to all of humanity. Just as the citizens of Grover's Corners sit down to dinner each night, so too did the citizens of ancient Greece, and the citizens of the world a thousand years from now. In the mundane, well-rehearsed actions of Grover's Corners, then, lies buried the deepest meaning that any human society can attain - the happiness of a coherent community.
There's No Place Like Home
So much literature is about exploration and adventure, about discovering new worlds and strange societies. Our Town is one of the only works of canonical literature that espouses the opposite extreme: no one goes anywhere in the play, no one has an "adventure." The lesson that we learn is the need to be content with the traditional rhythms of life rather than go searching for something strange and exciting.
Indeed, there is a vein of anti-exploration running through the text, reinforcing the old small-town motto that if you can't find your heart's desire in your own backyard, then it's probably not worth looking for anyway. Much contemporary theater put forth the same basic view, as we can see in looking at Hollywood movies of the day such as The Wizard of Oz, or, especially, It's a Wonderful Life.
Characters who know the good that they have in Grover's Corners tend to cultivate their ignorance of outside societies. For instance, Dr. Gibbs refuses to travel because seeing Europe might make him discontent with Grover's Corners; and George doesn't go away to college because he might lose interest in the people at home.
Life Is Fleeting
Time passes quickly in Our Town. Over the course of a three-hour play, three distinct days are told from beginning to end, along with two other partial days in flashback, giving the impression of a life that is paradoxically both sleepily monotonous and rapidly lived. The irrelevant actions and unimportant conversations that fill these days thus take on an urgency - they are precious moments of community connection, however mundane they seem.
In addition, characters in Our Town often note the passage of time. The Stage Manager constantly refers to his watch and parents in the play regularly bemoan how quickly their children have grown. The deceased Emily, too, despairs over how quickly her relived day flies by, too quickly to experience anything fully.
The Ties that Bind
Throughout the play, Wilder uses the hymn, "Blessed be the tie that binds," to underscore the necessity of interpersonal relationships. The hymn recurs during George and Emily's first nighttime conversation, their wedding, and their funeral, signifying their evolving bond in three stages of their life together. As Mrs. Gibbs says, "'Tain't natural to be lonesome," and the play consistently argues that human meaning can only be expressed through human connections.
The play considers several kinds of human relationships, some conventional - such as the romantic bond of George and Emily - and some less so - such as the connection between the living and the dead. Wilder also dwells on parent-child relationships, neighborly relationships, and the relationship between actors and their audience. Emily discovers at the end how important it is to appreciate the people you love intensely and consciously.
Our Town Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Our Town is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Our Town is set in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire (population: 2,642). I suppose it is small enough that all the characters are familiar with each other, which serves the narrative of the play.