Our Town by Thornton Wilder: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Thornton Wilder
  • 0:54 Characters
  • 1:59 Summary
  • 4:09 Analysis
  • 4:48 Themes
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we examine the play 'Our Town' by Thornton Wilder. The lesson begins with a brief background of the author. Next, there is a summary of the play and its characters and a discussion of the major themes of the play.

Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder was born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. Wilder was raised in a highly educated and successful family. He attended college at both Yale and Princeton. Throughout the 1920s, Wilder was a teacher, but also a writer. In 1928, he published his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, an award for achievement in American literature.

In the 1930s, Wilder moved from novels to Broadway. In 1938, he produced Our Town, a play that tells the story of everyday life in small town America. The play also won the Pulitzer Prize.

With the start of World War II, Wilder enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Air Force. After the war, he continued to write plays and lecture at several universities. Wilder died in 1975.

Our Town Characters

Let's take a look at the different characters in the play Our Town.

The Stage Manager: The narrator. He interacts with the characters and the audience. He is all-knowing.

Emily Webb: The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Webb, and Wally's older sister. Throughout the play, she grows from a sweet child, to a teen, and then to a bride.

George Gibbs: The son of Doctor and Mrs. Gibbs. He is popular, an athlete, and has goals to be a farmer one day. However, once he falls for Emily, he decides not to go to agriculture school and marries young.

Doc Gibbs: George's dad and the town doctor. His wife often encourages him not to work so hard.

Mrs. Gibbs: George's mom. In the beginning of the play, she wants to travel outside of Grover's Corners, but her husband is too scared to do so. She dies in Act III from pneumonia and never fulfills her dream.

Mr. Webb: Emily's dad and the editor of the town newspaper. He is a kind man who is well-liked throughout the town.

Mrs. Webb: Emily and Wally's mom. While she is in several scenes, we never really get to know much about her. She is a kind mom, but appears rather busy and rushed.

Our Town Summary

Now let's look at a brief summary of the play.

The play opens by introducing the audience to its setting, Grover's Corners, and to the Stage Manager, the narrator of the play, who also interacts with the audience. The Stage Manager is omniscient: he knows the thoughts and actions of all the characters. Grover's Corners is a small town, still years away from its first automobile. As the Stage Manager notes, most families stay in Grover's Corners forever; they are born and die here.

The first act of the play shows the daily life of Grover's Corners. We are introduced to two families: the Gibbs family and the Webb family. The Stage Manager comments to the audience about the actions of the first act, which include a newsboy delivering papers, milk being delivered, Doc Gibbs leaving for work, and the Webb family eating breakfast. When the children leave for school, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs meet to talk for a while. In the second part of the first act, we see the children, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, interact with each other. George compliments Emily on a speech she made at school and Emily watches him play ball.

In the second act of the play, we are told that three years have passed. The morning starts just as the previous act, newspaper and milk being delivered and the families eating breakfast. However, this morning, as we learn, Emily and George are getting married. The Stage Manager updates the audience on the last three years that led to the wedding between the two: George and Emily had a fight about how their friendship had changed, George took Emily for a soda at the drugstore, and the two admitted that they had feelings for each other. Before the wedding, both George and Emily worry about growing older and having to grow up.

The final act opens in the cemetery. We learn that several characters have died, including Mrs. Gibbs and Wallace Webb. Emily has also died during childbirth. The remaining characters are there to prepare for Emily's funeral. Emily sits with Mrs. Gibbs watching the funeral from beyond the grave and decides that she wants to go back, if only for a moment, to see the life that she had lived. The Stage Manager takes Emily back in time to her twelfth birthday. Emily watches her family, but it is all too much for her. She returns to the cemetery, and those who have died talk about living and how they do not fully understand what life has to offer.

Our Town Analysis

Our Town represents anyone's town. The daily events and families could be a part of any town. We see in the opening scene that the families in the play are normal, everyday families to which we can relate. It becomes easy to picture our own towns and our own families.

The idea of death is very strong in the play. From the beginning, the Stage Manager introduces each character, as well as the date of his or her death. In addition to death, we also see a strong connection to life. We see the play start in the morning (the beginning of life) and end at night (the end of life). There is a sense of sadness throughout the play, but also a sense of hopefulness. We watch as two young children grow, fall in love, and marry.

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