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The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder: Summary, Characters & Analysis

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Thornton Wilder's 1942 play ''The Skin of Our Teeth'' is an allegory about the history of mankind told through the story of one family, the Antrobuses, who lived through a new ice age, a great flood, and a devastating war.

Family as Allegory

How do you write a play about the entire history of mankind? It may sound impossible, but that is what Thornton Wilder attempted with his ambitious 1942 play, The Skin of Our Teeth. But The Skin of Our Teeth is also a story about a single family, the Antrobuses, who live in the present day of Wilder's time (early 20th century New Jersey).

So what exactly is this play about then? Is it about a single particular family or all of humanity? It is both, as Wilder uses the literary technique of allegory, taking a specific set of characters and events and making them stand in for something much larger.

The name of the family at the center of the play -- Antrobus -- comes from the Greek word 'anthropos', which means human or person. And while living a seemingly normal life in early-20th century New Jersey, the family also lives through the devastating events of an Ice Age, a Great Flood, and finally, a devastating war. Throughout the play, the characters and their experiences are connected to stories from the Bible, classical mythology, and world history to highlight how this one family is standing in for all of mankind.

Plot Summary

The play is divided into three very distinct acts.

Act I

The first act takes place in New Jersey at a time when the entire eastern United States is threatened by a giant wall of ice moving south from Canada. The family is introduced by a narrator and further described by their maid, Sabina. George, the father of the family, is inventing things such as the wheel, an alphabet, and multiplication tables, paralleling the early development of humans.

Act I ends with refugees from the impending Ice Age arriving at the Antrobus house. These figures include the Old Testament prophet Moses, the Greek poet Homer, and the Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts.

Act II

The second act takes place on the Atlantic City Boardwalk where George is being sworn in as president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Human Subdivision. Sabina shows up disguised as a beauty queen who tries to steal George away from his wife, Maggie. Throughout the raucous party, the weather starts to change and leads to a great flood like the one from the story of Noah's Ark in the Bible. The act ends with the Antrobus family acting like Noah and directing pairs of animals onto a boat.

Act III

The final act takes place after a devastating war. Maggie and her daughter Gladys emerge from a cellar to find the Antrobus house destroyed. George and his son Henry, who had been generals on opposite sides of the war, return home. The family discusses how civilization will be rebuilt this time and asks whether it is worth it to rebuild society at all since humanity just keeps destroying itself?

The play ends with Sabina dusting the living room and reciting the same dialogue she delivered at the beginning, suggesting the circular nature of time.

Characters

All of the characters in The Skin of Our Teeth are archetypes, or characters meant to stand in for a set of personality traits or ideas. The fact that the characters stand in for all of humanity, instead of being individualized people themselves, is highlighted by the various parallels they have to Biblical and mythological characters.

George Antrobus

As head of the family, George represents traditional authority and learning. We first see him creating new tools and technology in Act I, like the early men who first created these tools. He is later compared to Adam, who in Biblical tradition is the father of mankind, and to Noah, who in the Bible starts a new civilization after the first one is wiped out by the great flood.

Maggie Antrobus

As the wife of George, who is compared to Adam, Maggie takes on the role of Eve, the mother of mankind in the Biblical tradition.

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