Critical Analysis of Our Town by Thornton Wilder

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Critical Analysis of "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder was born on April 17, 1897 in Madison, WS. He lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong for four years when his father had been appointed American Consul General. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1920 and went to Rome, where he studied archaeology. By 1926 he had received an M.A. degree in French literature from Princeton University. In the same year appeared his first novel, The Cabala. From 1930 to 1937 he taught literature and classics at the University of Chicago. Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for Our Town, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and The Skin of Our Teeth. In 1962 Wilder also received the first "National Medal for Literature" at a special White House ceremony. That was the last award Wilder received before his death on December 7, 1975 in Hamden, CT.

Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder in 1938, is sometimes known as one of his best works. "Beautiful and remarkable-one of the sagest, warmest and most deeply human scripts to have come out of theatre...A spiritual experience" (Burbank 151). The play deals with at least three themes. The first theme appears in the first act dealing with daily life. A second theme shows up in Act II dealing with love and marriage. The third theme appears in act III having to do with death. Set on May 7, 1901, the play is told by the omniscient stage manager whose purpose is to provide exposition of background facts. In the first act the stage manager introduces two families: the Gibbses and the Webbs.

In act I, Wilder shows us the "activities that go on in the day-to-day life of average people" (Gallup 32). The mother's of the two families get up and get their children ready for school, prepare breakfast for them and do the chores around the house. "These are the events that comprise human life" (Gallup 32). The theme of love and marriage appears in the second act. Two childhood friends and neighbors, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, grow up together, fall in love and get married. Connected to the theme of death, act three begins at the site of Emily's burial. In this act we are introduced to the death of Emily and many others. The main theme appears when Emily is in heaven and she realizes what life is all about.

The main theme of the play is about the need to appreciate all aspects of life. "You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life (47). Emily realizes that when she looks back at her life and notices she didn't appreciate the little things in life that everyone over passes.
Wait! One more look. Good-bye. Good-bye world, Grover's Corners
...Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clock ticking...and Mama's sunflowers.
And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths...and
sleeping and waking up. Good-bye. (100)

She relives her twelfth birthday and realizes all the little things she misses. Emily, now, doesn't understand why the living take life for granted and don't appreciate the things that need to be appreciated. The setting of Our Town can take place anywhere and it wouldn't make a difference in the themes and ideas. Thus, Our Town takes place in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire on May 7, 1901. Grover's Corners represents the typical American small town. This way, the viewers or readers can imagine any town they have experienced.

The Stage Manager plays an important role. As leader and spokesman, the Stage Manager familiarizes the audience with various aspects of Grover's Corners. He speaks the playwright's thoughts and projects his themes directly. "Whatever wisdom Wilder wants to express beyond the dialogue of the play, he puts in the mouth of the Stage Manager" (Burbank 93). Through this invention of the Stage Manager, the viewer discovers the value of the humblest of everyday transactions. Thus, he functions as the most important actor, as well as a structural element of the play, and also as a facilitator of each theme.

We are introduced to the two main characters at the beginning of the first act, as they are children: Emily Webb and George Gibbs. Emily, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Charles and Myrtle Webb and who later becomes Mrs. George Gibbs, carries most of the plays meaning. In the opening scenes, she is entering young womanhood, the brightest student in her school, she is aware of her good qualities; the readers accept her high evaluation of herself because of her sweetness she shows throughout the play. We find out that Emily is an idealist when she discovers her love for George in the second act. She expresses annoyance at him for devoting his time to baseball and neglecting his friends. "After her death, Emily has attained a detachment and serenity that the living do not possess" (Miller 137). George, the sixteen-year-old son of Frank and Julia Gibbs, "functions in the play as a representative American. In the first act, rather than create a distinct individual, Wilder spotlights traits characteristic of youth in general" (Gallup 59). George is the typical American boy. In the first scenes, he is scolded for throwing soap at his sister. Even though he doesn't deserve it, he wangles a raise in his allowance. Later, he uses his boyish charms to convince Emily to help him with his algebra. George's role in the last act is small, yet intensely effective. He has succeeded as a farmer. Coming at night to Emily's grave, he demonstrates his deep and sincere love for her. By throwing himself abjectly across the newly dug grave, he expresses without words his devotion to the woman who has been the center of his life.

Charles and Myrtle Webb and Frank and Julia Gibbs serve minor roles in the play. Charles is the editor of the local paper, The Sentinel. He is a forthright, intelligent man and a leading citizen of Grover's Corners. "Mr. Webb also functions as a speaker of homespun philosophy and bits of wry humor, such as his remark that the town drunks are always having remorse's every time an evangelist comes to town" (Gallup 72). Myrtle and Julia represent the typical mother and housewife. Involved in motherhood roles of getting their children fed and off to school, they relax, share the chore of stringing beans, and discuss Mrs. Gibbs' desire to sell her highboy for a trip to Paris. Both belong to the Congregational Church choir, and both are concerned over the organist's alcoholism. Doctor Frank Gibbs serves as just another citizen helping to give believability and realism to the street scene. He is also a master of child psychology in his handling of George's laxness at home. By doubling the boy's allowance, he puts the burden on George to earn his fifty cents per week by being more helpful to his mother.

Our Town violates most of the traditions of the theater. There are no
complex characters who lend themselves to psychological analysis. The
setting is the barest minimum. There is virtually no plot; consequently no
suspense, expectation, or anticipation. (Carey 211)

The only type of conflict found in the play is man vs. man, which shows up in the last act, after Emily's death. Emily tries to cope with the fact that people, when they are alive, don't appreciate all aspects of life. As she relives her twelfth birthday, Emily realizes that the living don't see how precious life really is.

Our Town is a wonderful play, but it lacks interest in the reader's because there isn't any conflict or plot to keep the reader's in suspense. It makes people realize how important life really is and it teaches people to appreciate every aspect of it. Wilder wrote this play believing that "this is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem I know that I know it" (Wilder 40).

Thornton Wilder has written many novels and plays. Many critics have been lead to believe that Our Town is his best piece of work. One critic describes the dualistic nature of Our Town, "the fusion of past and present, natural and supernatural" (Townly 151). Wilder presents a unified whole-human life summed up in three acts, all of which flow along in a perfectly normal pattern. By Wilder's ability to universalize scenes, and by his basic humanism, he offers something with which the viewer can identify. Critics believe the play remains popular because of the humanistic ideas. One of Wilder's purposes is to present events of temporary importance against the perspective of eternity. Overall, Wilder succeeds in re-creating the sublime quality of everyday living. Without moralizing, he imparts to viewers that there is something worthy and noble about their lives. He stresses the simple decency of family relationships. In this way he dignifies homely details that might otherwise be taken for granted. "Ultimately, it concludes- by accident or disease or whatever means brings it to a close- and transforms itself into a transcendent peace, devoid of recrimination or sadness" (Miller 202).

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