Emily Webb, who later becomes Mrs. George Gibbs, carries most of the play's meaning. In the opening scenes, she is entering young womanhood. The brightest student in her school, she is very much aware of her good qualities. At sixteen, she is at a stage of life where she concentrates on looks and appearance. Yet Emily maintains a certain winsome sweetness that allows the viewer to accept her high evaluation of herself.
In her conversation with George, Emily displays a normal teenage tendency toward romanticism. By the end of Act I, she sniffs the heliotrope next door and stares pensively at the stars. This early view of Emily prepares the audience for her role in Act III when she discovers that most people don't take the time to examine the act of living. Also, her awareness of mystery in the heavens leads directly to her reappearance as a spirit. Emily's character is best revealed in Act II when she and George discover love. Emily is an idealist. She wants George to be the best that he can be. She expresses annoyance at him for devoting his time to baseball and neglecting his friends. In other words, Emily feels slighted.
She is explicit in her criticism of George. Her frankness, however, results from disappointment rather than vindictiveness. As soon as George divulges his love for her, Emily regrets criticizing him. By the end of the scene, Emily has reversed her opinion. As soon as she knows that she is truly George's love interest, she loses or represses her feelings of superiority. She is willing to take the subservient role that is typical of both her mother and future mother-in-law.
At the wedding, Emily experiences qualms about starting a new life with George. She seems to fulfill her mother's fears that she is too naive to become a wife. Emily — who misinterprets her apprehension as hatred of George — urges her "papa" to take her away. Her function in the wedding scene is to suggest the universal terror that brides sometimes undergo. In the end, however, she disengages herself from her father's protection and establishes a reliance on her future husband.
Emily's chief function is reserved for Act III. After dying in childbirth and leaving behind a four-year-old son, she hesitantly joins the spirits in the cemetery. She cannot accept her position at first, and being new, she is able to comment on the relative difference between the living and dead. Of the living, she says: "They're sort of shut up in little boxes " Thus, part of her function is to note the irony that she, recently buried in a hillside grave, knows more freedom than the living, who are confined and unjoined to other living beings.
When Emily asks to relive a day in her life, she assists the Stage Manager in speaking Wilder's philosophy concerning the meaning of life and living. During this day, she realizes that the living are so involved in performing commonplace tasks that they take no time to gain a balanced perception of the acts that they perform. They are burdened with troubles and earthly concerns to the point that they miss the ecstasy of the moment. As Emily asks the Stage Manager, "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?" Apparently, it is not until death that people comprehend that every moment of life is wonderful but that most people fail to relish the experience.
In the final scene, Emily, who has loved George very deeply, has attained a detachment and serenity that the living do not possess. She can therefore observe George's grief without any of the passion of the living. She simply comments that the living don't understand. Thus, Wilder uses Emily as an example of how the average person can live, marry, and die before comprehending the potential of life.