The Stage Manager tells Emily that she can go back to Tuesday, February 11, 1899. He reminds her of the events that occurred just before her birthday. Her father was returning on the early-morning train after having been away for several days in Clinton, New York, to make a speech at Hamilton College, his alma mater.
The scene opens on the town as it was. Emily delights in memorable landmarks, but expresses surprise to see Howie Newsome and Constable Bill Warren because she knows that they are now dead. It is early morning and the milkman, paper boy, and constable appear on the streets. The constable reports saving a man from freezing to death in the snow.
Emily's mother calls the children to breakfast. Emily is surprised at how young her mother looks. She overhears trivial conversation. Her parents discuss Mr. Webb's trip as well as Emily's birthday. More in wonder than grief, Emily cries out: 'I can't bear it. They're so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? . I can't look at everything hard enough " Emily comes downstairs; her mother remonstrates: "Birthday or no birthday, I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow " Emily's reply is filled with emotion: "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me . " Emily's mother gives her a birthday gift and describes her brother's gift. Then Emily hears her father's voice calling her.
Suddenly, she turns to the Stage Manager and tells him that the scene is unbearable. "I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another " She asks the Stage Manager to take her back "up the hill — to my grave " As she leaves, she says: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you " Then she asks the Stage Manager: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?" The Stage Manager tells her no, but suggests that some saints and poets do value life. By now it is dark. The dead enjoy the companionship of the stars. George Gibbs approaches Emily's grave and falls full length across it at Emily's feet. Emily looks at Mrs. Gibbs and remarks: "They don't understand, do they?".
The Stage Manager returns and reports that almost everybody is asleep in Grover's Corners. The stars are shining brightly, but scholars say that there is no life on other stars. Here on earth, everyone strains to make something of life. "The strain's so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest " He looks at his watch. It is eleven o'clock. He pauses and then suggests that the audience go home to get some rest.
Emily's return to life is a structural device which unites the action of the play. The fact that the audience witnesses the same setting that opened Act I gives the play continuity and familiarity. The comments and actions of people mirror the commonplace actions of the first scenes. This repetition forces the audience to see through Emily's eyes the replay of her past. Therefore, it is easier to comprehend her disillusionment as she hurriedly returns to her place on the hill.
The final scene expresses most clearly Wilder's focus. The earth is a place where everything happens and everything is important. The playwright impels the audience toward an understanding and appreciation of life's brevity. A subtle reminder of how quickly life can end is contained in the constable's rescue of a man from death by freezing. Returned to girlhood, Emily concludes that her mother is so busy with housewifely details that she takes no time to appreciate the wonder of her family. Emily's impassioned cry to her mother that they should look at each other underscores the human inability to absorb the essence of living while it is going on.
Wistfully, Emily, who is only twenty-six at the time of her death, realizes that she is out of place in the familiar scene. She bids farewell to ticking clocks, sunflowers, food and coffee, newironed dresses, hot baths, sleeping and waking. Still, with all that she has experienced since the beginning of Act I, she seems to have aged very little from her first appearance onstage, even though she has progressed from schoolgirl to wife and mother. Overall, the scene focuses on human frailty, which keeps people from enjoying all the good that life has to offer. Overcome with dismay at earthly wastefulness, Emily comprehends that the living are blind to everyday wonders. Perhaps, as Wilder states, saints and poets do realize some of every moment of life, but the average person allows these precious trifles to pass by without recognizing their worth.
Simon sums up human faults more harshly than Emily. To him the living move in a "cloud of ignorance . at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another " Perhaps he is bitter because he wasted his own life on alcohol. He recognizes that he "trampled on the feelings" of others. Consequently, he feels that life was a terrible experience. The other spirits acknowledge that Simon's summation contains a kernel of truth, but they insist that life had good points.
At the end of the scene, George comes to mourn Emily's death. Apparently he is immobilized by deep grief. Still, as much as Emily loved her husband in life, she has changed since her death. Dispassionately, she looks at him without sharing his grief and comments: "They don't understand " Emily comprehends fully a fact that George has yet to learn — that death frees the living from their earthly troubles and conflicts.
The final appearance of the Stage Manager reminds the audience that the cycle is complete. In passing, he mentions how the residents of this little star that is the world strain to achieve their potential. Pointedly, he winds his watch, thereby breaking the spell and realigning the audience with the normal passage of time. Yet his final remark again allies the viewers with the citizens of Grover's Corners, each of whom needs a "good rest " The simplicity of his departure is in keeping with his overall purpose — to guide the audience through an unassuming but profoundly moving consideration of what it means to be alive.