Critical Essays Our Town from the Current Perspective


Thornton Wilder's Our Town comes in for its share of negative criticism. Most stringent are comments about his refusal to deal with controversial elements of Grover's Corners — particularly bigotry, alcohol abuse, and sex discrimination. He seems to gloss over the segregation of Polish and Canuck citizens, who appear to reside in a lesser section of town across the tracks, where the Catholic Church is located. Like the three families with Cotahatchee blood, the non-WASP residents of the town seem to blend harmlessly into the landscape — out of sight and out of mind.

In similar fashion, Wilder seems unwilling to tackle the larger question of Simon Stimson's alcoholism and resulting suicide, which receives pointed but benign acknowledgment from Dr. Ferguson, choir members, Constable Warren, and the undertaker. Even though alcohol consumption was a serious issue at the turn of the century when Carry Nation and hatchet-swinging members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union were demolishing saloons and urging drinkers to "take the pledge," Wilder passes by his opportunity to mount the soapbox. He resorts instead to Dr. Gibbs' tight-lipped comment: "Some people ain't made for smalltown life " The playwright even allows Mr. Webb to end the question of local drinking habits with a folksy — and erroneous — truism that "likker" is "right good for snake bite, y'know — always was ".

The charge against Wilder of sex discrimination is perhaps overblown. Indeed, while parceling out meaningful work to his male characters, he anchors his female characters within the stifling backwaters of "woman's work," notably schoolteaching, child care, housework, and farm chores. Both Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs depict marital relationships which are obviously onesided affairs in which the husband dominates the decision-making process. And Mrs. Gibbs willingly allows her husband to select the destination of family vacations and to browbeat her about her evening at church as though she were a child needing his permission to be out on the town streets after dark. On the other hand, women were still disenfranchised in 1901 and did not obtain the right to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Therefore, the acquiescence of Julia Gibbs, Myrtle Webb, and Emily Webb Gibbs to housewifely anonymity seems appropriate to the time and place. It is, by today's standards, unfortunate that George is privileged to make the decision not to go to college while Emily — who is a demonstrably more promising scholar — seems not to have the same choice. Still, young women of Emily's day, particularly those in rural locales, were fortunate just to finish high school.

It is perhaps more significant that Wilder gives no details about Emily's death. Certainly, women died in childbirth at a greater rate in 1913 than now. Such a happening would have seemed commonplace, as does Wally's death from a burst appendix or Mrs. Gibbs' fatal pneumonia. It is odd, however, that the playwright makes no mention of the fate of Emily's infant, especially since he indicates the whereabouts of Emily's fouryear- old son on the day of her burial.

Wilder's refuge in these matters seems to be his desire to present a positive — although not completely Pollyanna — portrait of small-town America. To his credit, he nods briefly toward the question of women's rights with Mr. Webb's admission that, as a young groom, he rejected his father's advice to force his wife into obedience. Perhaps even stronger evidence of Wilder's evenhandedness is his placement of Emily at the forefront of the play. It is Wilder's deliberate choice that a woman — obviously well educated, strong-willed, and contemplative — serves as the focus of the drama. Wilder in no way demeans her feelings, desires, and intuitions. Rather, he elevates Emily by allowing her to experience the central transformation. It is through the eyes of a young woman that the audience perceives the key theme. As Emily experiences the blindness of her own family to the joys of life, she bursts into tears, too overcome by earthly beauty to express herself any other way. Her delicacy and sensitivity are her saving grace. With womanly wisdom, she internalizes the fact that the living are incapable of valuing earthly treasures.