Critical Essays Thematic Structure of Our Town


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. Why, then, is the play so popular? Thornton Wilder gives some clue in his evaluation: "The response we make when we 'believe' a work of the imagination is that of saying: "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 [or picture or piece of music] I know that I know it '" Thus, by his selectivity, by his ability to universalize scenes, and by his basic humanism, Wilder offers something with which the viewer can identify. Many critics believe the play remains popular because of these humanistic ideas — particularly, Wilder's plea for the appreciation of the moment. His basic theme emerges from the structuring of the three acts, which interweave the stages of life. As the playwright once wrote: "The central theme of the play . is the relation between the countless unimportant details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspective of time, social history and current religious ideas " Consequently, one of Wilder's purposes is to present events of temporary importance against the perspective of eternity.

Act I dwells on the commonplace. It emphasizes dawn, birth, and the beginning of a young love that will develop into marriage in the second act. All of the scenes in Act I depict some trivial, predictable activity. Later, the full significance of these minor details becomes clear. As Wilder points out, most people live the first act of their lives without relishing the pricelessness of inconsequential encounters, such as greeting townspeople, getting an education, or eating breakfast with family members. Act II presents the second cycle of daily life in a town. People grow up and marry. Thus, love and marriage, a natural phenomenon which perpetuates the human race, dominate the second act. Wilder depicts the cycle by having two young citizens of Grover's Corners spontaneously disclose their love for each other. Their wedding follows. Symbolically, Wilder causes this single example — the union of Mr. and Mrs. George Gibbs — to represent all of humanity. In this fashion, he celebrates love and the simple verities that pertain to the bonding between man and woman.

In the natural flow of events, Act III presents the idea of death. It opens in a cemetery, but transcends morbidity by emphasizing the beauty of the location, normal rituals of grieving, eternity, and immortality. Each person must die; however, Wilder softens the terror of passage by emphasizing the inner quality of the living that is eternal.

To make his point about the goodness of earth, Wilder utilizes Emily's return to her past as a means of reflecting on home life from the point of view of the dead. She discovers that the living are beguiled by a false sense of permanence and are too preoccupied with trivialities to savor humble, mundane events. 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, such as the ironing of a school dress or the stringing of beans for winter meals or the placement of a bouquet on a grave. In Our Town, a fruitful life — even though it receives no extravagant praise from the outside world — bears witness to its own intrinsic worth. It satisfies without fanfare. Ultimately, it concludes — by accident or disease or whatever means death brings it to a close — and transforms itself into a transcendent peace, devoid of recrimination or sadness.