Summary and Analysis
After the Stage Manager ends his introductory speech, we see Emily's cousin, Sam Craig, enter and address the undertaker, Joe Stoddard, who is supervising Emily's grave. Sam introduces himself because he moved to Buffalo twelve years earlier. He notices Mrs. Gibbs' grave and recalls the fact that his Aunt Julia is dead.
While Joe and Sam talk, Mrs. Gibbs' spirit identifies Sam for the rest of the dead. Mr. Stimson says he always feels uncomfortable when the living visit the cemetery. Meanwhile, Joe wonders if the dead chose the verses which appear on the tombstones. He reads Simon Stimson's epitaph and recalls that Simon committed suicide. The epitaph is only a few notes of music which Simon chose before taking his life.
Sam asks about Emily's death and learns that she died during childbirth. Joe adds: "'Twas her second, though. There's a little boy 'bout four years old " The Gibbs lot is almost full; Emily's grave is in a new section that has just opened by Avenue B. While Sam and Joe talk, four men enter from the left carrying a casket. Others follow in procession under an umbrella. Mrs. Soames wonders who the new person is. Mrs. Gibbs replies that it is her daughter-in-law, Emily, who died giving birth. Mrs. Soames says that she remembers childbirth and how awful life was, but after a pause she notes softly how wonderful it was, too. Simon Stimson disagrees. Mrs. Soames then recalls the loveliness of Emily and George's wedding, how smart Emily was as a high school student, and the beauty of George and Emily's new farm. Emily, wearing a white dress and girlishly long hair tied with a ribbon, emerges from the crowd of mourners. Hesitant and a little dazed, she approaches the other spirits. With quiet dignity and serenity, she greets them. They return her greeting.
Emily expresses the newness she is experiencing. It seems to her that she has been apart from the living for thousands of years. She dislikes being new in the cemetery. She tells "Mother Gibbs" what a wonderful place she and George made of their farm, but Mrs. Gibbs takes little interest in her human endeavors. Emily adds that the farm won't be the same to George now that she is dead. Suddenly she realizes that living people don't understand death. She tells Mr. Carter that her little boy is spending the day at his house. Like Mrs. Gibbs, Mr. Carter seems uninterested in human affairs.
Emily is curious to know when her feelings of connection with the living will cease. Mrs. Gibbs replies that she must be patient. As the funeral service ends, various mourners begin to leave the stage. Emily notices that Father Gibbs places some of the funeral flowers on Mrs. Gibbs' grave. One of the spirits comments on the change in the weather.
Suddenly, Emily sits up. She realizes that she can return to the living world and relive all her days. The Stage Manager, however, as well as Mrs. Soames and Mrs. Gibbs, all advise against returning to the past. They assure her that she will be disappointed. The Stage Manager adds that she not only will live in the past but also will see herself living it. Thus, as she watches, she will be able to remain in the present while knowing the future. Mrs. Gibbs tries to dissuade Emily. The point of living among the dead, she says, is to forget the past and think of what lies ahead. Emily, however, insists on seeing for herself. Mrs. Gibbs advises her to choose an unimportant day. Emily compromises by choosing to relive her twelfth birthday.
In this section, Wilder demonstrates the difference between the living and the dead. Obviously, the presence of the living makes the spirits uncomfortable. They purposely try to forget the living and prepare themselves for something that is to occur in the future.
In the first two acts, Wilder employs several techniques to familiarize the audience with background material, most frequently by having the Stage Manager supply data. By Act III, however, Wilder expresses larger, more significant ideas through the Stage Manager and saves exposition for minor actors. He uses a traditional device: He has a citizen of the town talk to a man who has been away for twelve years. As the returnee asks questions and catches up with his family and the town, the audience learns pertinent facts.
By having Emily appear as one of the newly dead, Wilder can express her newly formed thoughts about metamorphosis from farm wife and mother to spirit. Without a new arrival as a stimulus, the older spirits would not have reason to discuss their thoughts on being dead. Another reason for Emily's importance is that she has been a key player in the drama all along. Therefore, to place her among the dead gives the drama a tighter structure by holding the focus on her.
Because Emily wears a white dress and a youthful hairstyle, she evokes her joyous departure from Act II as George's bride. Thus, Wilder blends the two acts, thereby emphasizing the innocence and femininity of his main character.
Mrs. Soames, a minor character, again performs an important function. She is the spirit who best remembers Emily's wedding, thereby connecting or relating the two acts even more firmly to each other. With her outspoken romanticism, Mrs. Soames also sums up life — both its wonderful and awful qualities. In contrast to Mrs. Soames' idealism is the negative view of Simon Stimson, who committed suicide because of his alcoholism. Apparently, Wilder chooses to abstain from moralizing on the type of life which Mr. Stimson lived or the reasons that he takes issue with Mrs. Soames' blatant rhapsodizing.
Wilder emphasizes that the dead form a unique family, free from the toil, struggle, and conflict that plagues life. Ironically, it is the living rather than those in coffins who are "sort of shut up in little boxes " Even though the dead sit quietly without moving, they exude a sense of freedom through their voices and their serenity. In contrast to their peace, the living constantly combat troubles. Wilder indicates that most people are so weighted down with life's troubles that they are unable to appreciate the simple fact that they are alive. Emily has yet to make this discovery. Because the spirits plead with Emily not to relive her past, the audience is prepared for her terrible disappointment in the next scene. Since Emily is able to live in the present and see the future, she will understand the futility and misunderstanding which clouds human life.