Life Lessons Anyone Can Learn From 'Our Town'

Themes from Thorton Wilder's Play

Since its debut in 1938, Thorton Wilder’s "Our Town" has been embraced as an American classic on the stage. The play is simple enough to be studied by middle school students, yet rich enough in meaning to warrant continual productions on Broadway and in community theaters throughout the nation.

If you need to refresh yourself on the storyline, a plot summary is available.

What is the Reason for "Our Town's" Longevity?

"Our Town" represents Americana; the small town life of the early 1900s, it is a world most of us have never experienced.

The fictional village of Grover’s Corners contains quaint activities of yesteryear:

  • A doctor walking through town, making house calls.
  • A milkman, traveling alongside his horse, happy in his work.
  • Folks talking to one another instead of watching television.
  • No one locking their door at night.

During the play, the Stage Manager (the show’s narrator) explains that he is putting a copy of "Our Town" in a time capsule. But of course, Thorton Wilder’s drama is its own time capsule, allowing audiences to glimpse turn-of-the-century New England.

Yet, as nostalgic as "Our Town" appears, the play also delivers four powerful life lessons, relevant to any generation.

Lesson #1: Everything Changes (Gradually)

Throughout the play, we are reminded that nothing is permanent. At the beginning of each act, the stage manager reveals the subtle changes that take place over time.

  • The population of Grover’s Corner grows.
  • Cars become commonplace; horses are used less and less.
  • The adolescent characters in Act One are married during Act Two.

During Act Three, when Emily Webb is laid to rest, Thorton Wilder reminds us that our life is impermanent. The Stage Manager says that there is “something eternal,” and that something is related to human beings.

However, even in death, the characters change as their spirits slowly let go of their memories and identities. Basically, Thorton Wilder’s message is in line with the Buddhist teaching of impermanence.

Lesson #2: Try to Help Others (But Know That Some Things Can’t Be Helped)

During Act One, the Stage Manager invites questions from members of the audience (who are actually part of the cast). One rather frustrated man asks, “Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality?” Mr. Webb, the town’s newspaper editor, responds:

Mr. Webb: Oh, yes, everybody is, -- something terrible. Seems like they spend most of their time talking about who’s rich and who’s poor.​

Man: (Forcefully) Then why don’t they do something about it?

Mr. Webb: (Tolerantly) Well, I dunno. I guess we’re all huntin’ like everybody else for a way the diligent and sensible can rise to the top and the lazy and quarrelsome sink to the bottom. But it ain’t easy to find. Meantime, we do all we can to take care of those who can’t help themselves.

Here, Thorton Wilder demonstrates how we are concerned with the well-being of our fellow man. However, the salvation of others is often out of our hands.

Case in point – Simon Stimson, the church organist and town drunk.

We never learn the source of his problems. Supporting characters often mention that he has had a “pack of troubles.” They discuss Simon Stimson’s plight, saying, “I don’t know how that’s going to end.” The townspeople have compassion for Stimson, but they are unable to save him from his self-imposed agony.

Ultimately Stimson hangs himself, the playwright’s way of teaching us that some conflicts do not end with a happy resolution.

Lesson #3: Love Transforms Us

Act Two is dominated by talk of weddings, relationships, and the perplexing institution of marriage. Thorton Wilder takes some good-natured jibes at the monotony of most marriages.

Stage Manager: (To audience) I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I do. M marries N. Millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford—the first rheumatism—the grandchildren—the second rheumatism—the deathbed—the reading of the will—Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.

Yet for the characters involved in the wedding, it is more than interesting, it is nerve wracking! George Webb, the young groom, is frightened as he prepares to walk to the altar. He believes that marriage means that his youth will be lost. For a moment, he doesn’t want to go through with the wedding because he doesn’t want to grow old.

His bride to be, Emily Webb, has even worse wedding jitters.

Emily: I never felt so alone in my whole life. And George, over there – I hate him – I wish I were dead. Papa! Papa!

For a moment, she begs her father to steal her away so that she can always be “Daddy’s Little Girl.” However, once George and Emily gaze at each other, they calm one another’s fears, and together they are prepared to enter adulthood.

Many romantic comedies portray love as a fun-filled rollercoaster ride. Thorton Wilder views love as a profound emotion that propels us towards maturity.

Lesson #4: Carpe Diem (Seize the Day!) 

Emily Webb’s funeral takes place during Act Three. Her spirit joins the other residents of the graveyard. As Emily sits next to the late Mrs. Gibbs, she looks sadly at the living humans nearby, including her grieving husband.

Emily and the other spirits can go back and relive moments from their lives. However, it is an emotionally painful process because the past, present, and future are realized all at once.

When Emily revisits her 12th birthday, everything feels too intensely beautiful and heartbreaking. She returns to the grave where she and the others rest and watch the stars, waiting for something important. The narrator explains:

Stage Manager: Y’know the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they let go hold of the earth—and the ambitions they had—and the pleasures they had—and the things they suffered—and the people they loved. They get weaned away from the earth {…} They’re waitin’ for something they feel is coming. Something important and great. Aren’t they waitin’ for that eternal part of them to come out -- clear?

As the play concludes, Emily comments upon how the Living do not understand how wonderful yet fleeting life is. So, although the play reveals an afterlife, Thorton Wilder urges us to seize each day and appreciate the wonder of each passing moment.