Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Stages of Life
The division of the play’s narrative action into three acts reflects Wilder’s division of human life into three parts: birth, love and marriage, and death. The play opens at the dawn of a new day with a literal birth: at the very beginning of Act I, we learn that Dr. Gibbs has just delivered twins. Act II details George and Emily’s courtship and marriage. Act III features a funeral and delves into the possibilities of an afterlife. The overall arc of the story carries the audience from the beginning of life to its end. Our observation of the lives of the Gibbs and Webb families, condensed into a few short hours, leads us to realize that the human experience, while multifaceted, is nevertheless brief and precious. Indeed, Wilder demonstrates how quickly the characters proceed from stage to stage. George and Emily marry in Act II, but they appear just as nervous and childish as they do in Act I. The second stage of life has snuck up on them. This intermingling of the stages of life recurs later, when the second stage of Emily’s life, her marriage, is suddenly cut short when she dies in childbirth.
While Our Town spans the course of many years, from 1899 through 1913, it also collapses its events into the span of one day. It opens with a morning scene and ends with a nighttime scene: Act I begins just before dawn, and Act III ends at 11 P.M. The play also metaphorically spans the course of a human life, tracing the path from birth in Dr. Gibbs’s delivery of twins in the opening scene, to death in Emily’s funeral in the final scene. The span of a life parallels the span of the day: birth is related to dawn, and death is related to night. Wilder’s attention to natural cycles highlights his themes of the transience of life and the power of time. While a single human life comprises only one finite revolution from birth to death, the world continues to spin, mothers continue to give birth, and human beings continue to exist as just one part of the universe.
Morning scenes are prominent in each of the play’s three acts: Act I depicts the ordinary morning activities of the townspeople, Act II portrays the Gibbs and Webb families on the morning of Emily and George’s wedding, and Act III includes Emily’s return to the morning of her twelfth birthday. Despite differences in context and circumstance, each morning scene appears strikingly similar to the others, which emphasizes the lack of change in Grover’s Corners. In each of the three scenes, Howie Newsome delivers milk and a Crowell boy delivers newspapers. Yet while stability is clearly a feature of life in the town, Wilder shows that it often leads to indifference. Because each day appears more or less the same as the previous one, the townspeople fail to observe or appreciate the subtle, life-affirming peculiarities each day brings.
Wilder treats each of the three mornings differently, which highlights the subtle differences between them. He presents the first morning as merely an average day, but as foreign observers, we appreciate the novelty of the experience. On the morning of the wedding, Wilder shows how impending events disturb the morning rituals and create a unique experience. Lastly, Wilder presents the morning of Emily’s twelfth birthday through the eyes of her dead soul, a perspective that gives the morning a truly extraordinary and beautiful transience. Wilder implies that though mundane routines and events may generally be repetitive, the details are what make life interesting and deserve attention.
The Manipulation of Time
Events do not progress chronologically in Our Town. The Stage Manager has the ability to cue scenes whenever he wishes, and can call up previous moments in the lives of the characters at will. The most prominent of these manipulations of time are the flashbacks to Mr. Morgan’s soda fountain and to Emily’s twelfth birthday. Wilder explicitly shuffles the flow of time within the play to engage, please, and inform his audience in three ways. First, Wilder uses the lack of chronological order to engage his audience by overturning their expectations of the theater. As opposed to showing us the progression of a day, or of a life, Wilder shows us disparate moments, reordering them in a way that best reflects his—and the Stage Manager’s—philosophical themes. Second, the Stage Manager’s informal treatment of the flow of time adds to the play’s pleasing conversational tone. The Stage Manager’s desire to flash back to George and Emily’s first date at the drugstore makes him seem just as curious about the origins of the couple’s relationship as we are. Third, by including flashbacks within a linear narrative, Wilder reminds the audience how swiftly time passes. The characters spend precious time flashing back in their own minds, appreciating past moments in retrospect rather than recognizing the value of moments as they occur in the present.