Our Town by Thornton Wilder; Our Irresponsibility – A Critique

By Jacob Harris.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is an American Classic in every sense of the word. It epitomizes American values: family, freedom, love, understanding. It tells what, seemingly, is the story of America. We get through life: we learn in our early childhood, we fall in love and get married in our adulthood, and then we die. We follow the story in the town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, a fictional town, and turn the attention of the audience toward the quaintness and sweet simple-ness of its town goers. Wilder creates this town without any props or scenery. He describes why he does this in “A Preface for Our Town” in the New York Times:

An archeologist’s and social historian’s points of view began to mingle with another unremitting preoccupation which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation of the countless “unimportant” details of our daily life, on one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, current religious ideas, on the other?…What is trivial and what is significant about any one person making breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a “love scene,” in dying? To record one’s feelings about this question is necessarily to exhibit the realistic detail of life, and one is once again up against the problem of realism of literature…I wished to record a village life on the stage, with realism and generality.”

From the two town leaders of Grover’s Corner, Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb, we get a personal understanding of their family, and especially their children: Emily Webb and George Gibbs, the two protagonists of the story. These are the two stars of the town, Emily Webb recites speeches and loves school, which shows in her drive and focus when it comes to her homework. George Gibbs is the Baseball player, incredibly earnest and thoughtful, engrossed in his sport. We are asked to watch these two almost everyman characters grow up because they are assumed to represent us and how we were when we were young.

The next act is called Love and Marriage, and follows the two as they get married. This is followed by an abrupt act about Death, and Wilder takes the audience to the afterlife, showing both living people and the dead in the form of ghosts on stage. We follow Emily, who has died in childbirth, as she goes back to see her life again. She is in awe and moved to the point of tears seeing all the things that she missed in her life. The play ends with George, having come in to pay his respects to his dead wife alone, crumpling in front of her grave, and her ghost and the character of the Stage Manager wishes everyone a good night. 

What was accomplished in the play is exactly what Thornton Wilder set out to accomplish. He excellently highlights American values; both throughout the play and more specifically during the scene where Emily is lamenting all the things lost to her in her death. Hot baths, waking up, Mama’s sunflowers — he really brings to the fore what he believes to be precious. When you are in the audience of this play, far away from the world; as you are safely tucked into Wilder’s Grover’s Corner he conveys to you the importance of family values, hard work and honesty between people. These generalities are true, and no one says it better, it seems, than Wilder. But where is it that we are? When I say we, I mean you and I, and Grover’s Corner? Where are we situated, why does this matter? And is the story of Grover’s Corner really our story?

We, you and I, are situated in the West. We are tasked with making sense of America. The story of America is a story that Grover’s Corner, no matter how hard it tries, cannot escape. As W.E.B. Du Bois stated in the World and Africa

“If we confine ourselves to America we cannot forget that America was built on Africa. From being a mere stopping place between Europe and Asia or a chance treasure house of gold, America became through African Labor the center of the sugar empire and cotton kingdom and an integral part of that world industry and trade which caused the Industrial Revolution and the reign of capitalism.”

This takes us to the flaw in Wilder’s work, which is that it operates from a white frame of reference. The white frame of reference defines how the white world sees the world, and itself. It is that which stops one from seeing what Baldwin describes in his essay “The Creative Process” as the “deeper reality,” “Visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and all our achievement rests on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.

When we speak of America, dehumanization is rampant because of what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the most significant thing that has happened to man in modern times: the buying and selling of human beings out of Africa and into America. Slavery in America gave rise to the master’s frame of reference, the white frame of reference — not being able to see the slave as man because of the theology of whiteness. The master, upon seeing the slave, can afford only to see the slave, the human in the category of slave — for his position in the West is threatened if he sees the slave in any other way. The master can no longer see himself as human first, but is compelled to see himself as master first, or white first. The master has paid a terrible price for his profit — he can no longer see his own humanity in his frame of reference. These categories of whiteness and blackness deny our humanity. As Baldwin says in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, “Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning.”

One might ask, what does this frame of reference have to do with Grover’s Corner? Wasn’t this play written by Thornton Wilder with love in his heart for the nature of small town life, and life in general, for America? Wasn’t this play written with love for the small things that make up the big picture of life?

This play does a cruel injustice to the citizens of America because it lends its energy to the American Ideal, that is Manifest Destiny. In this play many things are taken for granted. In Emily’s monologue, when she’s saying good-bye to all the little things of her life, what’s being pointed out is both their importance and how she took them for granted when she was alive. But the question that is left out of this – at least in any real sense – is the question of why. These objects are important to Emily because she doesn’t have them anymore, but why didn’t she see their importance in the first place? This comes from the assumption of material things being always there for you, and furthermore, of people being as they are categorized by the white frame of reference. In the play, no one is dealt with as a human being — that is, with compassion and understanding. Rather they are taken for what they are and aren’t taken any further, to their hearts and souls. These characters operate in the town of Grover’s Corner as categories in and of themselves, and these categories furthermore abide by the categories of the social system that has led to the enslavement and degradation of man.

Throughout this entire play, nobody asks each other why in a way that isn’t superficial or self-centered. Why are you a drunk, Simon Stimson? Why did you go to war, Joe Crowell Jr.? Why do you love money, Rebecca Gibbs? We Americans don’t ask each other why — a why that is based on love for people. We can’t ask each other why, because we assume we already have the answer. “Why’s that homeless person screaming, dad?” “Because he’s crazy, son,”. Meanwhile, that homeless person, or Black person, or white person, has lived a life. There’s a very particular reason that that homeless person is standing there, shouting at this world for mercy and carrying on. If we deal with that homeless man as a human, with the veil of categories taken off, we can actually deal with him as he truly is. Not as a problem, but as he is. If we see him as human, we can see ourselves as human; and while knowing him would take time, in knowing him we know more of ourselves. We can truly develop a respect for life that we haven’t known for 500 years, and begin to restore our own humanity.

This is what is fundamentally lacking in Grover’s Corner: this respect for life. We can’t blame these characters for not knowing human respect — their social system, whiteness, is totally divorced from it. Without this question of why, the peoples of Grover’s Corner have no means of loving the little things, let alone the people right next to them. We have the means to question a social system that has taken away pieces of all our humanity, white or Black, through this selfless why. We see that only through dying could Emily see the importance of the small things and the people around her, what she’d take for granted. But we see that Emily — and in her the white world — takes things for granted because of the assumptions of whiteness. As Du Bois described in The World and Africa,

“Here for instance is a lovely British home, with green lawns, appropriate  furnishings and a retinue of well-trained servants. Within a young woman, well trained and well dressed, intelligent and high-minded. She is finger ivory keys of a grand piano and pondering the problem of her summer vacation, whether in Switzerland or among Italian lakes; her family is not wealthy, but it has a sufficient “independent” income from investments to enjoy life without hard work. How far is such a person responsible for the crimes of colonialism?

“It will in all probability not occur to her that she has any responsibility whatsoever, and that may well be true. Equally, it may be true that her income is the result of starvation theft and murder; that it involves ignorance, disease,and crime on the part of thousands; that the system which which sustains security, leisure and comfort she enjoys is based on the supression, exploitation and slavery of the majority of mankind. Yet just because she does not know this, just because she could get the facts only after research and investigation – made difficult  by laws that forbid the revealing of ownership of property source of income, and methods of business – she is content to remain in ignorance of the source of her wealth and its cost in human toil and suffering.”

This is the precise predicament that Emily, Grover’s Corner and the white world is in — they are totally divorced from any sense of the reality of the small things in our lives; where they came from, what it really cost to produce them, or what makes it possible for them to live the lives they live. This ties directly into the assumption of white supremacy: not knowing, or needing to know the toil that went into the structure that makes up your life, both in terms of land and the four walls of a house, and the life within — the social structure of whiteness. Whiteness isn’t always the arrogance of lynching and confederate flags, which one could argue is a more honest form, it’s the arrogance of ignorance.

As Grace Lee Boggs put it we have an ‘awesome responsibility’ for one another. But we are barred from our awesome responsibility because the social system of whiteness encourages the separation of one man from another, and these effects are duly felt in Grover’s Corner. America can’t seem to find a way out of whiteness, and yet it’s had one for 400 years. There’s been a group of people that has been on the outskirts of whiteness for 400 years, giving it its definition, and becoming a civilization in and of themselves, and that is Black people. The ideals of this society have haunted Black people for 400 years. Where does that leave Black people? When Wilder claims this universality of life, is he still talking about Black people and their lives?

To situate how Black people see, we turn once again to Du Bois. Du Bois writes, in The Souls of Black Folks, about what it’s like to be living in the white world:

 “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. […] 

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The American Negro, has these two warring ideals: his Americanhood and his Negrohood in his heart. The destruction these two things have wrought in the lifeworlds of these Black folk, these people constantly striving to live, is incalculable. Out of this, the problems of life are doubled. The question isn’t only how do we train our kids, but how do we train them in light of what they are to face at the break of every day in America. So we see Wilder’s thesis collapse in on itself, because not all people in America and the world can relate to just having happiness, familial connections, love. These things are what the people that have worked to build America, though their blood, sweat, and countless tears, have had to struggle for. This is the crux of what is wrong with the play; no one is struggling, everything just falls into place. George just gets Emily, George just does what Mr. Gibbs wants miracuously, George just magically understands what Emily is saying, without having to really deal with himself. No one has to deal with themselves in this play. Emily can casually dismiss the living for not understanding, but how can the white world understand life if they don’t struggle for it?

What would happen if a Black person lived in Grover’s Corner? Du Bois describes how Black people see whites in “The Souls of White Folk”,

“High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk.

Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage. Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language (…)And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped,—ugly, human.”

Du Bois sees white folks not as white folk, but as folk — as people, as ugly, human”. We see in Black people a different frame of reference, a different way to look at the world. If there had been a Black person in the play, and this play was honest in its understanding of Black people, we perhaps could have found a deeper universality. Wilder’s universals are well and good; love, family, friendship, but what do they mean if we haven’t earned them? When a system degrades others, and you are the reason it degrades others, you are placed in a terrible position — that is the position of having to justify yourself, your own existence in the world. The universal values, while good in theory, in practice become a means to justify whiteness and the fiery damnation of the colored peoples of the world. 

 Since Our Town is supposed to be the experience of every person of America, it has wedged itself in a terrible position: it is forced to divorce itself from America to continue to exist in its fantasy. It’s very convenient that it’s set in New Hampshire, because this play couldn’t be written anywhere else. And that’s absolutely true. Let’s say it is set in a city. The play, then, would be indivisible from the problems of city life; white or Black, we still have to go to work, see other people — crying, stoic-faced, the homeless, drug addicted, evasive, disconnected. We still have to teach our kids right or wrong in the face of the dangers of the city. Our children will ask us “Why do some neighborhoods look bad and others look nice?” and we’d have to ask that question of ourselves to find the answer and justify why the ghetto exists and why Negroes are in it. It isn’t in the type of town of Grover’s Corner where the universality of life is found. No life comes without struggle, to say that things just happen and things are just meant to be is a lie and abstraction away from life. That is what whiteness is: an abstraction away from life. 

The white world can’t fully know universal values because it stops people from struggling with and facing the moral choice of a greater good — a greater good than just themselves and their lives, and struggling for this moral choice in their lives. Small things take on a different form in life when you’re struggling for a common humanity and a means to help the forward progress of man. This is why the end of the play was so shocking,

“Emily: […]I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back up the hill to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners . . . Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking . . . and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute? 
“Stage Manager: No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”

Of course Emily couldn’t see the importance of little things, the social system she imbibed barred her from knowing the little things about her family, her friends, her husband. This is why Wilder has failed, because the little things of life are not the same things as the ‘unimportant’ details’ that Wilder believes are important. It is irresponsible to call this an American classic, though it is classically American. Baldwin talks about this in “The Creative Process”:

“[…] A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

There is so much taken for granted in Grover’s Corner, and in the real Grover’s Corner that is the white world. Wilder has the opportunity to explore all of that, but he shrinks from his human responsibility in artistry — that is, realizing that artistry and humanity are indivisible. Wilder as an artist doesn’t explore the world he lives in; he doubles down on its principles and merely succumbs to it.

Further Readings

  • Our Town By Thornton Wilder
  • Notes of a Native Son James Baldwin
    1. Everybody’s Protest Novel from Notes of a Native Son
  • The World and Africa by W.E.B. Du Bois
    1. Chapter II: The White Masters of the World
    2. Chapter XI: Andromeda
  • Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois
    1. Chapter I: Of Our Spiritual Strivings
  • Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil by W.E.B. Du Bois
    1. Chapter II: The Souls of White Folks

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