In the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, death comes for young Emily Gibbs. At first unsettled by her new home in the cemetery on the top of the hill away from Grover’s Corner, she wishes she could go back and re-live certain happy and mundane moments of her life. She’s illustratively holding on to an image, an idea of the life that’s hers–the one that’s been taken from her. She’s longing to look at things the same way she’s always looked at them, mostly because it’s easiest this way, also because she knows the hurt her departure has caused. She’s slowly realizing that the life taken from her is really the new life offered, but she’s scared of letting it be true. Despite presagings from those long dead (including her mother-in-law Mrs. Gibbs) about the heartbreak that accompanies a visitation of a life left, she, in a very Dickensian turn, decides to return to a childhood scene with her mother (Mrs. Webb) and, well, replay it as best she can.What she finds is a quickness to life that is painfully cold.

Wilder shows a new kind of vision that arises in surrender under death. This kind of detachment-by-death is a simultaneous resurrecting, and its fruit is a definitive return to the grave:

EMILY: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.

(She breaks down sobbing.)

(The lights dim on the left half of the stage. MRS. WEBB disappears.)

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-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by 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.

(She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:)

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?



The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

 EMILY: I’m ready to go back.

(She returns to her chair beside Mrs. Gibbs.)