In Our Town, how does Emily feel when she join the dead, and why does she feel that way?

Like all new arrivals at the Grover's Corners cemetery in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily feels unsettled, out of place, and torn between the worlds of the living and the dead. In time, Emily comes to understand that life can be overwhelming, that life moves so fast that the living miss out on far too much of their lives simply by living, and that they fail to appreciate everything they have at the moment they have it.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Emily joins the dead in the Grover's Corners cemetery in act 3 of Thornton Wilder's classic American play Our Town, she's unsettled and disoriented by her new environment, just like all new arrivals. The stage notes say,

Suddenly EMILY appears from among the umbrellas [of the mourners at her funeral]. She is wearing a white dress. Her hair is down her back and tied by a white ribbon like a little girl. She comes slowly, gazing wonderingly at the dead, a little dazed.

Emily's sense of time is already changing—minutes feel like centuries—but she feels slightly out of place among the dead.

EMILY. It seems thousands and thousands of years since I ... Papa remembered that that was my favorite hymn. Oh, I wish I'd been here a long time. I don't like being new.

In a very short time, though, Emily is thinking and talking like the other dead people. Emily talks with Mrs. Gibbs, the mother of Emily's husband, George, about how they made the farm "into just the best place you ever saw." Emily tells Mrs. Gibbs how she and George used the money from the inheritance that Mrs. Gibbs barely remembers giving them to buy "a great long ce-ment drinking fountain for the stock," one with a "patent device on the drinking fountain so that it never overflows ... and it never sinks below a certain mark they have there."

Others of the dead seem to have tempered their sentimentality, but Emily, newly arrived among them, still holds on to some of her deeper sentiments.

EMILY. It won't be the same to George without me, but it's a lovely farm.

Emily suddenly offers a deep insight into the human condition that she derived from her new perspective among the dead.

EMILY. [Live people are] sort of shut up in little boxes, aren't they? I feel as though I knew them last a thousand years ago.

Emily begins to reminisce about her life as something that happened long ago, even though she's only been dead for a very short time, and she feels torn between the worlds of the living and the dead.

EMILY. Mother Gibbs, when does this feeling go away? Of being ... one of them? How long does it ... ?

MRS. GIBBS. Sh! Dear. Just wait and be patient.

Emily is gradually separating from the living and again offers her perspective of the living when Mrs. Gibbs's husband—Emily calls him "Father Gibbs"—comes to put flowers on Mrs. Gibbs's grave.

EMILY. ... Oh, Mother Gibbs, I never realized before how troubled and how ... how in the dark live persons are. Look at him. I loved him so. From morning till night, that's all they are—troubled.

Despite her newfound insight into the human condition, Emily still finds it difficult to separate from the living. She decides to go back to the world of the living for just one day, as the dead are allowed to do if they choose to do so against the advice of every dead person in the cemetery.

Emily chooses her twelfth birthday, and she's enjoys going back to that day for a while, but she soon starts to question her decision.

EMILY. I can't bear it. They're so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old?

Emily tries to take the insight she's gained in the world of the dead back to the world of the living, but she becomes increasingly dissatisfied, because she can't enjoy all of the things that she now realizes she didn't take time to enjoy when she was alive.

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

She takes one last look at the world of the living as it was on her twelfth birthday, then returns to the world of the dead, happy to be there and to understand what it was to be alive but to realize how much of life that the living miss out on and how much they take for granted.

EMILY. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every minute? ... They don't understand, do they?

MRS. GIBBS. No, dear. They don't understand.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team