Early one morning in 1901, Dr. Gibbs returns to his home in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. He has just been across the tracks to Polish Town to deliver Mrs. Goruslowski’s twins. On the street he meets Joe Crowell, the morning paperboy, and Howie Newsome, the milkman. The day’s work is beginning in Grover’s Corners. Mrs. Gibbs has breakfast ready when her husband arrives, and she calls the children, George and Rebecca, to the table. After breakfast the children leave for school in the company of the Webb children, Wally and Emily, who are neighbors.
After the children leave, Mrs. Gibbs steps out to feed her chickens. Seeing Mrs. Webb stringing beans in her back yard, she crosses over to talk with her. Mrs. Gibbs has been offered $350 for some antique furniture; she will sell the furniture, she decides, if she can get Dr. Gibbs to take a vacation with her. Dr. Gibbs has no wish to take a vacation, however; if he can visit the Civil War battlegrounds every other year, he is satisfied.
The warm day passes, and the children return home from school. Emily Webb walks home alone, pretending she is a great lady. George Gibbs, on his way to play baseball, stops to talk to Emily and tells her how much he admires her success at school. He cannot, he insists, imagine how anyone could spend so much time over homework as she does. Flattered, Emily promises to help George with his algebra. He says that he does not really need school work, because he is going to be a farmer as soon as he graduates from high school. When George leaves, Emily runs to her mother and asks if she is pretty enough to make boys notice her. Grudgingly, her mother admits that she is, but Mrs. Webb tries to turn Emily’s mind to other subjects.
That evening, while Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are at choir practice, George and Emily sit upstairs studying. Their windows face each other, and George calls to Emily for some advice on his algebra. Emily helps him, but she is more interested in the moonlight. When she calls George’s attention to the beautiful night, he seems only mildly interested.
The ladies coming home from choir practice gossip about their leader, Simon Stimson. He drinks most of the time, and for some reason he cannot adjust himself to small-town life. The ladies wonder how it will all end. Mr. Webb also wonders. He is the editor of the local paper; as he goes home, he meets Simon roaming the deserted streets. When Mr. Webb reaches his home, he finds Emily still gazing out of her window at the moon—and dreaming.
At the end of his junior year in high school George is elected president of his class, and Emily is elected secretary-treasurer. When George walks home with Emily after the election, she seems so cold and indifferent that George asks for an explanation. She tells him that all the girls think him conceited and stuck-up because he cares more for baseball than he does for his friends. She expects men to be perfect, like her father and his.
George says that men cannot be perfect, but that women can—like Emily. Then Emily begins to cry, insisting that she is far from perfect. George offers to buy her a soda. As they drink their sodas, they find that they really have liked each other for some time. George says he now believes he will not go away to agricultural school, after all. When he graduates from high school, he will start...
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working on the farm.
After a time, Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs learn that George wants to marry Emily as soon as he leaves high school At first it is a shock to them, for they cannot imagine that George is anything but a child. They wonder how he could provide for a wife, and whether Emily could take care of a house. Then Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs remember their own first years of married life. They had had troubles, but now they feel that the troubles have been overshadowed by their joys. They decide that George could marry Emily if he wishes.
On the morning of the wedding day George drops in on Mr. and Mrs. Webb, and Mrs. Webb leaves the men alone so that her husband can advise George. All that Mr. Webb has to say, however, is that no one can advise anyone else on matters as personal as marriage. When George leaves, Emily comes down to her last breakfast in her parents’ home. Both she and Mrs. Webb cry. Mrs. Webb had meant to give her daughter some advice on marriage, but she is unable to bring herself to it.
At the church, just before the ceremony, both Emily and George feel as if they are making a mistake; they do not want to get married. By the time the music starts, however, both of them are calm. The wedding ceremony is soon over. Grover’s Corners has lost one of its best baseball players. Nine years pass; it is the summer of 1913. Up in the graveyard above the town the dead lay, resting from the cares of their lives on Earth. Now there is a new grave; Emily died in childbirth and George is left alone with their four-year-old son.
It is raining as the funeral procession winds its way up the hill to the new grave. Then Emily appears shyly before the other dead. Solemnly they welcome her to her rest—but she does not want to rest; she wants to live over again the joys of her life. It is possible to do so, but the others warn her against trying to relive a day in her mortal life.
Emily chooses to relive her twelfth birthday. At first it is exciting to be young again, but the excitement wears off quickly. The day holds no joy, now that Emily knows what is in store for the future. It is unbearably painful to realize how unaware she had been of the meaning and wonder of life while she was alive. Simon Stimson, who had killed himself, tells her that life is like that, a time of ignorance and blindness and folly. He is still bitter in death.
Emily returns to her resting place. When night has fallen, George approaches, full of grief, and throws himself on Emily’s grave. She feels pity for him and for all the rest of the living. For now she knows how little they really understand of the wonderful gift that is life itself.