Our Town

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Time, Change, and Continuity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Theater Theme Icon
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The Everyday and the Ordinary Theme Icon
Marriage and the Family Theme Icon
Time, Change, and Continuity Theme Icon
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Time, Change, and Continuity Theme Icon

The play’s three acts focus on three different moments in time: one day during Emily and George’s childhood, their wedding, and Emily’s funeral. In addition, there is a long flash-back in act two and Emily revisits a moment from her childhood in act three. Moreover, the stage manager repeatedly tells the audience information about characters’ futures, revealing the tragic death of Joe Crowell, for example, while he is still a young boy on-stage. By jumping around in time, Wilder’s play is able to examine the passage of time from a variety of angles, more than if it simply followed characters’ lives in a strictly linear, chronological fashion. The stage manager’s thoughts on the town’s time capsule also offer an opportunity to think about time, as the stage manager imagines how the future will remember his own time. Much of the play reveals the sadness of the quick passing of time, which means growing up, leaving behind the innocence of childhood, getting older, approaching death, and dying, all more quickly than the characters ever expect. Even while Joe Crowell is still a young paperboy, we learn of his eventual death at war. Emily is a young woman in act one with a promising future, but she is leaving her childhood behind in act two to marry George, and she is already dead by the time act three begins.

The inevitable passage of time affects not only individual people, but also the town at large. As automobiles threaten to replace buggies, Mr. Morgan (played by the stage manager) laments the changes coming to Grover’s Corners: “I tell you, you’ve got to look both ways before you cross Main Street these days. Gets worse every year.” Similarly, in act one Mrs. Gibbs notices that people are beginning to lock their doors at night in Grover’s Corners and Dr. Gibbs regrets that “they’re all getting citified.” The passage of time, with its technological advances and the growth of small towns into larger cities, threatens to change and drastically alter the small town that the play’s characters value so much.

However, as much as things change, in many ways they also stay the same. In each act, the same milkman, Howie Newsome, makes his way around the town. The same routines and events continually repeat in the town. Children go to the school, a paperboy delivers the newspaper, citizens get married, and citizens pass away. Emily’s death during child-birth encapsulates this cyclical aspect of time. Her life comes to an end just as another begins. While individuals grow up too fast and pass away, the human cycles of life and death remain constant. This may be one reason why Wilder’s play takes such an interest in everyday, little matters. From a broad perspective, as time inevitably progresses along, important things—births, marriages, deaths—remain unaltered. But the little things are where people are unique, where one can see how one birth or one wedding is different from all the others. This is why the stage manager thinks Our Town is worth preserving for posterity in the town’s time capsule. In its exploration of the mundane specificities of individual lives, it allows us to reflect on how much the world changes and how much it stays the same.

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Time, Change, and Continuity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Time, Change, and Continuity appears in each act of Our Town. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Time, Change, and Continuity Quotes in Our Town

Below you will find the important quotes in Our Town related to the theme of Time, Change, and Continuity.
Act 1 Quotes

Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright—graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.—All that education for nothing.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker), Joe Crowell
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

From the Stage Manager’s brief account, it is evident that the late Joe Crowell was both an anomaly and a hero to Grover’s Corners. In a town of ordinariness, sameness, and tradition, Joe’s intelligence distinguished him from the rest—he was, in short, remarkable, in the way that almost no other residents are perceived.

Despite Joe’s bright future as an engineer, the Stage Manager’s blunt explanation of his untimely death during the war suggests that, although glamorous at face value, being remarkable and distinguishing oneself from the pack is ultimately a futile pursuit.

We all arrive at the same end—death—and because we are all eventually equalized this way, our lifelong efforts to stand out or achieve something different from the norm (for example, all of Joe’s efforts to become educated) are all “for nothing.” To feel fulfilled, it may as well be more valuable for us to be ordinary, and moreover, content with our ordinariness, than to grasp beyond. 


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Act 2 Quotes

Here comes Howie Newsome delivering the milk. And there’s Si Cromwell delivering the papers like his brother before him.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker), Howie Newsome, Si Crowell
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

The Stage Manager's narration of routine milk and newspaper deliveries color, at the surface, the nature of everyday life in Grover's Corners. The faces and respective services of Howie and Si add to the sense of comforting predictability within the town; like every community, they are the staples so commonplace to us that we take them for granted.

Beneath the surface, however, the Stage Manager's observations also serve to convey the unbroken cycle of tradition in a town like Grover's Corners. Just as Howie and Si are always associated with the services they provide, the entire community is stagnant in their roles, status, and traditions. This is particularly true of his assessment of Si Cromwell, who delivers papers "like his brother before him." The sense of repetition -- one Cromwell newsboy followed by another -- might be easy and predictable, but it's also edged with a suffocating lack of change and mobility posed by such a long-established system. 

Ma, I don’t want to grow old. Why’s everybody pushing me so?

Related Characters: George Gibbs (speaker), Mrs. Gibbs
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, a soon-to-be-married George mirrors his bride-to-be's reluctance towards their impending wedding. Asides from the significance of marriage as a town tradition, and as one of life's milestones, it represents in many ways maturation and sacrifice. Though still young, George's youthful chapter is closing in on him quickly. 

And yet, it is somewhat inconsequential whether or not George does not want to grow old. Time is out of his control in the same way it is out of everyone's, and the changes it brings—in George's case, the transition from a young, schoolboy type into a married family man—must therefore be embraced rather than resisted. Though George's mother, in whom he is confiding in these lines, has her own reservations about marriage, she and the others whom George thinks are pushing him are also more experienced. They know, as George perhaps does not, that time and change is unavoidable, even in Grover's Corners. 

And George over there, looking so ...! I hate him. I wish I were dead. Papa! Papa!

Emily! Emily! Now don’t get upset...

But, Papa,—I don’t want to get married....

Sh—sh—Emily. Everything’s all right.

Why can’t I stay for a while just as I am?

Related Characters: Emily Webb (speaker), Mr. Webb (speaker), George Gibbs
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

This conversation between Emily and her father about her doubts about marrying George is a saddening example of the stubbornness of tradition in Grover's Corners. 

Although doubts are arguably part of the marriage process, Emily's strong reluctance feels ostensibly deeper than nervousness. However, because marriage is the traditional way of Grover's Corners, Mr. Webb hushes his daughter's sentiments and reassures her that "Everything's all right." In this instance, maintaining order and tradition almost feels more critical than what Emily's true feelings are. 

In addition to the stubbornness of tradition, Emily's question to her father, "Why can't I stay for a while just as I am?" is one of the few moments in the play that someone does not take the moments in his or her life for granted. Here, Emily wants to linger in the moment of her life before marriage, this moment of freedom and youth. And with the later knowledge of her death, her self-awareness in this quote takes a dark, ominous tone. 

Act 3 Quotes

This time nine years have gone by, friends—summer 1913.
Gradual changes in Grover’s Corners. Horses are getting rarer.
Farmers coming into town in Fords.
Everybody locks their house doors at night. Ain’t been any burglars in town yet, but everybody’s heard about ’em.
You’d be surprised, though—on the whole, things don’t change much around here.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In his preface to the final act of the play, the Stage Manager makes note of gradual but notable changes that have occurred in Grover's Corners. We can tell from observations like more automobiles—even among farmers—and fewer old-fashioned means of transportation, like horses, that this reflects the increasing urbanization of the small town. 

The other gradual and yet significant change can be seen with the town's changing behavior with security. As opposed to the previous feel of Grover's Corners as a town of no privacy, where everyone knows about everything about everyone, the locked doors betray a lack of openness, and the fear motivating this change—an unconfirmed fear of burglars—suggests that residents trust each other less these days, perhaps because they know less about one another. 

Though the Stage Manager concludes reflecting on how much has ultimately stayed the same in Grover's Corners, he understates the two seeds of change that are in fact, potentially drastic: urbanization and privacy. 

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

Related Characters: Emily Webb (speaker)
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Upon Emily's emotional revisit to her twelfth birthday in Grover's Corners she comes to realize, in the hindsight of death, how deeply she and people in general take life for granted.

From the seemingly small detail of her mother cooking breakfast to seeing little brother Wally still alive, the scene of life moves a newly deceased Emily to tears. Though she, now aware of how fleeting life is, now wants to linger on every moment, twelve-year-old Emily and her surrounding family go about their day quickly and thoughtlessly. It is this taking for granted of every moment that separates the dead from the living, and it is here that Emily fully understands the other deceased and their warnings to not look back.

As we watch Emily watching the events of her own life, we get a sense of pause, an understanding of the rapid-fire nature of time (a lesson made especially potent by the fact that Emily essentially joins us, the audience, for this viewing of the past). The moments in life that seem insignificant or like they drag on forever are in fact, finite, and as such, they must be valued and cherished.