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Characters of DOAS
Willy Loman, Linda Loman, Biff and Happy Loman, Charley (Loman's neighbor) , Ben (Willy's dead brother) , Bernard (Charley's son), The Woman (lady Willy had an affair with), Howard (Willy's boss), Stanley (waiter at Franks Chop House), Miss Forsythe and Letta (women Willy and Biff met at FCH)
- Willy Loman
- Despite his desperate searching through his past, Willy does not achieve the self-realization or self-knowledge typical of the tragic hero. The quasi-resolution that his suicide offers him represents only a partial discovery of the truth. While he achieves a professional understanding of himself and the fundamental nature of the sales profession, Willy fails to realize his personal failure and betrayal of his soul and family through the meticulously constructed artifice of his life. He cannot grasp the true personal, emotional, spiritual understanding of himself as a literal “loman” or “low man.” Willy is too driven by his own “willy”-ness or perverse “willfulness” to recognize the slanted reality that his desperate mind has forged. Still, many critics, focusing on Willy’s entrenchment in a quagmire of lies, delusions, and self-deceptions, ignore the significant accomplishment of his partial self-realization. Willy’s failure to recognize the anguished love offered to him by his family is crucial to the climax of his torturous day, and the play presents this incapacity as the real tragedy. Despite this failure, Willy makes the most extreme sacrifice in his attempt to leave an inheritance that will allow Biff to fulfill the American Dream.
Ben’s final mantra—“The jungle is dark, but full of diamonds”—turns Willy’s suicide into a metaphorical moral struggle, a final skewed ambition to realize his full commercial and material capacity. His final act, according to Ben, is “not like an appointment at all” but like a “diamond . . . rough and hard to the touch.” In the absence of any real degree of self-knowledge or truth, Willy is able to achieve a tangible result. In some respect, Willy does experience a sort of revelation, as he finally comes to understand that the product he sells is himself. Through the imaginary advice of Ben, Willy ends up fully believing his earlier assertion to Charley that “after all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
- Biff Loman
- Unlike Willy and Happy, Biff feels compelled to seek the truth about himself. While his father and brother are unable to accept the miserable reality of their respective lives, Biff acknowledges his failure and eventually manages to confront it. Even the difference between his name and theirs reflects this polarity: whereas Willy and Happy willfully and happily delude themselves, Biff bristles stiffly at self-deception. Biff’s discovery that Willy has a mistress strips him of his faith in Willy and Willy’s ambitions for him. Consequently, Willy sees Biff as an underachiever, while Biff sees himself as trapped in Willy’s grandiose fantasies. After his epiphany in Bill Oliver’s office, Biff determines to break through the lies surrounding the Loman family in order to come to realistic terms with his own life. Intent on revealing the simple and humble truth behind Willy’s fantasy, Biff longs for the territory (the symbolically free West) obscured by his father’s blind faith in a skewed, materialist version of the American Dream. Biff’s identity crisis is a function of his and his father’s disillusionment, which, in order to reclaim his identity, he must expose.
- Happy Loman
- Happy shares none of the poetry that erupts from Biff and that is buried in Willy—he is the stunted incarnation of Willy’s worst traits and the embodiment of the lie of the happy American Dream. As such, Happy is a difficult character with whom to empathize. He is one-dimensional and static throughout the play. His empty vow to avenge Willy’s death by finally “beat[ing] this racket” provides evidence of his critical condition: for Happy, who has lived in the shadow of the inflated expectations of his brother, there is no escape from the Dream’s indoctrinated lies. Happy’s diseased condition is irreparable—he lacks even the tiniest spark of self-knowledge or capacity for self-analysis. He does share Willy’s capacity for self-delusion, trumpeting himself as the assistant buyer at his store, when, in reality, he is only an assistant to the assistant buyer. He does not possess a hint of the latent thirst for knowledge that proves Biff’s salvation. Happy is a doomed, utterly duped figure, destined to be swallowed up by the force of blind ambition that fuels his insatiable sex drive.
- Linda Loman and Charley
- Linda and Charley serve as forces of reason throughout the play. Linda is probably the most enigmatic and complex character in Death of a Salesman, or even in all of Miller’s work. Linda views freedom as an escape from debt, the reward of total ownership of the material goods that symbolize success and stability. Willy’s prolonged obsession with the American Dream seems, over the long years of his marriage, to have left Linda internally conflicted. Nevertheless, Linda, by far the toughest, most realistic, and most levelheaded character in the play, appears to have kept her emotional life intact. As such, she represents the emotional core of the drama.
- If Linda is a sort of emotional prophet, overcome by the inevitable end that she foresees with startling clarity, then Charley functions as a sort of poetic prophet or sage. Miller portrays Charley as ambiguously gendered or effeminate, much like Tiresias, the mythological seer in Sophocles’ Oedipus plays. Whereas Linda’s lucid diagnosis of Willy’s rapid decline is made possible by her emotional sanity, Charley’s prognosis of the situation is logical, grounded firmly in practical reasoned analysis. He recognizes Willy’s financial failure, and the job offer that he extends to Willy constitutes a commonsense solution. Though he is not terribly fond of Willy, Charley understands his plight and shields him from blame.
- Bernard - Bernard is Charley’s son and an important, successful lawyer. Although Willy used to mock Bernard for studying hard, Bernard always loved Willy’s sons dearly and regarded Biff as a hero. Bernard’s success is difficult for Willy to accept because his own sons’ lives do not measure up.
- Ben - Willy’s wealthy older brother. Ben has recently died and appears only in Willy’s “daydreams.” Willy regards Ben as a symbol of the success that he so desperately craves for himself and his sons.
- The Woman - Willy’s mistress when Happy and Biff were in high school. The Woman’s attention and admiration boost Willy’s fragile ego. When Biff catches Willy in his hotel room with The Woman, he loses faith in his father, and his dream of passing math and going to college dies.
- Howard Wagner - Willy’s boss. Howard inherited the company from his father, whom Willy regarded as “a masterful man” and “a prince.” Though much younger than Willy, Howard treats Willy with condescension and eventually fires him, despite Willy’s wounded assertions that he named Howard at his birth.
- Stanley - A waiter at Frank’s Chop House. Stanley and Happy seem to be friends, or at least acquaintances, and they banter about and ogle Miss Forsythe together before Biff and Willy arrive at the restaurant.
- Miss Forsythe and Letta - Two young women whom Happy and Biff meet at Frank’s Chop House. It seems likely that Miss Forsythe and Letta are prostitutes, judging from Happy’s repeated comments about their moral character and the fact that they are “on call.”
- Jenny - Charley’s secretary
Themes of DOAS
- The American Dream
- Willy believes wholeheartedly in what he considers the promise of the American Dream—that a “well liked” and “personally attractive” man in business will indubitably and deservedly acquire the material comforts offered by modern American life. Oddly, his fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability is at odds with a more gritty, more rewarding understanding of the American Dream that identifies hard work without complaint as the key to success. Willy’s interpretation of likeability is superficial—he childishly dislikes Bernard because he considers Bernard a nerd. Willy’s blind faith in his stunted version of the American Dream leads to his rapid psychological decline when he is unable to accept the disparity between the Dream and his own life.
- Willy’s life charts a course from one abandonment to the next, leaving him in greater despair each time. Willy’s father leaves him and Ben when Willy is very young, leaving Willy neither a tangible (money) nor an intangible (history) legacy. Ben eventually departs for Alaska, leaving Willy to lose himself in a warped vision of the American Dream. Likely a result of these early experiences, Willy develops a fear of abandonment, which makes him want his family to conform to the American Dream. His efforts to raise perfect sons, however, reflect his inability to understand reality. The young Biff, whom Willy considers the embodiment of promise, drops Willy and Willy’s zealous ambitions for him when he finds out about Willy’s adultery. Biff’s ongoing inability to succeed in business furthers his estrangement from Willy. When, at Frank’s Chop House, Willy finally believes that Biff is on the cusp of greatness, Biff shatters Willy’s illusions and, along with Happy, abandons the deluded, babbling Willy in the washroom.
- Willy’s primary obsession throughout the play is what he considers to be Biff’s betrayal of his ambitions for him. Willy believes that he has every right to expect Biff to fulfill the promise inherent in him. When Biff walks out on Willy’s ambitions for him, Willy takes this rejection as a personal affront (he associates it with “insult” and “spite”). Willy, after all, is a salesman, and Biff’s ego-crushing rebuff ultimately reflects Willy’s inability to sell him on the American Dream—the product in which Willy himself believes most faithfully. Willy assumes that Biff’s betrayal stems from Biff’s discovery of Willy’s affair with The Woman—a betrayal of Linda’s love. Whereas Willy feels that Biff has betrayed him, Biff feels that Willy, a “phony little fake,” has betrayed him with his unending stream of ego-stroking lies.
Symbols of DOAS
- Seeds represent for Willy the opportunity to prove the worth of his labor, both as a salesman and a father. His desperate, nocturnal attempt to grow vegetables signifies his shame about barely being able to put food on the table and having nothing to leave his children when he passes. Willy feels that he has worked hard but fears that he will not be able to help his offspring any more than his own abandoning father helped him. The seeds also symbolize Willy’s sense of failure with Biff. Despite the American Dream’s formula for success, which Willy considers infallible, Willy’s efforts to cultivate and nurture Biff went awry. Realizing that his all-American football star has turned into a lazy bum, Willy takes Biff’s failure and lack of ambition as a reflection of his abilities as a father.
- To Willy, diamonds represent tangible wealth and, hence, both validation of one’s labor (and life) and the ability to pass material goods on to one’s offspring, two things that Willy desperately craves. Correlatively, diamonds, the discovery of which made Ben a fortune, symbolize Willy’s failure as a salesman. Despite Willy’s belief in the American Dream, a belief unwavering to the extent that he passed up the opportunity to go with Ben to Alaska, the Dream’s promise of financial security has eluded Willy. At the end of the play, Ben encourages Willy to enter the “jungle” finally and retrieve this elusive diamond—that is, to kill himself for insurance money in order to make his life meaningful.
- Linda’s and The Woman’s Stockings
- Willy’s strange obsession with the condition of Linda’s stockings foreshadows his later flashback to Biff’s discovery of him and The Woman in their Boston hotel room. The teenage Biff accuses Willy of giving away Linda’s stockings to The Woman. Stockings assume a metaphorical weight as the symbol of betrayal and sexual infidelity. New stockings are important for both Willy’s pride in being financially successful and thus able to provide for his family and for Willy’s ability to ease his guilt about, and suppress the memory of, his betrayal of Linda and Biff.
- The Rubber Hose
- The rubber hose is a stage prop that reminds the audience of Willy’s desperate attempts at suicide. He has apparently attempted to kill himself by inhaling gas, which is, ironically, the very substance essential to one of the most basic elements with which he must equip his home for his family’s health and comfort—heat. Literal death by inhaling gas parallels the metaphorical death that Willy feels in his struggle to afford such a basic necessity.
Summary of DOAS
Willy Loman returns to his home in Brooklyn one night, exhausted from a failed sales trip. His wife, Linda, tries to persuade him to ask his boss, Howard Wagner, to let him work in New York so that he won’t have to travel. Willy says that he will talk to Howard the next day. Willy complains that Biff, his older son who has come back home to visit, has yet to make something of himself. Linda scolds Willy for being so critical, and Willy goes to the kitchen for a snack.
- As Willy talks to himself in the kitchen, Biff and his younger brother, Happy, who is also visiting, reminisce about their adolescence and discuss their father’s babbling, which often includes criticism of Biff’s failure to live up to Willy’s expectations. As Biff and Happy, dissatisfied with their lives, fantasize about buying a ranch out West, Willy becomes immersed in a daydream. He praises his sons, now younger, who are washing his car. The young Biff, a high school football star, and the young Happy appear. They interact affectionately with their father, who has just returned from a business trip. Willy confides in Biff and Happy that he is going to open his own business one day, bigger than that owned by his neighbor, Charley. Charley’s son, Bernard, enters looking for Biff, who must study for math class in order to avoid failing. Willy points out to his sons that although Bernard is smart, he is not “well liked,” which will hurt him in the long run.
- A younger Linda enters, and the boys leave to do some chores. Willy boasts of a phenomenally successful sales trip, but Linda coaxes him into revealing that his trip was actually only meagerly successful. Willy complains that he soon won’t be able to make all of the payments on their appliances and car. He complains that people don’t like him and that he’s not good at his job. As Linda consoles him, he hears the laughter of his mistress. He approaches The Woman, who is still laughing, and engages in another reminiscent daydream. Willy and The Woman flirt, and she thanks him for giving her stockings.
- The Woman disappears, and Willy fades back into his prior daydream, in the kitchen. Linda, now mending stockings, reassures him. He scolds her mending and orders her to throw the stockings out. Bernard bursts in, again looking for Biff. Linda reminds Willy that Biff has to return a football that he stole, and she adds that Biff is too rough with the neighborhood girls. Willy hears The Woman laugh and explodes at Bernard and Linda. Both leave, and though the daydream ends, Willy continues to mutter to himself. The older Happy comes downstairs and tries to quiet Willy. Agitated, Willy shouts his regret about not going to Alaska with his brother, Ben, who eventually found a diamond mine in Africa and became rich. Charley, having heard the commotion, enters. Happy goes off to bed, and Willy and Charley begin to play cards. Charley offers Willy a job, but Willy, insulted, refuses it. As they argue, Willy imagines that Ben enters. Willy accidentally calls Charley Ben. Ben inspects Willy’s house and tells him that he has to catch a train soon to look at properties in Alaska. As Willy talks to Ben about the prospect of going to Alaska, Charley, seeing no one there, gets confused and questions Willy. Willy yells at Charley, who leaves. The younger Linda enters and Ben meets her. Willy asks Ben impatiently about his life. Ben recounts his travels and talks about their father. As Ben is about to leave, Willy daydreams further, and Charley and Bernard rush in to tell him that Biff and Happy are stealing lumber. Although Ben eventually leaves, Willy continues to talk to him.
- Back in the present, the older Linda enters to find Willy outside. Biff and Happy come downstairs and discuss Willy’s condition with their mother. Linda scolds Biff for judging Willy harshly. Biff tells her that he knows Willy is a fake, but he refuses to elaborate. Linda mentions that Willy has tried to commit suicide. Happy grows angry and rebukes Biff for his failure in the business world. Willy enters and yells at Biff. Happy intervenes and eventually proposes that he and Biff go into the sporting goods business together. Willy immediately brightens and gives Biff a host of tips about asking for a loan from one of Biff’s old employers, Bill Oliver. After more arguing and reconciliation, everyone finally goes to bed.
- Act II opens with Willy enjoying the breakfast that Linda has made for him. Willy ponders the bright-seeming future before getting angry again about his expensive appliances. Linda informs Willy that Biff and Happy are taking him out to dinner that night. Excited, Willy announces that he is going to make Howard Wagner give him a New York job. The phone rings, and Linda chats with Biff, reminding him to be nice to his father at the restaurant that night.
- As the lights fade on Linda, they come up on Howard playing with a wire recorder in his office. Willy tries to broach the subject of working in New York, but Howard interrupts him and makes him listen to his kids and wife on the wire recorder. When Willy finally gets a word in, Howard rejects his plea. Willy launches into a lengthy recalling of how a legendary salesman named Dave Singleman inspired him to go into sales. Howard leaves and Willy gets angry. Howard soon re-enters and tells Willy to take some time off. Howard leaves and Ben enters, inviting Willy to join him in Alaska. The younger Linda enters and reminds Willy of his sons and job. The young Biff enters, and Willy praises Biff’s prospects and the fact that he is well liked.
- Ben leaves and Bernard rushes in, eagerly awaiting Biff’s big football game. Willy speaks optimistically to Biff about the game. Charley enters and teases Willy about the game. As Willy chases Charley off, the lights rise on a different part of the stage. Willy continues yelling from offstage, and Jenny, Charley’s secretary, asks a grown-up Bernard to quiet him down. Willy enters and prattles on about a “very big deal” that Biff is working on. Daunted by Bernard’s success (he mentions to Willy that he is going to Washington to fight a case), Willy asks Bernard why Biff turned out to be such a failure. Bernard asks Willy what happened in Boston that made Biff decide not to go to summer school. Willy defensively tells Bernard not to blame him.
- Charley enters and sees Bernard off. When Willy asks for more money than Charley usually loans him, Charley again offers Willy a job. Willy again refuses and eventually tells Charley that he was fired. Charley scolds Willy for always needing to be liked and angrily gives him the money. Calling Charley his only friend, Willy exits on the verge of tears.
- At Frank’s Chop House, Happy helps Stanley, a waiter, prepare a table. They ogle and chat up a girl, Miss Forsythe, who enters the restaurant. Biff enters, and Happy introduces him to Miss Forsythe, continuing to flirt with her. Miss Forsythe, a call girl, leaves to telephone another call girl (at Happy’s request), and Biff spills out that he waited six hours for Bill Oliver and Oliver didn’t even recognize him. Upset at his father’s unrelenting misconception that he, Biff, was a salesman for Oliver, Biff plans to relieve Willy of his illusions. Willy enters, and Biff tries gently, at first, to tell him what happened at Oliver’s office. Willy blurts out that he was fired. Stunned, Biff again tries to let Willy down easily. Happy cuts in with remarks suggesting Biff’s success, and Willy eagerly awaits the good news.
- Biff finally explodes at Willy for being unwilling to listen. The young Bernard runs in shouting for Linda, and Biff, Happy, and Willy start to argue. As Biff explains what happened, their conversation recedes into the background. The young Bernard tells Linda that Biff failed math. The restaurant conversation comes back into focus and Willy criticizes Biff for failing math. Willy then hears the voice of the hotel operator in Boston and shouts that he is not in his room. Biff scrambles to quiet Willy and claims that Oliver is talking to his partner about giving Biff the money. Willy’s renewed interest and probing questions irk Biff more, and he screams at Willy. Willy hears The Woman laugh and he shouts back at Biff, hitting him and staggering. Miss Forsythe enters with another call girl, Letta. Biff helps Willy to the washroom and, finding Happy flirting with the girls, argues with him about Willy. Biff storms out, and Happy follows with the girls.
- Willy and The Woman enter, dressing themselves and flirting. The door knocks and Willy hurries The Woman into the bathroom. Willy answers the door; the young Biff enters and tells Willy that he failed math. Willy tries to usher him out of the room, but Biff imitates his math teacher’s lisp, which elicits laughter from Willy and The Woman. Willy tries to cover up his indiscretion, but Biff refuses to believe his stories and storms out, dejected, calling Willy a “phony little fake.” Back in the restaurant, Stanley helps Willy up. Willy asks him where he can find a seed store. Stanley gives him directions to one, and Willy hurries off.
- The light comes up on the Loman kitchen, where Happy enters looking for Willy. He moves into the living room and sees Linda. Biff comes inside and Linda scolds the boys and slaps away the flowers in Happy’s hand. She yells at them for abandoning Willy. Happy attempts to appease her, but Biff goes in search of Willy. He finds Willy planting seeds in the garden with a flashlight. Willy is consulting Ben about a $20,000 proposition. Biff approaches him to say goodbye and tries to bring him inside. Willy moves into the house, followed by Biff, and becomes angry again about Biff’s failure. Happy tries to calm Biff, but Biff and Willy erupt in fury at each other. Biff starts to sob, which touches Willy. Everyone goes to bed except Willy, who renews his conversation with Ben, elated at how great Biff will be with $20,000 of insurance money. Linda soon calls out for Willy but gets no response. Biff and Happy listen as well. They hear Willy’s car speed away.
- In the requiem, Linda and Happy stand in shock after Willy’s poorly attended funeral. Biff states that Willy had the wrong dreams. Charley defends Willy as a victim of his profession. Ready to leave, Biff invites Happy to go back out West with him. Happy declares that he will stick it out in New York to validate Willy’s death. Linda asks Willy for forgiveness for being unable to cry. She begins to sob, repeating “We’re free. . . .” All exit, and the flute melody is heard as the curtain falls.
Key Facts of DOAS
*Conflicts (personal and society)
- full title · Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem
- author · Arthur Miller
- type of work · Play
- genre · Tragedy, social commentary, family drama
- language · English (with emphasis on middle-class American lingo)
- time and place written · Six weeks in 1948, in a shed in Connecticut
- date of first publication · 1949
- original publisher · The Viking Press
- climax · The scene in Frank’s Chop House and Biff’s final confrontation with Willy at home
- protagonists · Willy Loman, Biff Loman
- antagonists · Biff Loman, Willy Loman, the American Dream
- setting (time) · “Today,” that is, the present; either the late 1940s or the time period in which the play is being produced, with “daydreams” into Willy’s past; all of the action takes place during a twenty-four-hour period between Monday night and Tuesday night, except the “Requiem,” which takes place, presumably, a few days after Willy’s funeral
- setting (place) · According to the stage directions, “Willy Loman’s house and yard [in Brooklyn] and . . . various places he visits in . . . New York and Boston”
- falling action · The “Requiem” section, although the play is not really structured as a classical drama
- tense · Present
- foreshadowing · Willy’s flute theme foreshadows the revelation of his father’s occupation and abandonment; Willy’s preoccupation with Linda’s stockings foreshadows his affair with The Woman; Willy’s automobile accident before the start of Act I foreshadows his suicide at the end of Act II
- tone · The tone of Miller’s stage directions and dialogue ranges from sincere to parodying, but, in general, the treatment is tender, though at times brutally honest, toward Willy’s plight
- themes · The American Dream; abandonment; betrayal
- motifs · Mythic figures; the American West; Alaska; the African jungle
- symbols · Seeds; diamonds; Linda’s and The Woman’s stockings; the rubber hose
Characters of Ethan Frome
Characters: Ethan Frome, Zeena Frome, Maddie Silver, The Hales (Ned, Andrew, and their wives), Harmon Gow, Jothan Powell, Denis Eady
- Ethan Frome
- Although the novel’s introductory and concluding passages are told from the narrator’s point of view, the bulk of the novel unfolds from Ethan Frome’s perspective and centers on his actions. Whereas the other characters in the narrative remain opaque, we are allowed access to all of Ethan’s thoughts as his life approaches a crisis. He can be seen as the protagonist of the story. In spite of the fact that Ethan contemplates an adulterous affair, Wharton renders him a generally sympathetic character by making extreme efforts to depict his wife, Zeena, as an appallingly unsympathetic figure. Even if we don’t condone Ethan’s desire for another woman, we understand his motivations. We never doubt his fundamental goodness. Ethan’s illicit passion for Mattie Silver coexists with a moral sense strong enough to keep him from going beyond a few embraces and kisses.
- Though sympathetic, Ethan remains a frustrating main character. Wharton’s novel emphasizes two themes: the conflict between passion and social convention, and the constricting effects that a harsh winter climate can have on the human spirit. These themes almost seem to conspire to make Ethan a passive, unhappy victim of circumstance, weighed down by his duty to his wife, his bitter existence as a poor farmer, and the strain that Starkfield’s frozen landscape places on his soul. “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” an old local tells the narrator. This assessment seems to be Wharton’s epitaph for her protagonist, who is forced—like the original Ethan Frome and his wife, Endurance, in the graveyard—to endure rather than to act. His entire life becomes a series of dreams destroyed by circumstance. Zeena’s illness and his poverty crush his desire for wider horizons, which we see in his hope to leave Starkfield and in his interest in chemistry and engineering. His desire for Mattie is likewise crushed by his inability either to break free of Zeena or to muster the courage to defy convention and risk ruin.
- Ethan is a sensitive man, a lover of nature, and a basically decent person, but he lacks emotional strength and so is mastered by circumstances. It is appropriate, then, that his only bold decision in the entire novel is to commit suicide—a decision that Mattie pushes on him and thus, in fact, contains little courage. Rather, his final, mad sled ride to disaster constitutes the ultimate expression of passivity: unable to face the consequences of any decision, he elects to attempt to escape all decisions forever.
- Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
- Though Zeena is not as rounded a character as her husband, the negative aspects of her personality emerge quite clearly, making her seem like the novel’s villain. While she is technically the victim of Ethan’s plans to commit adultery, the reader comes to sympathize much more with Ethan, because he feels imprisoned in his marriage to the sickly and shrewish Zeena.
- Wharton’s physical descriptions make Zeena seem old and unfeminine. Furthermore, Zeena speaks only in a complaining whine, and all her actions seem calculated to be as vindictive as possible. Her illness might make some of this crotchety behavior forgivable, but she so relishes her role as a sufferer that the reader suspects her of hypochondria, or at least of exaggeration. Her only talent is caring for the sick, and the only time she displays any vitality or sense of purpose is when administering to Ethan and Mattie at the end of the novel. One imagines her taking a perverse delight in Ethan and Mattie’s suffering, since she knows that they attempted to kill themselves to escape her. It is important to note, however, that all of Zeena’s faults are relayed from Ethan’s point of view, which, given his passion for Mattie, is far from impartial.
- Mattie Silver
- Mattie’s character constitutes the hinge on which the plot of Ethan Frome turns. All of the story’s events are set in motion by her presence in the Frome household. Yet we glimpse Mattie, as we glimpse Zeena, only through Ethan’s eyes, and his perception of her is skewed by his passion. With her grace, beauty, and vitality, she obviously embodies everything that he feels Zeena has denied him, and so becomes the focus of his aborted rebellion against his unhappy life. Mattie is distinguished by little other than the red decoration she wears, which symbolizes both passion and transgression.
Until the very end, we cannot even be certain that Mattie reciprocates Ethan’s feelings for her. When, at the climax of the novel, Mattie’s true self does shine through, we see her as an impulsive, melodramatic young woman, more adolescent than adult. Her most active deed of self-definition is persuading Ethan to attempt suicide, which reveals her as rather immature, ready to give in to whatever passionate (and foolish) thoughts enter her head. Yet, because the text has so strongly established Mattie as the horrid Zeena’s polar opposite, we forgive her childish delight in melodrama. Even in her recklessness, Mattie seems preferable to the shrewish, complaining, curmudgeonly Zeena: it is better that Ethan die a quick death with Mattie, we feel, than a slow one with Zeena. Nevertheless, one cannot help but suspect that Mattie may not be quite worth the passion that Ethan directs her way, and that the rebellion and escape she represents are more important than the pretty, flighty, and slightly absentminded girl she actually is.
- The Narrator - Although he recounts the story’s events, the narrator (an engineer by profession) plays no part in the story itself. That he remains nameless highlights the thinness of his character. As a stranger to Starkfield, he views Ethan Frome’s story with fresh eyes and operates as a conduit between the closely guarded story of Frome’s tragedy and the reader in the world outside the novel.
- Denis Eady - The son of Starkfield’s rich Irish grocer, Michael Eady, and sometime-suitor of Mattie Silver. Denis is the focus of Ethan’s jealousy in the novel’s early chapters, before Ethan learns of Mattie’s true feelings.
- Mrs. Ned Hale - Widow of Ned Hale and landlady to the unnamed narrator. The narrator describes Mrs. Hale as more refined and educated than most of her neighbors. Although she was once intimate with the Fromes, she hesitates to discuss their plight with her inquisitive lodger.
- Ned Hale - Ruth Varnum’s fiancé and later her husband. Ned and Ruth’s romance contrasts with the fruitless love of Ethan and Mattie. Ned has died by the time the narrator comes to Starkfield.
- Andrew Hale - Ned’s father, Andrew Hale is an amiable builder involved in regular business dealings with the young Ethan. When Ethan requests that Hale extend him an advance on a lumber load, Hale is forced to politely refuse, citing his own financial constraints. Nevertheless, Ethan (mistakenly) continues to regard him as a possible source of a loan.
- Mrs. Andrew Hale - Ned’s mother and Andrew’s wife, Mrs. Hale extends an unexpected degree of warmth to Ethan after encountering him by chance one winter afternoon. Her kindness and praise for his dedication to Zeena lead Ethan to reevaluate his decision to borrow money from Andrew Hale to elope with Mattie.
- Jotham Powell - The hired man on the Frome farm. Powell’s main duty is to assist Ethan in the cutting, loading, and hauling of lumber. Markedly reticent, Powell is sensitive to the tensions between the Fromes but loath to involve himself in them.
- Harmon Gow - A former stage-driver and town gossip. Gow provides the narrator with a scattering of details about Ethan Frome’s life and later suggests that the narrator hire Ethan as a driver, paving the way for the relationship through which the narrator learns Ethan’s story.
Themes of Ethan Frome
- Society and Morality as Obstacles to the Fulfillment of Desire
- The constraint social and moral concerns place on individual desire is perhaps the novel’s most prominent theme, since Ethan Frome’s plot is concerned with Ethan’s desire for a woman who is not his wife. By denying Zeena a single positive attribute while presenting Mattie as the epitome of glowing, youthful attractiveness, Wharton renders Ethan’s desire to cheat on his wife perfectly understandable. The conflict does not stem from within Ethan’s own heart—his feelings for Mattie never waver. Instead, the conflict occurs between his passions and the constraints placed on him by society, which control his conscience and impede his fulfillment of his passions.
- Again and again, Wharton displays the hold that social convention has on Ethan’s desires. Although he has one night alone with Mattie, he cannot help but be reminded of his domestic duties as he sits in his kitchen. He plans to elope and run away to the West, but he cannot bring himself to lie to his neighbors in order to procure the necessary money—and so on. In the end, Ethan opts out of the battle between his desires and social and moral orders. Lacking the courage and strength of will to face down their force, he chooses to abandon life’s burdens by abandoning life itself.
- Winter as a Stifling Force
- Ethan Frome, the novel’s protagonist, is described by an old man as having “been in Starkfield too many winters.” As the story progresses, the reader, and the narrator, begin to understand more deeply the meaning of this statement. Although a wintry mood grips Ethan Frome from the beginning—even the name Starkfield conjures images of northern winters—the narrator appreciates the winter’s spare loveliness at first. However, he eventually realizes that Starkfield and its inhabitants spend much of each year in what amounts to a state of siege by the elements. The novel suggests that sensitive souls like Ethan become buried emotionally beneath the winter—their resolve and very sense of self sapped by the oppressive power of the six-month-long cold season. Ethan yearns to escape Starkfield; when he was younger, we learn, he hoped to leave his family farm and work as an engineer in a larger town. Though Zeena and poverty are both forces that keep Ethan from fulfilling his dream, the novel again and again positions the climate as a major impediment to both Ethan and his fellow townsfolk. Physical environment is characterized as destiny, and the wintry air of the place seems to have seeped into the Starkfield residents’ very bones.
Symbols of Ethan Frome
- Mattie’s Red Scarf and Red Ribbon
- In the two key scenes when Mattie and Ethan are alone together—outside the church after the dance and in the Frome house on the evening of Zeena’s absence—Wharton emphasizes that Mattie wears red. At the dance she wears a red scarf, and for the evening alone she puts a red ribbon in her hair. Red is the color of blood, ruddiness, good health, and vitality, all of which Mattie has in abundance, and all of which Zeena lacks. In the oppressive white landscape of Starkfield, red stands out, just as Mattie stands out in the oppressive landscape of Ethan’s life. Red is also the color of transgression and sin—the trademark color of the devil—especially in New England, where in Puritan times adulterers were forced to wear red A’s on their clothes (a punishment immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Thus, Mattie’s scarlet adornments also symbolize her role as Ethan’s temptress toward moral transgression.
- The Cat and the Pickle Dish
- During their meal alone, and the evening that follows, Ethan and Mattie share the house with the cat, which first breaks Zeena’s pickle dish and then seats itself in Zeena’s rocking chair. The animal serves as a symbol of Zeena’s tacit invisible presence in the house, as a force that comes between Mattie and Ethan, and reminds them of the wife’s existence. Meanwhile, the breaking of the dish, Zeena’s favorite wedding present, symbolizes the disintegration of the Frome marriage. Zeena’s anguish over the broken dish manifests her deeper anguish over her fractured relationship.
- The Final Sled Run
- Normally, a sled rider forfeits a considerable amount of control and submits to the forces of gravity and friction but still maintains an ability to steer the sled; Ethan, however, forfeits this ability as well on the final sled run. His decision to coast in his final sled run symbolizes his inability to escape his dilemma through action of any kind. The decision parallels Ethan’s agreement to Mattie’s death wish, his conduct in his marriage, and his attitude toward life in general: unable to face the consequences of any decision, he lets external circumstances—other individuals, society, convention, financial constraints—make his decisions for him. Mattie’s death wish appears especially appealing to Ethan in that it entirely eliminates all consequences for both of them, forever. Just as the rider of a sled relinquishes control, so Ethan surrenders his destiny to the whims of Mattie and of fate.
Summary of Ethan Frome
F inding himself laid up in the small New England town of Starkfield for the winter, the narrator sets out to learn about the life of a mysterious local named Ethan Frome, who had a tragic accident some twenty years earlier. After questioning various locals with little result, the narrator finally comes to learn the details of Ethan’s “smash-up” (as the locals call it) when a violent snowstorm forces the narrator into an overnight stay at the Frome household.
- Going back to that tragic year, we find Ethan walking through snowy Starkfield at midnight. He arrives at the village church, where lights in the basement reveal a dance. Ethan loiters by the window, transfixed by the sight of a young girl in a cherry-colored scarf. He has come to the church to fetch his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has been living with the Fromes for over a year, helping around the house. Eventually, we learn that Mattie is the girl in the red scarf—and the object of Ethan’s affection.
- When the dance lets out, Ethan hangs back to keep his presence unknown. Mattie refuses the offer of a ride from another young man named Denis Eady and begins the walk home alone. Ethan catches up with her. As they continue on their way together, Ethan experiences a sense of thrill in Mattie’s presence, and the tension between the two becomes apparent. However, the tension dissipates when they arrive home and Zeena, Ethan’s sickly, shrewish wife, who has kept a late-night vigil in anticipation of their return, greets them. She regards the dynamic between her husband and her cousin with obvious suspicion, and Ethan goes to bed in a state of unease, without a word to Zeena and with thoughts only of Mattie.
- The next day Ethan spends the morning cutting wood and returns home to find his wife prepared for a journey. She has decided to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, where she will spend the night with some distant relatives. Excited by the prospect of an evening alone with Mattie, Ethan quickly assents to his wife’s plan. He goes into town to make a lumber sale, but he hurries so as to return to Mattie in time for supper.
- That evening, tensions run high between Ethan and Mattie. Although the two never consummate or even verbalize their passions, their mutual feelings hang palpably between them, unspoiled by the house’s many reminders of the absent Zeena. Catastrophe threatens when the cat shatters Zeena’s favorite pickle dish, which Mattie had taken out to celebrate their dinner together, but Ethan quickly pieces the shards together and tucks the broken dish back in its place. After supper, with Mattie busy at her sewing work, Ethan contemplates an outright demonstration of his affections, but he stops short of full disclosure. Just after eleven, the two turn in for the night without so much as touching.
- The next morning, Ethan remains eager to reveal his feelings to Mattie, but the presence of his hired man, Jotham Powell, coupled with his own inhibitions, prevent him from making a move. Ethan makes a run into town to pick up some glue for the pickle dish. When he arrives back at the farm, expecting to find Mattie alone, she informs him that Zeena has returned. Quickly collecting himself, Ethan visits the bedroom to greet his wife. Zeena, however, is in no mood for kindnesses and bitterly informs Ethan that her health is failing rapidly. In light of this fact, Zeena announces, she plans to replace Mattie with a more efficient hired girl. Ethan privately resents Zeena’s decision but keeps the bulk of his anger to himself.
- Going down to the kitchen, Ethan’s passions spill over, and he kisses Mattie zealously. He tells Mattie of Zeena’s plan to dismiss her, but their moment together is interrupted by Zeena herself, who had originally declined to come down to dinner but has changed her mind. After the meal, Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish while in search of some medicines and, in her rage, grows all the more determined to chase Mattie out.
- That evening, Ethan retreats to his makeshift study, where he contemplates the decision that lies before him. Unable to tolerate Mattie’s dismissal, but effectively unable to prevent it, Ethan briefly considers eloping with Mattie, and even begins to draft a letter of farewell to Zeena. However, in a sober evaluation of his financial situation, Ethan comes to realize the impossibility of running away and falls asleep in a state of hopelessness.
- At breakfast the next morning, Zeena announces the day’s plans for Mattie’s departure and the arrival of the new hired girl. At mid-morning, having finished his tasks on the farm, Ethan steals into town on a desperate errand. His plan, hatched on the fly, is to make a second attempt to collect an advance from Andrew Hale on a recently delivered lumber load, in hopes of financing his elopement with Mattie after all. On his way down the hill Ethan encounters the Hale sleigh, and, in passing, Hale’s wife praises him greatly for his patience in caring for the ailing Zeena. Her kind words serve to check his plan, and he returns to the farm with a guilty conscience.
- Against Zeena’s wishes, Ethan decides to bring Mattie to the station himself. In a fit of nostalgia, he takes her by a roundabout route, and they eventually end up stopping at the crest of a village hill in order to take a sledding adventure they had once proposed but had never undertaken. A successful first run prompts Mattie to suggest a second, but with a different purpose in mind. She asks Ethan to run the sled into the elm tree at the foot of the hill, allowing them to spend their last moments together. Ethan initially rejects her proposal but is slowly won over, and they take their positions on the sled, locking themselves in a final embrace. In the wake of the collision, Ethan comes to consciousness dazedly, reaching out to feel the face of the softly moaning Mattie, who opens her eyes and weakly utters his name.
- Jumping forward twenty years, we find ourselves back in the company of the narrator as he enters the Frome household. Inside, he meets the gaze of two frail and aging women, and takes stock of the house’s squalid conditions. Frome apologizes for the lack of heat in the house and introduces the narrator to the woman preparing their supper—his wife, Zeena—and to the seated, crippled woman in the chair by the fire—Miss Mattie Silver.
- The next day, the narrator returns to town, where he lodges with Mrs. Ned Hale and her mother, Mrs. Varnum. Sensing their curiosity, he gives a brief account of his evening in the Frome household, and after supper he settles down to a more intimate discussion with Mrs. Hale. Together, they mourn the tragic plight of the silent, cursed man and the two women fated to keep him company during the long New England winter nights.
Key Facts of Ethan Frome
* Conflicts (personal and society)
- full title · Ethan Frome
- author · Edith Wharton
- type of work · Novel
- genre · Tragic romance
- language · English
- time and place written · 1910, in Paris
- date of first publication · 1911
- publisher · Scribner’s, New York
- narrator · An anonymous visitor to Starkfield, Massachusetts, narrates the introduction and conclusion. In Chapters I–IV, the story flashes back approximately twenty years to Ethan Frome’s youth and the first--person narration gives way to a limited third-person narration (predominantly reflecting Ethan Frome’s point of view).
- point of view · The frame story (introduction and conclusion) is told in the first person, from the narrator’s limited point of view as a visitor unfamiliar with Starkfield and Ethan Frome. However, most of the book is written in the third person limited, in which the narrator accesses Ethan’s thoughts but not those of the other characters.
- tone · Foreboding, bleak, ironic, tragic, spare
- tense · Past
- setting (time) · The late nineteenth–early twentieth century
- setting (place) · Starkfield, Massachusetts
- protagonist · Ethan Frome
- major conflict · Ethan’s main fight is with his own conscience, as he decides whether or not to reveal to Mattie his true feelings. His struggles are exacerbated by his surroundings—Zeena, the bleak Starkfield landscape, his home—which often take on an oppressive quality.
- rising action · Ethan’s passion for Mattie grows as he walks her home from a dance; Zeena goes away for the night, leaving Ethan and Mattie alone, but they find their dinner together tense and awkward; Zeena decides to replace Mattie with another household helper; Ethan drives Mattie to the train station and neither can stand to leave the other.
- climax · Ethan and Mattie confess their love for each other and decide to commit suicide by sledding into a large tree.
- falling action · Ethan and Mattie regain consciousness after crashing into the elm; Zeena takes both of them in and cares for them into old age.
- themes · Society and morality as obstacles to the fulfillment of desire; winter as a stifling force
- motifs · Illness and disability; snow and cold
- symbols · Mattie’s red scarf and red ribbon; Zeena’s cat; Zeena’s pickle dish; the final sled run
- foreshadowing · The repeated references to sledding, and to the dangers associated with it, foreshadow the climactic scene in which Ethan and Mattie crash into the elm. The narrator’s introduction to the story describes Ethan as a crippled man who has had an accident, foreshadowing that his relationship with Mattie will meet a tragic end.
Characters of Our Town
Stage Manager, George Gibbs, Dr. Gibbs, Emily Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, Mr. Webb, Mrs. Soames, Simon Stimson, Rebecca Gibbs, Wally Webb, Howie Newsome, Joe Crowell Jr., Si Crowell, Professor Willard, Constable Warren, Sam Craig, Joe Stoddard
- Stage Manager
- An authoritative figure who resembles a narrator as he guides the audience through the play, the Stage Manager is an unconventional character in the canon of dramatic literature. He is not simply a character in the play. As his name suggests, he could be considered a member of the crew staging the play as well. He exists simultaneously in two dramatic realms. At the beginning of Act I, he identifies the play and the playwright, and introduces the director, the producer, and the actors. Furthermore, every act begins and ends with the Stage Manager’s expositions and announcements. During each act, he frequently interrupts the play’s action for the purpose of cueing another scene, providing the audience with pertinent information, or commenting on what has just happened or what is about to happen. All of these functions suggest that even though the Stage Manager occupies center stage, he is neither an actor nor a character, but rather someone who works behind the scenes.
- But while the Stage Manager occupies a position outside of the narrative action—that is, outside of the play’s central plot—he does occasionally assume the role of an inhabitant of Grover’s Corners. For example, in Act II, after narrating the action, cuing a flashback, and changing the set to prepare for the next scene, he steps directly into the plot and becomes Mr. Morgan, the drugstore owner who serves ice-cream sodas to Emily Webb and George Gibbs. The Stage Manager is just as adept at changing sets as he is at changing roles, and this versatility enables him to exist both within the world of Grover’s Corners and within the world that the audience occupies. Wilder deliberately makes the Stage Manager’s location in the play ambiguous, because it is precisely this ambiguity that allows the Stage Manager to bridge the gap between the audience and the characters onstage.
- The Stage Manager essentially plays the role of the audience’s guide. He breaks through the fourth wall—the imaginary barrier between the audience and the action on the stage—to facilitate a dialogue between the audience and the content of the play. Indeed, through the Stage Manager, the interaction between the audience and the play actually becomes part of the content of the play itself. It is not clear whether the Stage Manager is a native of the town or an outsider who has been given a privileged view of Grover’s Corners. This ambiguity makes him both familiar and mysterious and ultimately gives him a metaphorical role in the play, hinting at the presence of a God. Although Our Town avoids discussion of religion, Wilder hints that a spiritual force or entity manages human life in much the same way that the Stage Manager dictates the flow of this play, or as the stage manager of any play dictates its dramatic production. In any case, the Stage Manager makes great demands on the members of the audience to be active participants in the play. His presence blatantly disobeys the theatrical convention that has traditionally separated the audience from the events onstage.
- Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
- (See Important Quotations Explained)
- With the exception of the Stage Manager, Emily is Our Town’s most significant figure. Emily and George Gibbs’s courtship becomes the basis of the text’s limited narrative action—these two characters thus prove extremely significant not only to the play’s events but also to its themes. In Act I, Emily displays her affection for George by agreeing to help him with his homework. In Act II, the play bears witness to Emily’s marriage to George, and the young couple’s wedding becomes emblematic of young love. In Act III, when the play’s themes become fully apparent, Emily emerges as the primary articulator of these themes. After her death, Emily joins the dead souls in the town cemetery and begins to view earthly life and human beings from a new perspective. She realizes that the living “don’t understand” the importance of human existence. After reliving her twelfth birthday, Emily sees that human beings fail to recognize the transience of life and to appreciate it while it lasts. This conclusion, which Emily expresses in her agonized wish to leave her birthday and return to the cemetery, encapsulates the play’s most important theme: the transience of individual human lives in the face of general human and natural stability.
- Well, I think that’s just as important as college is, and even more so. That’s what I think.
- (See Important Quotations Explained)
- If Emily displays an awareness—even if only after death—of the transience of human existence, George Gibbs lives his life in the dark. George is an archetypal all-American boy. A local baseball star and the president of his senior class in high school, he also possesses innocence and sensitivity. He is a good son, although like many children he sometimes neglects his chores. George expects to inherit his uncle’s farm and plans to go to agriculture school; he ultimately scraps that plan, however, in favor of remaining in Grover’s Corners to marry Emily. Indeed, all of George’s achievements prove less important to him than Emily. She is George’s closest neighbor since early childhood, and he declares his love for her in all-American fashion, over an ice-cream soda.
- The revelation of Emily’s death at the start of Act III draws attention to the thematic significance of George’s life. The fact that George lays down prostrate at Emily’s grave vividly illustrates Wilder’s message that human beings do not fully appreciate life while they live it. The group of dead souls looks on George’s prostrate body with confusion and disapproval, and Emily asks, rhetorically, “They don’t understand, do they?” Instead of mourning for his lost wife, the dead suggest, George should be enjoying his life and the lives of those around him before he too dies. Wilder forces the audience to pity George, partly because of the tragedy he has suffered in Emily’s death, but also because he epitomizes the human tragedy of caring too much about things that cannot change. At the same time, seeing George’s pitiable condition, we realize that the dead souls’ demand that George stifle his emotions is difficult, if not impossible. In this light, Wilder implies that perhaps the demanding dead souls “don’t understand” either.
- Dr. Gibbs - George’s father and the town doctor. Dr. Gibbs is also a Civil War expert. His delivery of twins just before the play opens establishes the themes of birth, life, and daily activity. He and his family are neighbors to the Webbs.
- Mrs. Gibbs - George’s mother and Dr. Gibbs’s wife. Mrs. Gibbs’s desire to visit Paris—a wish that is never fulfilled—suggests the importance of seizing the opportunities life presents, rather than waiting for things to happen. At the same time, Mrs. Gibbs’s wish for the luxurious trip ultimately proves unnecessary in her quest to appreciate life.
- Mr. Webb - Emily’s father and the publisher and editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel. Mr. Webb’s report to the audience in Act I is both informative and interactive, as his question-and-answer session draws the audience physically into the action of the play.
- Mrs. Webb - Emily’s mother and Mr. Webb’s wife. At first a no-nonsense woman who does not cry on the morning of her daughter’s marriage, Mrs. Webb later shows her innocent and caring nature, worrying during the wedding that she has not taught her daughter enough about marriage.
- Mrs. Soames - A gossipy woman who sings in the choir along with Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs. Mrs. Soames appears in the group of dead souls in Act III. One of the few townspeople we meet outside of the Webb and Gibbs families, Mrs. Soames offers a sense of the interrelated nature of the lives of the citizens of Grover’s Corners.
- Simon Stimson - The choirmaster, whose alcoholism and undisclosed “troubles” have been the subject of gossip in Grover’s Corners for quite some time. Wilder uses Mr. Stimson’s misfortunes to explore the limitations of small town life. Mr. Stimson appears in the group of dead souls in Act III, having committed suicide by hanging himself in his attic. He is perhaps most notable for his short speech in Act III, when he says that human existence is nothing but “[i]gnorance and blindness.”
- Rebecca Gibbs - George’s younger sister. Rebecca’s role is minor, but she does have one very significant scene with her brother. Her remarks in Act I—about the location of Grover’s Corners in the universe—articulate an important theme in the play: if the town is a microcosm, representative of the broader human community and the shared human experience, then this human experience of Grover’s Corners lies at the center of a grand structure and is therefore eternal.
- Wally Webb - Emily’s younger brother. Wally is a minor figure, but he turns up in Act III among the group of dead souls. Wally dies young, the result of a burst appendix on a Boy Scout trip. His untimely death underscores the brief and fleeting nature of life.
- Howie Newsome - The local milkman. Howie’s reappearance during every morning scene—once each in Acts I, II, and III—highlights the continuity of life in Grover’s Corners and in the general human experience.
- Joe Crowell, Jr. - The paperboy. Joe’s routine of delivering papers to the same people each morning emphasizes the sameness of daily life in Grover’s Corners. We see this sameness continue when Joe’s younger brother, Si, takes over the route for him. Despite this sameness, however, each of the conversations Joe has while on his route is unique, suggesting that while his activities are monotonous, daily life is not.
- Si Crowell - Joe’s younger brother, also a paperboy. Si’s assumption of his brother’s former job contributes to the sense of constancy that characterizes Grover’s Corners throughout the play.
- Professor Willard - A professor at the State University who gives the audience a report on Grover’s Corners. Professor Willard appears once and then disappears. His role in the play is to interact with the audience and to inform theatergoers of the specifics of life in Grover’s Corners. His reference to Native Americans reflects Wilder’s understanding that the European ancestors of the current population in Grover’s Corners replaced and extinguished the existing Native American populations.
- Constable Warren - A local policeman. Constable Warren keeps a watchful eye over the community. His personal knowledge of and favor with the town’s citizens bespeaks the close-knit nature of the town.
- Sam Craig - Emily Webb’s cousin, who has left Grover’s Corners to travel west, but returns for her funeral in Act III. Though originally from the town, Sam has the air of an outsider. His unawareness of the events that have occurred in Grover’s Corners during his absence parallels the audience’s own unawareness.
- Joe Stoddard - The town undertaker. Joe prepares Emily’s grave and remarks on how sad it is to bury young people. This statement emphasizes a theme that grows ever more apparent throughout the play and receives its most explicit discussion in Act III: the transience of human life.
Themes of Our Town
- The Transience of Human Life
- Although Wilder explores the stability of human traditions and the reassuring steadfastness of the natural environment, the individual human lives in Our Town are transient, influenced greatly by the rapid passage of time. The Stage Manager often notes that time seems to pass quickly for the people in the play. At one point, having not looked at his watch for a while, the Stage Manager misjudges the time, which demonstrates that sometimes even the timekeeper himself falls victim to the passage of time.
- In light of the fact that humans are powerless to stem the advance of time, Wilder ponders whether human beings truly appreciate the precious nature of a transient life. Act I, which the Stage Manager entitles “Daily Life,” testifies to the artfulness and value of routine daily activity. Simple acts such as eating breakfast and feeding chickens become subjects of dramatic scenes, indicating the significance Wilder sees in such seemingly mundane events. Wilder juxtaposes this flurry of everyday activity with the characters’ inattentiveness to it. The characters are largely unaware of the details of their lives and tend to accept their circumstances passively. The Gibbs and Webb families rush through breakfast, and the children rush off to school, without much attention to one another. They, like most human beings, maintain the faulty assumption that they have an indefinite amount of time on Earth. Mrs. Gibbs refrains from insisting that her husband take her to Paris because she thinks there will always be time to convince him later.
- The dead souls in Act III emphasize this theme of transience, disapproving of and chastising the living for their “ignorance” and “blindness.” The dead even view George’s grief and prostration upon Emily’s grave as a pitiable waste of human time. Instead of grieving for the dead, they believe, the living should be enjoying the time they still have on Earth.
- The medium of theater perfectly suits Wilder’s intent to make ordinary lives and actions seem extraordinary, as the perspective of the dead souls parallels the audience’s perspective. Just as the dead souls’ distance finally enables them to appreciate the daily events in Grover’s Corners, so too does the audience’s outsider perspective render daily events valuable. We have never before witnessed a Gibbs family breakfast, and when the scene is dramatized on the stage, we see it as significant. Indeed, every action on the stage becomes significant, from Howie Newsome’s milk delivery to the town choir practice.
- The Importance of Companionship
- Because birth and death seem inevitable, the most important stage of life is the middle one: the quest for companionship, friendship, and love. Humans have some degree of control over this aspect of life. Though they may not be fully aware of their doing so, the residents of Grover’s Corners constantly take time out of their days to connect with each other, whether through idle chat with the milkman or small talk with a neighbor. The most prominent interpersonal relationship in the play is a romance—the courtship and marriage of George and Emily—and Wilder suggests that love epitomizes human creativity and achievement in the face of the inevitable advance of time.
- Though romance is prominent in Our Town, it is merely the most vivid among a wide range of bonds that human beings are capable of forging. Wilder depicts a number of different types of relationships, and though some are merely platonic, all are significant. From the beginning of Act I, the Stage Manager seeks to establish a relationship with the audience, which forges a tie between the people onstage and the audience offstage. Within the action of the play, we witness the milkman and the paperboy chatting with members of the Gibbs and Webb families as they deliver their goods. The children walk to and from school in groups or pairs. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, next-door neighbors, meet in their yards to talk. We glimpse Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs in private conversation. As Mrs. Gibbs articulates, “Tain’t natural to be lonesome.”
- Even the play’s title—using the collective pronoun “[o]ur”—underscores the human desire for community. Many aspects of the play attest to the importance of community and companionship: the welcoming introduction from the Stage Manager; the audience participation, through the placement among the audience of actors within the audience who interact with those onstage; and the presence of numerous groups in the play, such as the choir, the wedding party, the funeral party, and the group of dead souls.
- The Artificiality of the Theater
- Wilder does not pretend that his play represents a slice of real life. The events that occur onstage could easily be moments in real lives—a milkman delivers milk, a family has a hurried weekday breakfast, two young people fall in love—but Wilder undermines this appearance of reality by filling the play with devices that emphasize the artificiality of theater. The Stage Manager is the most obvious of these devices, functioning as a sort of narrator or modernized Greek chorus who comments on the play’s action while simultaneously involving himself in it. The Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience and acknowledges our lack of familiarity with Grover’s Corners and its inhabitants. He also manipulates the passage of time, incorporating flashbacks that take us—and the characters—back in time to relive certain significant moments. These intentional disruptions of the play’s chronology prevent us from believing that what we see onstage could be real. Rather, the life we see on the stage becomes merely representative of real life, and is thus a fair target for Wilder’s metaphorical and symbolic manipulation. Wilder’s parallel positioning of the realm of the play and the real world implies a separation between the two. However, rather than distance the audience from the events on the stage, Wilder acknowledges the artificial nature of the stage and thus bridges the gap between the audience and the onstage events. This closeness between the audience and the story forces the audience to identify more fully with the characters and events.
Symbols of Our Town
- The Time Capsule
- In Act I, the Stage Manager briefly mentions a time capsule that is being buried in the foundation of a new building in town. The citizens of Grover’s Corners wish to include the works of Shakespeare, the Constitution, and the Bible; the Stage Manager says he would like to throw a copy of Our Town into the time capsule as well. The time capsule embodies the human desire to keep a record of the past. Accordingly, it also symbolizes the idea that certain parts of the past deserve to be remembered over and above others. Wilder wishes to challenge this latter notion. He has the Stage Manager place Our Town into the capsule so the people opening it in the future will not only appreciate the daily lives of the townspeople from the past, but also their own daily lives in the future.
- The self-referential notion of placing the play into the time capsule also carries symbolic weight. The fact that Our Town is actually mentioned within Our Town clearly shows Wilder’s intent to break down the wall that divides the world of the play from the world of the audience. By mentioning his own play within his play, Wilder acknowledges that his text is artificial, a literary creation. Even more important, however, the Stage Manager’s wish to put the play into the capsule lends historic significance to the audience’s watching of Our Town. He implies that even the current production of the play—its sets, lights, actors, and audience—is in itself an important detail of life.
- Howie Newsome and the Crowell Boys
- Each of the three morning scenes in Our Town features the milkman, Howie Newsome, and a paperboy—either Joe or Si Crowell. Throughout the play, the Stage Manager and other characters, such as Mr. Webb in his report in Act I, discuss the stability of Grover’s Corners—nothing changes much in the town. Howie and the Crowell boys illustrate this constancy of small town life. They appear in 1901, just as they do in 1904 and in the flashback to 1899. Because Grover’s Corners is Wilder’s microcosm of human life in general, Howie and the Crowells represent not only the stability of life in Grover’s Corners, but the stability of human life in general. The milkman and the paperboys embody the persistence of human life and the continuity of the human experience from year to year, from generation to generation. Moreover, the fact that Si replaces his brother Joe shows that the transience of individual lives actually becomes a stabilizing force. Growing from birth toward death, humans show how the finite changes in individual lives are simply part of stable cycles.
- The Hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”
- A choir sings the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” in the background three different times throughout the play. In part, the repetition of the song emphasizes Wilder’s general notion of stability and tradition. However, the Christian hymn primarily embodies Wilder’s belief that the love between human beings is divine in nature. The “tie” in the song’s lyrics refers to both the tie between humans and God and the ties among humans themselves.
- The three scenes that include the hymn also prominently feature Emily and George, highlighting the “tie that binds” the two of them. The first instance of the song comes during a choir practice, which occurs simultaneously with George and Emily’s conversation through their open windows in Act I. The second instance comes during the wedding ceremony in Act II. The third instance comes during Emily’s funeral, as her body is interred and she joins the dead in the cemetery, leaving George behind. By associating this particular song with the play’s critical moments, Wilder foregrounds the notion of companionship as an essential, even divine, feature of human life. The hymn may add some degree of Christian symbolism to the play, but Wilder, for the most part, downplays any discussion of specifically Christian symbols. He concentrates on the hymn not because of its allusion to the fellowship between Christians in particular, but rather because of what it says about human beings in general.
Summary of Our Town
O ur Town is introduced and narrated by the Stage Manager, who welcomes the audience to the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, early on a May morning in 1901. In the opening scene, the stage is largely empty, except for some tables and chairs that represent the homes of the Gibbs and Webb families, the setting of most of the action in Act I. The set remains sparse throughout the rest of the play.
- After the Stage Manager’s introduction, the activities of a typical day begin. Howie Newsome, the milkman, and Joe Crowell, Jr., the paperboy, make their delivery rounds. Dr. Gibbs returns from delivering a set of twins at one of the homes in town. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb make breakfast, send their children off to school, and meet in their gardens to gossip. The two women also discuss their modest ambitions, and Mrs. Gibbs reveals that she longs to visit Paris.
- Throughout the play, the characters pantomime their activities and chores. When Howie makes his milk deliveries, for example, no horse appears onstage despite the fact that he frequently addresses his horse as “Bessie.” Howie does not actually hold anything in his hands, but he pantomimes carrying bottles of milk, and the sound of clinking milk bottles comes from offstage. This deliberate abandonment of props goes hand in hand with the minimal set.
- The Stage Manager interrupts the action. He calls Professor Willard and then Mr. Webb out onto the stage to tell the audience some basic facts about Grover’s Corners. Mr. Webb not only reports to the audience, but also takes questions from some “audience members” who are actually characters in the play seated in the audience.
- Afternoon arrives, school lets out, and George Gibbs meets his neighbor Emily Webb outside the gate of her house. We see the first inkling of George and Emily’s romantic affection for one another during this scene and during Emily’s subsequent conversation with her mother. The Stage Manager thanks and dismisses Emily and Mrs. Webb, then launches into a discussion of a time capsule that will be placed in the foundation of a new bank building in town. He tells us that he wishes to put a copy of Our Town into this time capsule.
- Now evening, a choir in the orchestra pit begins to sing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” The choir, directed by the bitter yet comical choirmaster Simon Stimson, continues to sing as George and Emily talk to each other through their open windows. Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, and their gossipy friend Mrs. Soames return home from choir practice and chat about the choirmaster’s alcoholism. The women return to their respective homes. George and his sister Rebecca sit at a window and look outside. Rebecca ponders the position of Grover’s Corners within the vastness of the universe, which she believes is contained within “the Mind of God.” Night has fallen on Grover’s Corners, and the first act comes to an end.
- Act II takes place three years later, on George and Emily’s wedding day. George tries to visit his fiancée, but he is shooed away by Mr. and Mrs. Webb, who insist that it is bad luck for the groom to see the bride-to-be on the wedding day anytime before the ceremony. Mrs. Webb goes upstairs to make sure Emily does not come downstairs. George is left alone with Mr. Webb. The young man and his future father-in-law awkwardly discuss marriage and how to be a virtuous husband.
- The Stage Manager interjects and introduces a flashback to the previous year. George and Emily are on their way home from school. George has just been elected class president and Emily has just been elected secretary and treasurer. George has also become something of a local baseball star. Emily tells George that his popularity has made him “conceited and stuck-up.” George, though hurt, thanks Emily for her honesty, but Emily becomes mortified by her own words and asks George to forget them. The two stop at Mr. Morgan’s drugstore for ice-cream sodas and, over the course of their drink, admit their mutual affection. George decides to scrap his plan of attending agriculture school in favor of staying in Grover’s Corners with Emily.
- We return to the day of the wedding in 1904. Both the bride and groom feel jittery, but their parents calm them down and the ceremony goes ahead as planned. The Stage Manager acts as the clergyman. The newlyweds run out through the audience, and the second act ends with the Stage Manager’s announcement that it is time for another intermission.
- Act III takes place nine years later, in a cemetery on a hilltop overlooking the town. Emily has died in childbirth and is about to be buried. The funeral party occupies the back of the stage. The most prominent characters in this act, the dead souls who already inhabit the cemetery, sit in chairs at the front of the stage. Among the dead are Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, Wally Webb, and Simon Stimson. As the funeral takes place, the dead speak, serving as detached witnesses. Death has rendered them largely indifferent to earthly events. Emily joins the dead, but she misses her previous life and decides to go back and relive part of it. The other souls disapprove and advise Emily to stay in the cemetery.
- With the aid of the Stage Manager, Emily steps into the past, revisiting the morning of her twelfth birthday. Howie Newsome and Joe Crowell, Jr. make their deliveries as usual. Mrs. Webb gives her daughter some presents and calls to Mr. Webb. As Emily participates, she also watches the scene as an observer, noting her parents’ youth and beauty. Emily now has a nostalgic appreciation for everyday life that her parents and the other living characters do not share. She becomes agonized by the beauty and transience of everyday life and demands to be taken back to the cemetery. As Emily settles in among the dead souls, George lays prostrate by her tomb. “They don’t understand,” she says of the living. The stars come out over Grover’s Corners, and the play ends.
Key Facts of Our Town
* Conflicts (personal and society)
- full title · Our Town
- author · Thornton Wilder
- type of work · Play
- genre · Wilder’s play defies most conventional theatrical genres. It is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, neither a romance nor a farce. It is, rather, a contemplative work concerning the human experience.
- language · English
- time and place written · 1934–1938, United States
- date of first publication · 1938
- publisher · Coward-McCann, Inc.
- narrator · The play does not contain the sort of narrator that a novel might, but the Stage Manager does act as a narrator figure, guiding us through the action.
- tone · The Stage Manager, essentially the play’s narrator, often speaks directly to the audience in an authoritative and informative voice. He is polite but firm in his cues to other characters. However, he also appears quite contemplative at times, especially during his longer monologues. Many characters in the play also have moments of philosophical reverie, and the play’s dialogue and exposition tends to be nostalgic and introspective.
- setting (time) · Act I takes place on May 7, 1901; Act II takes place on July 7, 1904, with a flashback to approximately one year earlier; Act III takes place in the summer of 1913, with a flashback to February 11, 1899
- setting (place) · Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire
- protagonists · The most significant figure in the play is the Stage Manager, who orchestrates the action onstage and serves as the glue that holds disparate scenes together. However, the narrative action revolves around Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who fall in love and get married.
- major conflict · Humans constantly struggle to realize that the eternal exists even within ordinary events.
- rising action · The depiction of daily life; the first romantic conversation between George and Emily; the couple’s wedding
- climax · After dying in childbirth and joining the dead souls in the cemetery, Emily returns to relive a day from her earthly life, which makes her realize how little the living appreciate the value of life.
- falling action · Emily returns to the world of the dead souls in the cemetery.
- themes · The transience of human life; the importance of companionship; the artificiality of the theater
- motifs · The stages of life; natural cycles; morning; the manipulation of time
- symbols · The time capsule; Howie Newsome and the Crowell boys; the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”
- foreshadowing · George and Emily’s sweet conversations in Act I point toward a burgeoning romance in Act II. The Stage Manager’s indications in Act I that this play will discuss marriage and then death clue us in to the direction that George and Emily’s relationship, which is at the center of the play, will take.