I watched Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

Grover’s Corner

In his play, Our Town, Thornton Wilder describes a fictional, yet realistic town. In it, the process of raising kids and ensuring a harmonious community is detailed. In Grover’s Corner, the setting of the play, a great deal of importance is placed on obedience to your superiors, adherence to social rituals, and following the same patterns as your ancestors. All in all, Grover’s Corner is very good at sustaining itself and raising each generation to follow in the footsteps of the previous. They do this through what can be considered somewhat arcane traditions, and blind faith in authority. For example, the institutions holding them up, including churches, marriage, and the tightknit community, are a solid foundation that are taken for granted. It speaks a great deal on why these small towns are so successful, which is that they are typically unaffected by the world, and they do have these traditions that keep them together. Even though some of these rituals and traditions, the overtly public weddings, returning to the same town even after college, and the patriarchal structure present, are arbitrary or maybe unjustified, they serve a purpose, which is mainly to produce a homogeneous populace that is agreeable. Since they all hold the same beliefs and values, there is relatively little conflict and crime in Grover’s Corner. Predictably, however, there is also very little diversity between the members. This is purposeful, and commonplace. Wilder does a good job of portraying this.

Social Rules

One of the prominent figures in the town, Mr. Webb, is found giving advice to George Gibbs, a young boy deciding about his future. George laments the arbitrary social hoops he has to jump through:

I wish there was a way a man could get married without all that marching up and down”

Mr. Webb, a father and the town newspaper editor, responds that “That thought hasn’t been any use”, and that it was the “women-folk who hyped up getting married”. Ultimately, however, Mr. Webb convinces George that marriage is worthwhile. After that, Mr. Webb’s advice to George departs from the expected dialogue; Mr. Webb says “My dad gave me advice: start out early, showing her [your wife] who’s boss, give an order that don’t make sense, so she learn to obey”, but explains that he did not follow what his father said, and as a result, has had a successful marriage. Even though Mr. Webb departs here from the social norm, he affirms that perhaps some rituals are necessary for the sake of having a society: “Since cavemen, no bride and groom should see his father in law on the day of the wedding”. Overall, this suggests that in the end, while some societies require somewhat unjustified rituals, the people who may find them unnecessary can look past them and find their real meaning. This is affirmed by the Narrator, who says that:

We want to know how all this began, this wedding, this plan to spend a lifetime together … George and Emily are going to demonstrate the first conversation that showed them that they were ‘meant for one another’

Obviously, the system he is referring to is the public wedding scene, highly publicized because it is an important part of the fabric of the community, but then shifts to the personal reasons for marriage, being that two people feel a connection. Thus, the message reads: the system of public marriage is justified because it is a pillar of the community that keeps it afloat and thriving, but for those in love, they can find meaning on a more personal level. This justification means that the people getting married can look past the vast majority of the implications of marriage as part of the community, as long as they can personally justify the connection.

Social Fools

A different view is espoused by those without a sense of specificity; Those who only see the societal benefit of these organizations crave structure and meaning, often inventing it where it seems to lack. For example, Mrs. Gibbs, George’s mother, says that “People are meant to live two by two in this world”. She also crafts an argument in favor of George being allowed to marry, but she does not utilize the connection he feels, rather stressing that it will keep him out of trouble, and give him the goal of pleasing and living for his wife. She is one of the people who craves structure, and order, and will support institutions and arbitrary rituals to enforce these. Her arguments treat personal connections, personal feelings, and all other specific things to a single person as inconsequential. Her belief could be applied to say: “It doesn’t matter if you love them – you marry someone that will keep your life on track”, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God – you go to church because it is an organization that keeps the community together”. Essentially, this belief relies upon the assumptions of pragmatism – the belief that what is true is less important than what is useful. And, by applying this brutally practical ethos, Mrs. Gibbs actually finds herself in a predicament. Mrs. Gibbs’ wish to travel to Paris is constantly used as an example of something that is not inherently practical – that is, it is not needed to travel –, but would make Mrs. Gibbs happy. Yet, by her own pragmatic approach, she finds herself not dropping many hints, or talking to her husband about travelling; she realizes that it is ultimately not necessary to travel to France.

Orthodox Lifestyle Remains and Spreads

All in all, I think this is a pretty common theme not only in America, but in most places around the globe. It’s the opposite of the doctrine of the Enlightenment era – that individuality should be respected, and any attempt to make people’s lives subject to orthodoxy should be treated as an affront to freedom of thought. Friedrich the Great is probably the first example of an Enlightened ruler, so he directly said that the state nor rulers should make these arbitrary social rules. He was strongly for separation of church and state, and church pressures. This was a prominent idea throughout the French revolution, and indeed a great deal of European anti-aristocratic thinkers throughout the 18th century. This line of thought is directly opposed to the ideals and fabric of Grover’s Corner, which consists of these arbitrary traditions and those who support them. Enlightenment philosophy never took off in America, however. The closest we got was at the turn of the 1800s, when Thomas Paine released his Deist and Enlightenment-based tract “The Age of Reason”, and American Deism reached an all time high. However, Paine and his ideas have fallen out of favor, with Teddy Roosevelt even declaring him a “filthy little atheist”. As a consequence, tons of America’s social structure rests on things that are arbitrary, and the orthodox lifestyle is set with the expectation that it is followed. That is evidenced in Wilder’s fictional town just as much as many other towns in real life.