Thursday, December 8, 2016

What happened to Emily's baby?

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is my favorite play. But a question recently occurred to me that I'd never thought of before, and I couldn't find anyone else wondering about it anywhere online. That question is this:

What happened to Emily's baby?

In Act 3, we learn from Emily's cousin Sam Craig and the undertaker Joe Stoddard that Emily has died:
Sam Craig: Joe, what did she die of? 
 Joe Stoddard: Who? 
Sam Craig: My cousin. 
Joe Stoddard: Oh, didn't you know? Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. ’Twas her second, though. There’s a little boy ‘bout four years old.
The now-dead Mrs. Gibbs confirms that Emily died "in childbirth". Emily then joins Mrs. Gibbs and the other dead onstage:
Emily: My boy is spending the day at Mrs. Carter's. (She sees Mr. Carter among the dead.) Oh, Mr. Carter, my little boy is spending the day at your house.

Mr. Carter: Is he?

Emily: Yes, he loves it there.
Clearly, Emily is talking about her four-year-old son. Later:
Emily: But, Mother Gibbs, one can go back; one can go back there again…into living. I feel it. I know it. Why just then for a moment I was thinking about…about the farm…and for a minute I was there, and my baby was on my lap as plain as day.
Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can.

Emily: I can go back there and live all those days over again…why not?
The "rules" of Wilder's afterlife seem only to allow reliving days, not resuming life as if one had never died (the 1940 movie notwithstanding). So the baby Emily refers to here must again be her now-four-year-old son.

Finally, when Emily is advised to relive only an "unimportant day", she says:
Emily: Then it can’t be since I was married; or since the baby was born.
Once more, "the baby" has to be her firstborn. And that's the last mention of Emily's offspring in the play.

So...what happened to the baby Emily died delivering?

• Did it live? Emily never mentions it, or who's taking care of it during the funeral, as she does with her four-year-old son (whom she mentions three different times). Emily notes that the farm "won't be the same to George without me", but doesn't express a word of notice that George has been left alone to raise a newborn baby? This option doesn't seem likely.

• Did it die? In that case, why doesn't it join Emily among the dead onstage (as impractical as it would be to stage this)? I mean, is there some sort of afterlife daycare somewhere? And why is there no mention or sign of a funeral for the baby, from Joe Stoddard or anyone else?

Wilder's notion of Emily dying during childbirth is deeply poignant. But by choosing it, he introduces a question into the play that doesn't seem to have a satisfactory answer.

However, it's clear that the ambiguity was deliberate. The first published edition of Our Town from 1938 reflects the script before it went into rehearsal, and there are numerous differences. In this version, Wilder firmly answers the question:
Sam Craig: Joe, what did she die of? 
Joe Stoddard: Who? 
Sam Craig: My cousin. 
Joe Stoddard: Oh, didn't you know? Had some trouble bringing a baby into the world. Let's see, today's Friday—'twas almost a week ago now. 
Sam Craig: Did the baby live? 
Joe Stoddard: No. 'Twas her second, though. There's a little boy 'bout four years old.
So there it is: an answer, of sorts. Of course, the deliberate ambiguity in the standard script does leave the question open, and a production that featured someone holding a baby at Emily's funeral could seem to imply the opposite answer. But personally, I'm not feeling good about the baby's fate.

Thanks to Rosie Strub of The Wilder Family LLC and Lincoln Konkle of the Thornton Wilder Society for helping to solve the mystery.


  1. My wife directed a production giving the actress playing the SM the history of being Emily’s daughter; most audience didn’t know but it added layers to everyone’s performances.

    1. I was watching a production of Our Town on line. And thought what happened to the baby myself.