In this post, I will take a look at one of my favorite sequences from one of my favorite plays, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, Our Town. The scene, from Our Town’s first act, provides an example of how being a mother is not always an easy job. Kids say the darndest things, and ask the darndest questions. The scene in question takes place in the first of Our Town’s three acts. The then-teenaged Emily Webb, the central character in all three acts of the play, asks her mother to respond seriously to a question that she arguably made unnecessarily difficult: Am I pretty? After some haggling, her mother, Mrs. Webb, ends the discussion by telling a still-unsatisfied Emily that she is “pretty enough for all normal purposes.”
The scene, funny in the first instance, takes on some haunting qualities when read in light of Emily’s post-death realizations in Our Town’s Act III.
Note: You can watch the scene in question in the 1940 theatrical version of Our Town at about 21:40 in this video.
While helping her Mother, Mrs. Webb in the kitchen, Emily Webb stated that she had a question.
Mama, will you answer me a question, serious?
Mrs. Webb corrected “serious” to “seriously.” After Emily accepted the question as corrected, she posed her very serious question:
Mama, am I good looking?
It is worth noting that this question came on the heels of Emily’s similarly-aged neighbor, George Gibbs, having just taken his leave. Mrs. Webb handled the question, but not in a manner that Emily considered to be “serious”:
Yes, of course you are. All my children have got good-features; I’d be ashamed if they hadn’t.
Emily recognized that her Mother offered a somewhat generic answer. She was getting at something different, although she had trouble articulating it – ultimately asking the same question embellished with a touch of emphasis:
Oh Mama, that’s not what I mean? What I mean is: am I pretty?
Mrs. Webb began to show some irritation at the line of questioning, and she endeavored to assert her authority to make Emily accept her original answer:
I’ve already told you, yes. Now that’s enough of that. You have a nice young pretty face. I never heard of such foolishness.
Emily, unpersuaded, responded in a flippant way that highlighted one of the central themes of Wilder’s great work:
Oh, Mama, you never tell the truth about anything.
The back and forth continued, with Emily looking for different ways to get the sort of genuine, case-specific answer that she was looking for. Emily asked if her Mother had been pretty, to which Mrs. Webb responded in the affirmative – stating that she was “the prettiest girl in town” having had only one rival to the title. After Mrs.Webb answered the question about herself with some specificity, Emily found the words to ask the question that she had been getting at from the start:
But, Mama, you’ve got to say something about me. Am I pretty enough . . . to get anybody . . . to get people interested in me?
With the import of her question now impossible to avoid, Mrs. Webb found the line to shut down the interrogation once and for all, albeit still not to her daughter’s satisfaction:
Emily, you make me tired. Now stop it. You’re pretty enough for all normal purposes.
(Bold emphasis added.)
Emily gave in, but not before concluding that her Mother was of “no help at all.”
“Pretty Enough For All Normal Purposes”
Although “pretty enough for all normal purposes” did not satisfy the restless Emily Webb, it is one of my favorite lines. I had not thought about it for a few years before my great college English professor, who I referenced once before, noted in class one day that it was one of his wife’s favorite lines – and that she had thought of it often when fielding questions from their daughters.
To be sure, the entire exchange between Mrs. Webb and Emily Webb featured elements of their not attending to what the other was saying. But that, in and of itself, does not detract from the wisdom of Mrs. Webb’s line. Once Emily made it abundantly clear that her concern was whether she was pretty enough for a boy – perhaps George Gibbs (her future husband) – to take an interest in her, Mrs. Webb responded that she was “pretty enough for all normal purposes” – i.e. pretty enough to catch the attention of a good young man and future husband.
Act II proved that Mrs. Webb’s assessment of Emily’s attractiveness was correct – she was in fact pretty enough for the normal purposes that she concerned herself with. “Enough for all normal purposes” is likely the correct answer to many inquiries from children and adolescents about matters such as attractiveness, intelligence, or creativity. However, true as it may be – the answer is unlikely to satisfy every audience.
While I will reserve a fuller discussion of some of the main ideas in Our Town for a future piece, it is worth noting how the “pretty enough for all normal purposes” scene fits into Our Town as a work of literature. Emily Webb married George Gibbs in Act II. Act III begins posthumously, with Emily Gibbs having died in child birth. In the haunting final scene of the play, Emily Gibbs realizes from beyond the grave that she and her loved ones failed to fully see each other and appreciate life as they were living it.
She said of a different scene that she was revisiting:
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.
When Emily could no longer bear to revisit scenes from her life:
I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.
The third act of Our Town hammers home the idea that people do not “realize life while they live it” (Emily’s phrase). Before the witty “pretty enough for all normal purposes” line – in the scene we examined there are a number of elements of this tendency. Emily initially responded to her Mother not giving her what she thought was a satisfactory inquiry to her question by stating that her Mother “never tell[s] the truth about anything” – speaking flippantly about absolutes in response to a single instance of not receiving an answer that she wanted. For Mrs. Webb’s part, she made every effort to avoid engaging Emily directly, first overlooking the point of Emily’s question, and second dismissing it instead of engaging, leaving both women unsatisfied even granting that the final answer was correct.
The scene between Emily and Mrs. Webb was, in the end, an example of two characters talking without seeing one another. Emily thought in terms of dramatic absolutes while Mrs. Webb tried to avoid a conversation that she was not interested in having. People are prone to draw ideas such as “always” from moments of happiness and frustration, which can lead to not considering that there may not be a “next” time.
The somber aspects of Our Town do not take away from the parental humor of the “pretty enough for all normal purposes” scene as it happened, nor do they detract from the fact that Mrs. Webb’s response was as relatable as it was technically correct. But the scene, much like many of the other quaint moments in Our Town’s first two acts, reads a bit hauntingly when knowing Emily’s post-death realizations in the third and final Act.