Early one morning in 1901 Dr. Gibbs returns to his home in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. He had just been across town to deliver twins. On the street he meets Joe Crowell, the paper boy, and Howie Newsome, the milkman. Mrs. Gibbs has breakfast ready when her husband arrives, and the family eats a pleasant breakfast. Then the children, George and Rebecca, leave for school with the neighbor children, Wally and Emily Webb. Afterward Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb step outside to do chores and to chat. The day’s work is beginning.
The day passes, and the children begin the walk home from school. George, on his way to play baseball, stops to talk to Emily and tell her how much he admires her success at school. He could not, he insists, imagine how anyone could spend so much time over homework as she did. Flattered, Emily promises to help George with his algebra. He replies that he doesn’t really need schoolwork because he is going to become a farmer as soon as he graduates from high school.
The seeds of young romance have been sown, and Emily rushes to her mother to ask if she is pretty enough to make boys notice her. Grudgingly, her mother admits she is but tries to turn her mind to other subjects. That evening, while their mothers are at choir practice, George and Emily sit upstairs studying, their bedroom windows facing each other. George calls out to Emily for help on algebra, but Emily is more interested in the moonlight.
The mothers come home from choir practice gossiping about their leader, Simon Stimson. He drinks most of the time and for some reason he could not adjust himself to small-town life. On his way home, Mr. Webb, the editor of the local paper, had also met Simon roaming the deserted streets and now wondered how it would all end.
Time passes, and, at the end of his junior year in high school, George is elected president of his class and Emily is elected secretary-treasurer. After the election, George walks Emily home, but she seems cold and indifferent. When George presses her as to why, she tells him that all the girls think him conceited because he cares more for baseball than for his friends. She expects all men to be perfect, like her father. George said that men could not be perfect, but that women could--like Emily. Eventually George buys them sodas and the two find out they had liked each other for a long time. George concludes that he may not go away to agricultural school after all. When he graduates, he will start right in working on the farm.
Soon, Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs learn that George wants to marry Emily as soon as he leaves high school. At first it is a shock for them: they wonder how he could provide for a wife, whether Emily could take care of a house. However, they then remember their own early years of marriage, and realize that the youngsters can work it out.
The day of the wedding soon arrives, and, at the church just before the ceremony, both Emily and George experience jitters and wonder if they are making a mistake; however, the music starts, their nerves are calmed, and the wedding ceremony is soon over.
Now, nine years pass; it is the summer of 1913. In the graveyard above the town the dead lay, resting from the cares of their lives on earth. There is also an open grave, prepared for Emily who died in childbirth, leaving George with a four-year-old son.
It is raining as a funeral procession winds its way up the hill to the new grave. Then Emily appears shyly before the other dead. Solemnly they welcome her to her rest. But she does not want to rest; she wants to live over again the joys of her life. It is possible to do so, but the others warn her against trying to relive a day in her mortal life.
However, Emily chooses to live over her twelve birthday. At first it is exciting to be young again, but the excitement wears off quickly. The day holds no joy, now that Emily knows what is in store for the future. It is unbearably painful to realize how unaware she had been of the meaning and wonder of life while she was alive. Simon Stimson, a suicide victim, tells her that life is like that, a time of ignorance and blindness and folly. He is still bitter, even in death.
Emily, dejected, returns to her resting place. When night falls, George approaches, full of grief, and throws himself on Emily’s grave. She feels pity for him and for all the rest of the living--for now she knows how little they really understand of the wonderful gift that is life itself.