Desire under the Elms

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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2010
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 27. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 25
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Desire under the Elms



Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms is considered a classic play by one of the twentieth century's leading dramatists. Indeed, no study of American playwrights is complete without the inclusion of O'Neill and his work. Desire under the Elms premiered in New York City at the Greenwich Village Theatre on November 11, 1924, shocking critics and censors alike. (The plot features an affair between stepmother and stepson, as well as the murder of their infant son.) The play was nevertheless a popular success, enjoying a run of 208 performances upon its initial production. In 1925, Desire under the Elms first appeared in print in The Complete Works of Eugene O'Neill. The play itself portrays the highly dysfunctional Cabot family, pitting father and son against one another as they battle not only for possession of the land they farm together, but also for the love of Abbie, the Cabot patriarch's third wife. The small cast of characters is largely isolated on their New England farm, thus heightening the drama and urgency of their situation as each character in turn betrays the other. A thematically rich drama that explores the nature of love, desire, and greed, Desire under the Elms remains a popular performance piece almost a century after its initial premiere. The play is also widely available in book form; as of 2009, the 1995 edition of Three Plays (which includes Desire under the Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra) remained in print.

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Eugene ONeill Eugene O'Neill (The Library of Congress)


O'Neill was born in New York, New York, on October 16, 1888, the third son of Ella Quinlan O'Neill and famed actor James O'Neill. He was their only child to survive infancy. O'Neill's parents provided only an unstable home life, and many of his plays reflect this, as they explore the workings of dysfunctional families. The only stability O'Neill experienced in his young life was found at the family's summer cottage in New London, Connecticut. The O'Neill family was devoutly Catholic, and they traveled in support of James's acting career. Notably, O'Neill was raised predominantly by the nurse who traveled with them; his own mother developed an addiction to morphine and was thus largely unable to care for him. At the age of seven, O'Neill was sent to boarding school.

As a teenager, O'Neill renounced his family's faith and forever after viewed religion with suspicion and disgust. In fact, themes of men who fight against fate or God appear in several of his works. In 1906, O'Neill began attending Princeton University, but he failed most of his freshman classes and then dropped out. For the next six years, he worked as a sailor and traveled the world. In 1909, he married Kathleen Jenkins. The couple had a son, Eugene O'Neill, Jr., but divorced in 1912. O'Neill did not take part in the boy's life until he was almost eleven. (Eugene O'Neill, Jr., committed suicide when he was forty years old.) Following his own failed suicide attempt around 1912, O'Neill returned to New London and began publishing poetry in the local newspaper. Shortly after his return, O'Neill relocated to the Gaylord Farm Sanitarium in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he spent a year recovering from tuberculosis. In 1914, he attended a playwriting workshop at Harvard University, but he was largely dissatisfied with the experience.

O'Neill continued writing, however, and he staged his first one-act play, Bound East for Cardiff, in 1916 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The play was a success, launching both O'Neill's career and the Provincetown Players acting troupe. In 1918, he married his second wife, writer Agnes Boulton. The couple's son, Shane, was born in 1919, and their daughter, Oona, was born in 1925. O'Neill and Boulton divorced in 1928. Once again, O'Neill had little to do with his children after the divorce. Nevertheless, the years of his unsuccessful marriage to Boulton were his most prolific and successful. In 1920, O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was produced on Broadway, garnering O'Neill his first Pulitzer Prize. His play Anna Christie was produced the following year and earned O'Neill his second Pulitzer. Several plays followed, most notably Desire under the Elms in 1924. The play features the themes of Greek tragedy and underlying Freudian influence that later became a hallmark of O'Neill's work. Strange Interlude, first performed in 1928, also features Freudian themes. That play was an immense success, earning O'Neill his third Pulitzer and launching him into international fame.

On July 22, 1929, not long after divorcing Boulton, O'Neill married his third wife, Carlota Monterey. The couple soon went to live in France, and O'Neill began working on his epic play, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Following the release of the play, O'Neill and Monterey kept to themselves, traveling to and living in mostly remote locations in a state of semiretirement. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. However, by his early fifties, O'Neill was suffering from a neurological disease similar to Parkinson's (it was actually misdiagnosed Page 51  |  Top of Article as Parkinson's at the time). Despite suffering from pain and uncontrollable muscle tremors, he continued to write by hand. In fact, this period signaled the onset of the second phase of O'Neill's career, in which he produced some of his best-known and best-loved plays. These include The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night. The former play was written in 1939, although it was not produced until 1946. The latter, perhaps O'Neill's greatest dramatic achievement, was completed in 1941, but it was not produced until 1956 (three years after O'Neill's death). The work received a Pulitzer Prize (O'Neill's fourth).

O'Neill wrote his final play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, in 1943. The work is a sequel to Long Day's Journey into Night. His nerve disorder had left him largely incapacitated by then, and O'Neill was no longer able to write. He lived in constant pain until his death from pneumonia on November 27, 1953. O'Neill was buried in a private ceremony at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 2, 1953.


Act 1, Scene 1

It is the summer of 1850 at the Cabot farmhouse in rural New England. The farmhouse is dwarfed by the two giant elm trees on either side of it. Twenty-five-year-old Eben comes out onto the porch and looks up at the evening sky. He comments on its beauty, spits, and then goes back inside. Simeon and Peter, Eben's half brothers (ages thirty-nine and thirty-seven, respectively) come in from working in the fields. They also comment on the beautiful sky. The two men discuss the gold rush in California and how working on the farm only serves to make their father, Ephraim, rich. They discuss Ephraim's leaving the farm two months ago. Having had no word from him since, the brothers wonder if he is dead. Eben eavesdrops from the kitchen window. It is clear that all three are waiting for their father to die so they can inherit the farm. Eben joins the conversation, startling his brothers. He then tells them that dinner is ready.

Act 1, Scene 2

The brothers are eating dinner. Eben expresses his resentment for his father and declares that he is not his son because they have nothing in common. He mentions his mother, a kind woman whom Ephraim worked to death. Eben also says the farm rightfully belonged to his mother. Because of this, he claims that the farm should belong to him, and not to his father or even his half brothers. Peter and Simeon only laugh. Eben accuses them of not protecting his mother from Ephraim. He also blames himself and says that he is haunted by his mother's ghost. He states that she will not rest in peace until he confronts Ephraim.

Eben plans to go to town to see his sweetheart, Minnie. She is an older woman with a bad reputation. According to Peter and Simeon, she once dated Ephraim, and they tease Eben about it. He storms out of the room. After he leaves, the brothers say that he is almost an exact replica of their father.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • In 1928, Desire under the Elms was adapted as a silent film released in the Soviet Union as Qali bazrobidan.
  • Desire under the Elms was adapted as a feature film of the same title in 1958. The movie stars Sophia Loren as Abbie and Anthony Perkins as Eben, and it was directed by Delbert Mann. It is considered an American film classic and is available on DVD.
  • In 1976, the play was adapted in Belgium as a Dutch-language television movie under the title Liefde onder de olmen.
  • Desire under the Elms was adapted as an audiobook by L.A. Theatre Works in 2004. Another audiobook adaptation, narrated by Amy Brenneman, was released in 2009 by Playaway.

Act 1, Scene 3

Eben stumbles in the next morning, waking his brothers just before dawn. He tells them that last night in town, he learned that Ephraim has taken a third wife. The men curse and say that now she Page 52  |  Top of Article will inherit the farm. Peter and Simeon decide that they might as well set off for California right away. Eben offers them three hundred dollars each to aid them on their journey if they agree to sign over their inheritance claims. He knows where Ephraim has hidden his profits from the farm, and he intends to pay them with the money. Eben believes the money is rightfully his in any case. Peter and Simeon agree to think it over. Eben goes to cook breakfast.

Alone, Peter and Simeon consider Eben's offer and decide wait to see the new wife with their own eyes in case their brother is trying to trick them. They also decide not to do any more farm work until their father arrives, and they hope that Ephraim's new wife is a mean woman who brings their father nothing but sorrow.

Act 1, Scene 4

The three brothers are eating breakfast. They inform Eben that he will have to run the farm alone. Rather than being angry, Eben is pleased, taking this as a sign that they intend to sign over their claim on the farm. He rushes off to work, and his bothers again comment that he is exactly like their father. On the porch, Eben looks out at the farm and comments on its beauty, gloating in the fact that it belongs to him.

Peter and Simeon are too restless to sit still; they wander outside and marvel at the farm's beauty. Then, they decide they should probably go help Eben, at least for old time's sake. Eben rushes up and says that Ephraim is coming up the road with his new wife. Simeon declares that he and Peter might as well leave now, and they agree to sign over their shares. After the deal is done, they awkwardly say goodbye.

On the road, Peter and Simeon see their seventy-five-year-old father and his new wife, thirty-five-year-old Abbie Putnam. Abbie sees the house for the first time and marvels at its beauty and at her ownership of it. Ephraim says the farm belongs to him, but then corrects himself and says it belongs to both of them. Ephraim notices his sons and asks why they are not working. He introduces Abbie, and both brothers spit on the ground. Abbie glares at them and then goes inside to look at ‘her’ new home.

Ephraim tells the brothers to get to work, but they tell him they are leaving for California. They joke and dance and celebrate their newfound freedom. Their father curses them, but they only laugh harder. Abbie finds Eben in the kitchen and is immediately attracted to him. She flirts with him and tries to make peace, but he will have none of it. He is attracted to her as well but is too angry to care. Abbie tells Eben that she married his father for his farm, but when Eben threatens to tell his father, Abbie remarks that Ephraim will not believe him and will probably run him off the farm for spreading such an evil lie. Eben calls her a witch and a devil, but Abbie continues to flirt with him. For a moment, Eben begins to soften, but then he remembers himself and storms out.

Outside, Eben encounters Ephraim, who is calling on God to curse his ungrateful sons. Eben ridicules Ephraim and his angry God. The two bicker and then set off to work on the farm. Ephraim declares that despite his age, he is still a better farmhand than his son.

Act 2, Scene 1

Two months have passed, and it is a hot Sunday afternoon in summer. Abbie sits on the porch and teases Eben about Minnie as he heads off to town. She says it is clear that she and Eben are meant to be together and it is only a matter of time before he gives in. Eben hopes that Ephraim will hear her and throw her out. They play out an argument almost identical to the one they had two months ago, then declare their mutual hate. Eben storms off.

Ephraim comes along, and it is clear that he has mellowed as of late. He is clearly in love with his new wife, though she can barely contain her disgust. He sees that she and Eben have been fighting again, despite her denial. He tells her Eben is soft, like his mother, but Abbie laughs and says that Eben is just like Ephraim. She notes that Ephraim is the one who is getting soft. He says that since he cannot take the farm with him when he dies, he would like to set the livestock free and burn everything to the ground before he dies so no on can inherit it. However, since he realizes that this will not happen, he says that he is growing fonder of Eben, if only because he has stayed when his brothers have left.

Growing jealous, Abbie tells Ephraim that Eben is trying seduce her. Ephraim flies into a rage and threatens to kill his son. Frightened for Eben, Abbie takes it back and says she was only worried that Eben would inherit the farm instead of her. Ephraim offers to run Eben off the farm to please her, but she notes that they need him to help work the land. Still, Ephraim says that he would like to leave the farm to his own flesh and blood, which is the closest he can come to Page 53  |  Top of Article keeping the farm when he dies. Abbie then suggests that they have a son together. Ephraim is overjoyed at the thought and promises to leave the farm to her if she bears him a son.

Act 2, Scene 2

Eben is alone, pacing in his bedroom. Abbie and Ephraim are in their bedroom, and Ephraim is telling her all of his secret hopes. He explains why he works so hard and says how lonely he was until she came. He says that God is hard and wants him to be hard. He tells Abbie that Eben's mother's family tried to claim legal rights to the farm, which is why Eben believes that the farm is rightfully his. He declares his love for her. Abbie is not listening. When Ephraim realizes this, he grows hurt and angry. He says that she, like everyone else, will never understand him and that the only way she can ever redeem herself is to have a son. Ephraim decides to go sleep in the barn; he says something in the house makes him feel cold and unsettled and that he feels peace only in the barn.

Outside, Ephraim falters and calls out to God. When he receives no answer, he continues on his way to the barn.

Abbie and Eben sit alone, stewing, in their respective rooms. Finally, Abbie can take no more and rushes into Eben's room. They kiss, but Eben pushes her away. Abbie declares her love but ultimately grows frustrated and angry at Eben's rejection. She then demands that Eben meet her in the parlor. The room has been sealed since Eben's mother died.

Act 2, Scene 3

Abbie is sitting apprehensively in the parlor. When Eben arrives, she says there is a spirit in the room. Eben says it is his mother. Abbie feels that the spirit loves her since it knows she loves Eben. He is surprised that the spirit does not hate her for trying to steal the farm, but he realizes that Abbie is right. After speaking of his mother, Abbie offers to be like a mother to Eben, but the two soon begin kissing passionately. At first, Eben resists, but he can feel his mother's spirit urging him on. He does not understand this, but then he realizes that his love for his father's wife is his mother's "vengeance on him [Ephraim]—so's she kin rest quiet in her grave." Abbie and Eben then give in to temptation.

Act 2, Scene 4

The next morning, Eben heads out to begin his chores. Abbie pokes her head out the window, and the lovers talk sweetly and kiss. Soon after, Eben encounters his father and says that he can feel that his mother's spirit has left the house and gone back to her grave in peace. Because of this, he says, he and his father are no longer enemies. Ephraim is confused by this speech and notes again that Eben is soft.

Act 3, Scene 1

It is now spring of the following year, and Eben is sitting alone in his room, clearly upset. Downstairs, a party is being held to celebrate the birth of Abbie's son. Ephraim is beside himself with joy, but Abbie is preoccupied by Eben's absence. The other partygoers, mostly from neighboring farms, all seem to suspect the affair and make insinuating remarks that Ephraim does not notice. Instead, he boasts of his strength and vitality.

Upstairs, Eben goes into the master bedroom and looks at the baby in his crib. Abbie senses something and goes upstairs. Ephraim tenderly offers to help her but she rebuffs him. The partygoers freeze, but Ephraim remains oblivious. Abbie then joins Eben in the bedroom. He says of his son, "I don't like lettin' on what's mine's is his'n. I been doin' that all my life." Abbie declares her love and begs Eben to be patient.

Outside, Ephraim catches his breath, tired from all the dancing. His celebratory mood falters, and he says that there is something restless in the house that seems to be dripping from the elm trees that watch over it. He decides to go to the barn. When he leaves, the party finally becomes festive, and the other partygoers begin to have a good time.

Act 3, Scene 2

Half an hour later, Eben is moping outside the house. Ephraim is moping on his way back from the barn. However, when he sees Eben, he becomes jolly and gloats. He tells Eben that the farm now belongs to Abbie and her son, that this was why Abbie had the baby in the first place. Eben realizes that Abbie has used and betrayed him, and he vows to kill her. Ephraim blocks his way, and the two begin fighting furiously. Abbie rushes out and tries to stop them.

Ephraim throws Eben to the ground, crows over having bested him, and goes back inside. Abbie rushes to Eben to check on him but he pushes her away. He accuses her of using him to have a baby so she could steal the farm. Abbie swears that she loves Eben, that she made that plan before they were lovers, and that she does Page 54  |  Top of Article not want the farm, only Eben's love. Eben does not believe her. He says he wishes he had never loved her and that their son had never been born. He now plans to join Peter and Simeon in California. He also plans to call his mother back from the grave to haunt the farm and to tell Ephraim the truth about the baby.

Abbie says she hates her son if his existence has killed Eben's love for her. She asks whether he would still love her if she could find a way to take everything back and to prove that she does not want the farm. Eben says he probably would, but that what is done cannot be undone. He goes back into the house to pack.

Act 3, Scene 3

The next morning, Eben sits at the kitchen table with his bags. Ephraim is upstairs sleeping. Abbie is also upstairs; she is standing, horrified, by the baby's cradle. She rushes downstairs and tries to kiss Eben, but he is unmoved. He tells her he is still leaving them to be haunted but that he will not tell Ephraim about the baby's true paternity lest the old man take out his anger on the child. He says he will come back one day to claim his son. Abbie responds that Eben does not need to leave because she has killed him. Eben assumes that she means she has killed Ephraim and is overjoyed at the news. When Abbie says that she has killed the baby, Eben falls to his knees in horror.

Abbie says she did not want to kill the baby, but she did it so that Eben would love her again. Eben does not believe her. He says she only did it to steal from him again, taking what was rightfully his. He then decides to go for the sheriff before leaving for California. He wants her locked up because although she is "a murderer an' thief," she still tempts him. Abbie says she does not care about going to jail; she only wants Eben to love her again.

Act 3, Scene 4

An hour has passed. Abbie is sitting at the kitchen table, dejected. Upstairs, Ephraim wakes with a start, surprised to have slept in. He looks at the baby and thinks he is sleeping soundly. Then he goes downstairs, but when he sees Abbie, he tenderly asks if she is ill. He suggests she lie down and gather her strength so she can care for the baby when he wakes. Abbie says the baby is dead—she killed him. Ephraim does not believe her, and he rushes upstairs to see for himself. He rushes back and shakes Abbie, demanding to know how she could do such a thing.

Abbie screams that the baby was Eben's, that she has always hated Ephraim. She says that she should have killed Ephraim and not the baby. Ephraim realizes that the haunting feeling that kept driving him from the house was his subconscious knowledge of the affair. Although the baby was not his, he expresses genuine pity and sadness at his death. He recovers himself and vows to go for the sheriff, but then he learns that Eben has already gone. He tells Abbie that if she had loved him, nothing she could do would ever make him go to the sheriff.

Eben comes back in, and Ephraim tells Eben he ought to leave the farm or risk being arrested as an accomplice. Then he leaves them both in disgust. Eben goes to Abbie and begs her forgiveness for going to the sheriff. He declares his renewed love for her and suggests that they run away together. Abbie says she must face justice, but that she can bear it because she has Eben's love. Eben intends to tell the sheriff that he killed the baby with her, stating that he put the idea in her head and says, "I'm as guilty as yew be. He was the child o' our sin." Abbie protests, but Eben says he wants to be with her, even if that means going to prison.

Ephraim comes back into the house and tells them they both ought to hang for what they have done. He says he is leaving the farm to rot and that he has let the livestock loose. He plans to burn everything to the ground, take his savings, and head to California. However, when he goes to get his savings, he finds there is nothing left, and Eben tells him he gave the money to Peter and Simeon. Ephraim replies that it is God's will that he stay on the farm. He is getting old, he says, and will be more lonely now than ever before, but "God's hard an' lonesome" as well.

The sheriff enters with his men. Eben confesses to killing the baby as well, and the sheriff arrests him and Abbie. Eben and Abbie simply say goodbye to Ephraim, who turns his back on them and leaves the house. Eben and Abbie declare their love for one another, hold hands, and walk out of the house. They both stop to admire the sky one last time. The sheriff also admires the view, commenting that the Cabot farm is beautiful and that he wished it was his.

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Eben Cabot

Eben Cabot is the twenty-five-year-old son of Ephraim and the younger half brother of Peter and Simeon. He professes that he is not like his father, but other characters say that he is exactly like him. Eben hates his father, believing that Ephraim worked his mother to death on the farm and that her restless spirit remains in the house. Eben also believes that the Cabot farm rightfully belonged to his mother and that as his mother's heir he has the only true claim to it. Ephraim legally owns the farm and profits by Eben's work on it, so Eben resents his father and stays only in the hope of inheriting the farm in the future. Indeed, Eben even steals his father's savings to buy out his brothers' claims on the farm. To Eben, however, this act is not stealing, since he believes that the money belongs to him.

At the beginning of the play, Eben is dating an older woman named Minnie, and he is unperturbed by her previous relationship with his father. Indeed, Eben implies a sense of triumph in possessing what used to belong to his father. He also declares that he does not believe in love. This belief, however, is overturned by Abbie Putnam, Ephraim's third wife. Abbie and Eben are instantly attracted to one another, but Eben resists Abbie's charms because he sees her as a threat to his inheritance. However, he finally gives in to temptation when he comes to believe that his mother's spirit will be pleased by the affair. He notes that his and Abbie's love will be his mother's "vengeance" on Ephraim. In fact, after Eben and Abbie have consummated their affair, Eben says that his mother's spirit has finally gone to rest in peace. Thus, Eben's love for Abbie is motivated by his desire for revenge, not by his desire for Abbie. Once Eben believes that his mother's spirit is at rest, he even tells his father that he no longer bears him any ill will.

Later, when Abbie bears Eben's son and passes the infant off as Ephraim's, Eben must again struggle with his sense of injustice: "I don't like lettin' on what's mine's is his'n. I been doin' that all my life." When Eben learns that Abbie extracted Ephraim's promise to will her the farm should she bear him a son, Eben feels used and betrayed and wishes that his son had never been born. This statement, coupled with his renewed hate for Abbie, spurs her to kill the baby in a desperate attempt to prove the purity of her love for him. Eben is at first disgusted by this act and informs the sheriff of Abbie's crime. However, soon after, he regrets this and acknowledges his hand in the baby's death (however unwitting). Eben again declares his love for Abbie and willingly stands to face charges with her. At the beginning of the play, Eben comments on the beauty of the sky; as he leaves with Abbie and the sheriff, his last words are also in praise of the sky.

Ephraim Cabot

Seventy-five-year-old Ephraim Cabot is the father of Peter, Simeon, and Eben, and he is hated and resented by all who know him, including his own wife and sons. Ephraim is proud and strong, and he is constantly stating that everyone else is weak in comparison. His boastful behavior and his pride in ownership of his farm are largely to blame for the hate his family bears him. Indeed, Ephraim would like to take the farm with him when he dies; failing that, he would like to burn it to the ground so no one else can have it. Though it turns out that the farm is indeed rightfully his, he works others to the bone in order to maintain it and reap the profits. Ephraim also reveals a softer side, however. He claims that God is hard and also lonesome and that all he has ever done is follow God's will for him. When he reveals his loneliness and innermost thoughts to Abbie, he becomes a more sympathetic character. His dismay at her rejection of him as he bares his soul to her is poignant, as are his private moments of sadness and self-doubt. Thus, beneath his hard and boastful exterior, a sensitive and lonely soul is revealed. He even expresses pity for the dead baby despite learning that the child was not his. Nevertheless, he is not blameless, and his rude behavior plays a large hand in sowing the seeds of discord that ultimately prove to be his and the other characters' undoing.

Peter Cabot

Peter Cabot is the thirty-seven-year-old son of Ephraim, Simeon's younger brother and Eben's older half brother. He and Simeon often hold the same opinions and appear almost as two parts of one character. They tend to speak in turns, embellishing or completing the other's thoughts. Like Eben, Peter hates his father and believes the farm should belong to him. However, he and his brother would rather travel to California and join the gold rush than stay and work for their inheritance. This is especially true when Peter Page 56  |  Top of Article learns of his father's new wife. Because Abbie's presence represents another obstacle to their inheritance, the brothers decide to leave for California as soon as she arrives. Thus, what was once merely a dream of escape becomes an active plan. Peter is also shrewd. He suspects that Eben may be trying to trick him into leaving and therefore waits to confirm Ephraim's marriage rather than take Eben's word for it. Ultimately, Peter and Simeon willingly sign over their shares in the farm in return for their father's stolen savings.

Although Peter is sad to leave the farm he clearly loves, he is also overjoyed at his newfound sense of freedom. Because his inheritance no longer holds any power over him, he is able to ridicule his father with impunity, laughing and dancing as he leaves the farm forever.

Simeon Cabot

Simeon Cabot is the thirty-nine-year-old son of Ephraim, Peter's older brother and Eben's older half brother. He and Peter are inseparable, sharing the same thoughts and ideas and often speaking together. Simeon hates his father as much as his brothers do, and he is working on the farm only in hopes of inheriting it someday. However, he also dreams of joining the gold rush in California and would probably do so if he had any money. This problem is solved, however, when Eben offers him his father's stolen savings in return for relinquishing his claim on the farm. Although it appears that Simeon would not normally consider this offer, the introduction of Ephraim's new wife makes him more inclined to accept. Indeed, Abbie's arrival presents another obstacle to his possible inheritance, and thus Simeon and his brother decide to cut their losses and set out for California. Still, he is smart enough to wait for Abbie's arrival rather than believe Eben, who, he suspects, may be trying to trick him.

Simeon loves the farm, but he also experiences a manic sense of joy at his sudden freedom from it. He pesters his father, dances, and sings as he leaves the Cabot farm, never to be seen or heard from again.

Abbie Putnam

Thirty-five-year-old Abbie Putnam is Ephraim's third wife and is forty years younger than her husband. She is both stepmother and lover to Eben, who is only ten years younger than her. Abbie's arrival acts as a catalyst for Simeon and Peter's departure, and it also fuels Eben's hate for her and his father. When Abbie comes to the farm, she is as obsessed with taking ownership of it as the other characters. She tells Eben that she was an orphan and forced to work for others at an early age. When she married her first husband, she thought she had escaped that life. However, he was an alcoholic, and both he and their baby died, forcing Abbie to begin working for others again. Thus, to her, the farm represents an opportunity to work for herself. She even tells Eben that she married Ephraim only for his farm. This statement is underscored by her clear and constant disgust for her husband. However, despite Abbie's eagerness to own the farm, its beauty is mostly lost on her. Abbie has eyes only for Eben, whom she truly loves.

Abbie's love for Eben is not motivated by a desire for gain or for vengeance. Although she arrives with a desire to own the farm, her desire for Eben's love becomes more pressing, and she no longer cares about the farm or who possesses it. In fact, Abbie is compelled to prove this when Eben retracts his love upon learning that her infant son has secured her inheritance. To demonstrate her priorities, she kills the infant. Eben's horror at the murder compels him to turn her in to the sheriff. Abbie, however, is unconcerned at her imprisonment and likely hanging; she cares only for Eben's love. When Eben renews his love for her, she willingly relinquishes herself to the authorities, stating that she can bear anything as long as she has Eben's affection. At the end of the play, as she leaves the Cabot homestead hand in hand with her lover, she finally stops (at Eben's bidding) to admire the beauty surrounding her.



Desire is an overriding theme in the play, and it is no coincidence that the word appears in the title of O'Neill's masterpiece. From the very first scene, it is clear that Eben, Simeon, and Peter all desire the farm. However, Peter and Simeon's desire to take part in the gold rush ultimately asserts itself over their desire to own the farm. Eben desires Minnie, and his desire is undiminished when he learns that she used to date his father. In fact, it seems to be inflamed all the more because Eben enjoys the idea of possessing Page 57  |  Top of Article what once belonged to his father. This is, after all, exactly the scenario he hopes to see played out in regard to his ownership of the farm. Ephraim is motivated by his desire to find a wife, a woman he can love and who will alleviate his loneliness. He also desires the farm, despite already possessing it. This is shown in his wish to take the farm with him when he dies or to burn everything so no one else can have it. Even though he grudgingly plans to will the farm to a son, he does so only because it is the closest he can come to continuing to possess it.

At first, Abbie also desires the farm, but her desire for Eben becomes more important. She ultimately renounces her claim on the farm because of this. Both Abbie and Eben desire one another, although Eben initially fights his desire. Abbie tells him, "nature'll beat ye, Eben. Ye might's well own up t' it fust 's last." However, Eben only gives in to his desire for Abbie when he feels that his mother's spirit encourages him to do so (and to do so in order to avenge her death). Thus, Eben's desire for vengeance is more pressing than his desire for Abbie. Notably, as the characters act on their given (and conflicting) desires, they each contribute to the tragedies that ensue.


O'Neill's rejection of God and religion can often be seen in his work, and Desire under the Elms is no exception. In fact, it is one of his first plays in which the theme is fully formed. Ephraim is constantly calling out to God for guidance, though mostly to curse his ungrateful sons. The other characters take no stock in Ephraim's faith, and they never speak of God or invoke him. The only time Eben mentions religion is when he ridicules Ephraim for beseeching God. In one scene, Ephraim calls out to God in pain and seems to wait for an answer. The ensuing silence seems to speak for itself; Ephraim's loneliness is underscored, and he wanders off to seek safe haven in the barn. Indeed, the cows offer him more comfort than God does. Ephraim believes, however, that God has called him to the farm and sentenced him to be hard and live a hard life. He even tells Abbie that he once left the farm and could have become a rich man in the Midwest, where the soil is better. However, he notes that God wanted him to return to the farm because God is not pleased by easy success. He also believes that God told him to go find another wife, which is why he has married Abbie. Like all of the things God has instructed Ephraim to do, marrying Abbie brings Ephraim only unhappiness. At the end of the play, when Ephraim decides to abandon the farm and travel to California, he learns that Eben has given his savings away and that he will be unable to leave. Once again, Ephraim states that it is God's will for him and that although he will be more lonesome than ever before, "God's hard an' lonesome" as well.

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  • Peter and Simeon abandon their inheritance and travel to California to mine gold. At the end of the play, Ephraim considers doing the same. Use the Internet to research the California gold rush. Create a PowerPoint presentation in which you relate your findings.
  • The Cabot farm is largely isolated from the outside world, and this isolation both underscores and fuels the intense relationships of the farm's inhabitants. For a more modern exploration of the result of an isolated upbringing, read Christina Meldrum's young-adult novel Madapple. In an essay, compare and contrast the themes of isolation as they are treated in that novel and in O'Neill's play.
  • Do you believe that the play could have ended differently? If so, how? Rewrite the final scenes of Desire under the Elms and explain how the plot would have to change in order to support your revision.
  • Lead a debate in which one side argues for Eben's guilt and complicity in his son's murder and the other argues for his innocence. Be sure to cite examples from the text in support of your arguments.

Ephraim identifies with God, but he is ultimately consigned to endless suffering because of it. He constantly describes himself as hard and God as hard. He acts accordingly and thus alienates everyone around him. This results in his loneliness, the second trait he claims to share with

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Desire Under the Elms A scene from a 1994 production of Desire Under the Elms at the Palace Theatre in Watford, U.K. (© Donald Cooper / Photostage)

God. In essence, O'Neill portrays Ephraim as a man whose unhappiness stems from his faith.



All of the characters in Desire under the Elms speak in dialect, a stylized form of nonstandard speech. The dialect in the play is characterized by swallowed consonants, as in "an'" for and or "doin'" for doing. The use of the word "ye" for you is another example of dialect. Nonstandard grammar abounds, as when Abbie declares that "nature'll beat ye, Eben. Ye might's well own up t' it fust 's last" or when Eben states "I don't like lettin' on what's mine's is his'n."

Dialect varies by region but also indicates the class or origins of its speaker. Indeed, the nonstandard speech in the play speaks to the Cabots' rural roots and likely lack of any formal education. In essence, the characters' style of speech reveals them to be little more than ignorant country bumpkins. Their intrigues, too, are as small-minded as their speech.

Circularity and Repetition

The play both opens and closes with Eben commenting on how "purty" the farm is. This device gives the play a sense of circularity, as if little has changed. This circularity is further underscored by the sheriff's comment that he wishes the farm belonged to him. In the beginning of the play, these sentiments were expressed by Eben and his brothers. The play also features a great deal of repetition throughout, including comments about the farm's beauty. Other repeating comments or actions include arguments over who owns the farm, God's hardness, Ephraim's loneliness, the haunting spirit of Eben's mother, Abbie's repeated declarations of love for Eben, and her repeated displays of disgust toward Ephraim. Ephraim frequently comments that there is something in the house driving him to the barn, the only place he can seem to find peace. Ephraim repeatedly asserts his ownership of the farm and mentions his desire to own it forever Page 59  |  Top of Article (regardless of how unrealistic that desire may be). Even his references to God remain the same; God is spoken of throughout the play in almost identical terms. Ephraim's boastfulness is similarly repetitive in nature. This repetition serves to show us that the characters essentially do not change throughout the course of the play. Abbie is the only character who changes, replacing her lust for the farm with her lust for Eben. This stylistic device, then, shows that although everything has changed on the surface, everything (or almost everything) remains the same on a deeper level.

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  • 1850s: Farming is one of the main sources of employment in the United States and almost the only occupation in rural areas. Farms are often small, owned and operated by the families who live on them. Farm work is largely achieved through manual labor.

    1920s: Following the industrial revolution, farming is no longer quite as prominent an economic power in the United States. However, it remains a significant form of income and livelihood. Farming has also become more profitable as a result of the increasing mechanization of the agricultural process.

    Today: Working family farms are largely a thing of the past, having given way to large, industrialized farms that are run by corporations and that rely heavily on machinery in order to succeed. However, smaller farms devoted to organic or sustainable farming are becoming more popular.

  • 1850s: The California gold rush is in full swing, beginning in 1848 and ending in 1855. The discovery of gold in the state incites roughly three hundred thousand prospectors to travel to California in the hopes of making their fortune through mining gold.

    1920s: By the 1920s, many of the boom towns that had been built during the height of the gold rush have been abandoned, transformed into ghost towns. Other settlements, however, have flourished, growing into industrial centers.

    Today: Gold mining today is largely undertaken by mining corporations, although some individual prospectors persist, particularly in Alaska.

  • 1850s: Women are only just beginning to gain the right to own property outside their husbands' control. In 1848, New York passed the Married Women's Property Act, becoming the first state to grant this right. Thus, Abbie's attempts to possess the farm, as well as her scheme to bear a son to do so, are in line with social attitudes regarding the rights of women.

    1920s: The women's suffrage movement, which began in the 1850s, finally reaches fruition with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The amendment grants adult women who are citizens of the United States the right to vote.

    Today: For the most part, women are granted the same legal rights as men. However, economic disparities persist; as of 2007, women still earn seventy-seven cents for every dollar that is paid to men.


Greek Tragedy

Desire under the Elms is based firmly in the historical tradition of Greek tragedy. Greek tragedies are some of the earliest recorded plays, and they influence all drama that has been written since. In particular, O'Neill's play draws on the tragedies of Oedipus Rex and Medea. Oedipus Rex portrays a hero who unwittingly kills his father and marries his own mother. Eben is essentially doing the same with his stepmother, a parallel that is underscored by her offers to act

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Desire Under the Elms An elm-lined road evokes the theme of Desire Under the Elms. (Image copyright Joe Gough, 2009. Used under license from

as a mother to him. Although Eben does not actually kill his father, a near-murderous intent seems to cloud his every action. It is important to note, however, that Eben's actions are not unwitting. Medea features a mother who kills her children as an act of revenge against her husband, who has betrayed her. Although Abbie commits infanticide not as an act of revenge, but as an act of conciliation (apology), the comparison is nevertheless apt. The Oedipus myth was first portrayed in tragic form in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, first produced around 429 BCE. Medea was first produced as a tragedy by Euripides around 431 BCE.

In general, tragedies are serious, sad, or morbid, and they often include a series of events that end in death. The events and resulting death are also often based on the tragic flaw or fatal flaw of one or more of the characters. All of these principles apply to Desire under the Elms. Greek tragedy also features the hero's reversal of fortune (and given the nature of tragedy, this is usually a progression from good to bad). This reversal is also affected by the hero's tragic flaws. If Eben is the hero, then his fortune progresses not from good to bad, but from bad to worse. The context of O'Neill's play is firmly rooted in Greek tragedy.

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Interestingly, Desire under the Elms is influenced by Sigmund Freud in much the same way that it is Page 61  |  Top of Article influenced by Greek tragedy. This is because Freud largely drew upon Greek myths and archetypes when forming his theories. Indeed, he is responsible for coining the term Oedipus complex to describe the situation of a man being in love with or desiring his mother. (The opposite phenomenon—a woman in love with her father—is known as the Electra complex, a term also drawn from a Greek myth.) Indeed, on a very basic level, Freud posited that basic archetypes (such as those found in the Greek myths) largely motivate the human psyche. Often termed the father of modern psychology, Freud lived from 1856 to 1939. He was quite famous during his lifetime, and it is highly likely that O'Neill was familiar with the psychologist's work. Freud largely posited that personality was formed via childhood experience; Eben's desire for Abbie is largely motivated by revenge for the mother he lost at a young age. Freud also suggested that males are afraid of losing their power to other males, a principle clearly at work in the oppositional relationship between Ephraim and Eben.

In addition, Freud popularized the idea of a conscious and subconscious, as well as the resulting theory that actions are largely dictated by the subconscious. This theory was later refined in Freud's work on the id, ego, and super-ego. These three elements of the psyche, according to Freud, dictate human behavior. The id represents instinctual behavior, the ego represents the conscious behavior aimed toward pleasing or appeasing the id, and the super-ego is the largely unconscious organizing principle that creates a basic personality structure. In general, much of the literature of the early twentieth century (and beyond) was influenced by Freud's work. His ideas inspired writers to portray characters' actions according to a psychological framework. O'Neill's plays are no exception.


Although Desire under the Elms was deemed shocking and controversial by critics and censors upon its initial production in 1924, the play was a popular and commercial success. It enjoyed a lengthy first run and has been regularly revived ever since. The play's initial popularity may have been based on its controversy. As a contributor for the Nation noted in a 1925 article, the play's notoriety began to draw an audience interested only in being titillated, people "who clearly had not heard of [the play] before the censors began to discuss its morals." For this reason, the contributor finds that "here is proof that censorship of literature is both pernicious and stupid." In another 1925 review of the play, also published in the Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch calls it "powerfully original" and declares that "no other play could stir us to so warm an admiration or so passionate a dislike."

Despite the initial controversy, though, Desire under the Elms has mostly received critical praise for almost a century. Take for instance, two reviews from 1984 and 1994, respectively. According to Frank R. Cunningham in Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill, "In O'Neill's most mature play of his early career, Desire under the Elms, Romantic myth and motif are raised to the pinnacle of dramatic expression and psychological power." Ruby Cohn, writing in the third edition of the Reference Guide to American Literature, notes that the play is "not only frequently revived" but has an interesting place in the playwright's development: "it set O'Neill's feet firmly on hard realistic ground." She adds that "in O'Neill's hands … these characters loom large." Furthermore, Cohn states that "although marred by turgid dialogue and abuse of repetition, Desire under the Elms nevertheless achieves moments of passionate intensity which predict O'Neill's wholly functional final tragedies."


Leah Tieger

Tieger is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses the elements of Greek tragedy and Freudian psychology that can be found in Desire under the Elms.

O'Neill's Desire under the Elms remains relevant almost a hundred years after its initial production largely because it deals with the unchanging aspects of human nature. The same aspects are set down in archetypal roles and conflicts, such as those portrayed through Greek myth and tragedy. In the early twentieth century, interest in such archetypes was renewed when Freud used them as the basis for his psychoanalytic theories. Thus, no discussion of Desire under the Elms is complete without an examination of both Greek tragedy and Freudian theories. O'Neill's play draws on plot elements from two specific Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex andMedea, Page 62  |  Top of Article yet it also exhibits elements characteristic of Greek tragedy as a whole. Tragedies often end in death or loss, particularly a loss resulting from a series of events set in motion by the internal flaws of one or more of the characters. This series of events ending in tragedy often represents a turn for the worse, as is the case in O'Neill's play.

Greek tragedy, in general, also references the power of the gods and a sense of immutable fate, references that are also made (by Ephraim) in Desire under the Elms. This sense of spiritual bondage is also inherent in the tragic or fatal flaw that brings about a character's downfall. Discussing the intersection between these two elements in the Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, Preston Fambrough notes that Desire under the Elms

is charged with an uncompromisingly mystical view of the forces at work in and through human beings, forces which may manifest themselves in forms recognizable by the science of psychoanalysis … but which ultimately transcend scientific or rational explanation.

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  • Hillary Jordan's 2008 novel Mudbound received a 2009 Alex Award honoring adult books that are recommended for young adults. The book bears similar plot points to O'Neill's play. Set in 1946 on an isolated farm in the Mississippi Delta, the story portrays Laura; her husband, Henry; and their two young daughters. Henry's father, Pappy, is an unpleasant old man who moves in with them. When Henry's brother, Jamie, returns from fighting in World War II, Laura and Jamie fall in love.
  • For another story of a son who struggles in the shadow of his overbearing father, read Lensey Namioka's Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear. This young-adult novel, published in 1992, features young Yingtao. He and his family have just immigrated to Seattle, Washington, from China, and although Yingtao is not musically inclined, his father, a music teacher, forces him to play the violin. Yingtao must then give a recital in the hopes of attracting new students for his father.
  • O'Neill's best-known play, Long Day's Journey into Night, was written in 1941, though it was not performed until 1956, three years after the author's death. The play features a highly dysfunctional family and its morphine-addicted matriarch and is autobiographical in nature, given that O'Neill's own mother was a morphine addict.
  • H.W. Brands's The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream was published in 2003. A scholarly exploration of the California gold rush and its aftermath, this book explores how the gold rush transformed not only California but all of America.
  • Another great playwright, and O'Neill's contemporary, was George Bernard Shaw. Where O'Neill's Desire under the Elms references Greek tragedies, Shaw's Pygmalion (first produced in German in 1913) alludes to Greek mythology. Shaw's play was also adapted as the classic American film My Fair Lady.
  • To learn more about the Freudian theories at work in Desire under the Elms, read The Ego and the Id: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. This compendium of Sigmund Freud's writings was edited by Peter Gay and published in 1990.

Fambrough goes on to note that

in Greek tragedy, action appears to proceed naturally from a given quantity called ‘character,’ … in ways that reflect universal ‘laws’ of the human experience. At the same time, the action appears as the product of supernatural forces, a reaction against some breach of the cosmic order.

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Similarly, the critic finds that "in [Desire under the Elms], we are made cognizant simultaneously of the dark, only partly knowable forces of the individual subconscious and of a superhuman cosmic principle working itself out through the action of the tragedy."

Next, it is important to examine the specific tragedies that inspired O'Neill's play. The lesser of the two, Euripides' Medea, was first produced around 431 BCE. It portrays a woman who kills her children in order to exact revenge on their father, a man who has shunned her for another woman. Notably, O'Neill introduces significant changes in his treatment of this myth. Abbie does not kill her son as an act of revenge, but instead as an act of peace. Rather than anger or hurt her lover, Abbie hopes to win his love again through the act of murder. The second, and more essential, tragedy informing Desire under the Elms is Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, first produced around 429 BCE. The play finds Oedipus unintentionally killing his father and marrying his mother. The act is unintentional simply because Oedipus does not know who his parents are. However, the essential act, of overtaking one's father and usurping his place with the mother, is mirrored strongly in O'Neill's play.

In fact, it is the Oedipus myth that informs Sigmund Freud's theories regarding the Oedipus complex: the universal unconscious desire to overthrow paternal power and to take on the father's role as husband. This is the primary Freudian idea influencing Desire under the Elms, but it is not the only one. For instance, Eben's loss of his mother at an early age brings about his need to replace her, and it speaks to Freud's belief that childhood experiences, especially traumatic ones, shape one's personality. This latter idea, that past experiences forever inform present and future actions, is also espoused by Freud's contemporary Carl Jung. Commenting on this psychological theory in the Selcuk University Social Sciences Institute Journal, Cumhur Yilmaz Madran observes that

one of the tragic elements O'Neill used in Desire under the Elms is the haunting past. The past in the play determines and controls the tragic action. In the play the past controls the present and creates the future.

According to Madran, the play also "reflects certain facets of the ambivalence of love and hate described by Freud."

Discussing the Oedipus complex at work in O'Neill's play, Madran remarks that Ephraim's youngest son "suffers from Freud's Oedipus complex. It derives from Eben's unconscious rivalry with his father for the love of his stepmother." He then notes that "O'Neill adopts the ancient ‘Oedipus myth’ to structure his play…. It is the tragedy of desire as it appears in the play, human desire." In service to this tragedy, elements of projection and transference are also at work. Both projection and transference are theories originally set forth by Freud. The former term describes when a person projects an internal desire, thought, or flaw onto an external person or object, thus effecting a disassociation from the desire, thought, or flaw. With transference, a person allows another being or object to act as a stand in for the actual person or object that is desired (but is, generally, unattainable). In a deeply Freudian sense, Abbie is merely an object of transference, as Eben transfers his feelings for his mother onto his stepmother. Madran notes that

Eben's internal conflict is not to be missed, for it goes to the psychological core of O'Neill's play. The exploration of Eben's personality must be based on his relationship with his mother. The main source of Eben's tragedy must be sought in his psychological quest for a mother figure.

This mother figure, then, must replace the dead mother whose spirit Eben believes inhabits the house (a spirit he frequently addresses in the present tense). In fact, Abbie is not the first figure whom Eben attempts to use in fulfillment of this role. Minnie, an older woman Ephraim once dated, embodies Eben's first attempt at this particular transference. However, Eben reaches a more absolute fulfillment in his attachment to Abbie. Madran states that "the existence of the mother is sensed most strongly at the moment of Eben's sin…. The mysterious presence of the mother is felt in the parlour in which the … desires of Eben and Abbie are fulfilled." Even more pointedly, the spirit of Eben's mother is allowed to rest in peace once the transference is complete. True to Freudian form, Madran finds that "Eben carries with him the eternal image of his mother. Since his mother's image is unconscious, it is unconsciously projected upon Abbie." However, whereas Eben's role in this projection and transference may be unconscious, Abbie's role is just the opposite. According to Madran, she takes on the "double roles in the play as a mother and as a lover." Page 64  |  Top of Article Notably, she does so consciously and willingly. She offers to act as a mother to her stepson when she first meets him and does so again when she finally succeeds in seducing him.

Source: Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on Desire under the Elms, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.

Bette Mandl

In the following essay, Mandl considers the role of women and nature in Desire under the Elms.

In the famous stage directions for the first act of Desire under the Elms, O'Neill describes the trees of the title:

Two enormous elms are on each side of the house. They bend their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.

Travis Bogard praises O'Neill's restraint in imposing these elms as symbols on an essentially realistic play: "the novelistic rhetoric that links the elms with Eben's dead mother and with an exhausted life force holds no meaning beyond the printed page" (205). While this prelude may have its theatrical limitations, however, it does, as Normand Berlin suggests, have its resonance in the play (55). The description of the elms, which O'Neill referred to as "characters, almost" (Chothia 40), initiates a metaphoric pattern that O'Neill works with throughout. In linking the maternal—here "a sinister maternity" compounded of opposites—to the natural world, to the landscape, he prepares us for the projection of the intensities of the Freudian "family romance" onto the terrain of the Cabot farm.

O'Neill claimed to have dreamed Desire under the Elms in its entirety. As Louis Sheaffer has pointed out, O'Neill did some borrowing—particularly from Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted—as well as dreaming (126). However, O'Neill certainly drew on collective dream, on an enduring tradition of mythic and psychological fantasy, when he identified woman, and particularly the mother, with the land. Theorists who have recently focused on such imagery provide us with a context in which to consider its centrality to the play. In a celebrated essay entitled "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" Sherry Ortner suggests that for a variety of reasons, biological, social, and psychological, "women are … identified or symbolically associated with nature, … [while] men … are identified with culture" (73). Women, that is, are seen as co-extensive with, or at least much closer to, the natural world. Men, on the other hand, have traditionally felt compelled to master and transcend nature in order to create and maintain culture. This division, Ortner argues, gives rise to a seemingly universal hierarchical structure that places culture and man over nature and woman. Ortner is concerned with the ways in which this analogy derives from and influences our experience. As Annette Kolodny points out in her study of the imagery that links woman and the land in American writing about the new world, "language … contains verbal cues to underlying psychological patterns" and can therefore "be examined as a repository of internal experience and external expression" (73). Kolodny discusses the tension, fraught with suggestions of oedipal ambivalence, "between the initial urge to … join passively with … a maternal landscape and the consequent impulse to master and act upon that same femininity" (270). The conceptual fusion of woman and nature tends to put both in jeopardy. Kolodny's work, like that of Ortner, is a vivid reminder of the risk of metaphor.

The power of Desire under the Elms is, in large measure, contingent on such imagery as these theorists hold up to scrutiny. O'Neill could be said to have collaborated in the imaginative tradition whose problematic implications they identify. However, while Desire tends to Page 65  |  Top of Article illustrate the conjunction of landscape and gender that Ortner and Kolodny describe, the play also has a distinct affinity with their critique. In 1925, O'Neill called Desire "a tragedy of the possessive—the pitiful longing of man to build his own heaven here on earth by glutting his sense of power with ownership of land, people, money" (Sheaffer 441). While O'Neill maps out his dramatic territory using the quintessential equation "woman equals nature," he also illuminates the overweening desire to possess and to dominate that is its corollary.

Striking congruities emerge in the play as it becomes apparent that land and woman are at the heart of the struggle between Eben Cabot and his father. Blaming Ephraim for having exhausted, and thereby killed, his mother, Eben is determined to wrest from him the farm she claimed as her own. He believes that only then will her soul finally be at peace. Eben resents his father for the hardness Cabot is so proud of, and insists, "I'm Maw—every drop o' blood." He claims to have learned from doing the arduous domestic tasks she used to do, to "know her, suffer he sufferin'." He is in revolt against the way of life on the Cabot farm, "makin' walls—stone atop o' stone—makin' walls till yer heart's a stone…."

Eben's brothers, Simeon and Peter, the older sons of Cabot's first marriage, are somewhat removed from the primary intensities of the play. They had felt kindly toward Eben's mother, but refuse to blame their father for her death. "No one never kills nobody," Simeon says. "It's allus somethin'. That's the murderer…." Peter agrees: "He's slaved himself t'death. He's slaved Sim 'n' me 'n' yet t' death—on'y none o' us hain't died—yit." They decide to leave rather than fight over the farm when they learn that their father has married and they are likely to lose their inheritance. Likened in O'Neill's description to "friendly oxen" and "beasts of the field." Simeon and Peter say of the farm animals that they "know us like brothers—an' like us." Eben's brothers are not linked with the mother; nor do they aspire to the drive for mastery of the father. It seems appropriate, then, that they do not figure significantly in the highly polarized world of Desire.

It is Eben, seeing himself as his mother's heir, who engages most fully in the struggle with the father for power and possession. He has his first sexual experience with Min after he learns that both his father and his brothers had been with her. In a simile characteristic of the drama, Eben says that Min "smells like a wa'm plowed field, she's purty" and later declares to his brothers: "Yes, siree! I tuk her. She may've been his'n—an' your'n, too—but she's mine now!" He uses the money his mother told him Cabot had hidden, to buy their shares of the farm from his brothers. After the transaction is completed, Eben talks with "queer excitement": "It's my farm! Them's my cows!" Simeon and Peter see their father in him: "Dead spit 'n' image!" O'Neill tells us that Eben "stares around him with glowing, possessive eyes. He takes in the whole farm with his embracing glance of desire" and says, "It's purty! It's damned purty! It's mine!" The restricted vocabulary (Chothia 79), appropriate to the "inexpressiveness" (O'Neill quoted in Sheaffer 159) that was a focus for O'Neill in this work, reveals all the more transparently the overlap of landscape and gender that is crucial to its realization.

That there will be a contest between Eben and his father over Abbie, Cabot's new wife, is anticipated even by Simeon, who is slow and plodding. Before we meet Abbie or know what her own intentions are, we sense that her principal role will be to mediate the relationship between father and son. Shortly after Abbie arrives at the farm, Simeon and Peter take off for California to search for gold, choosing, in Cabot's terms, an easy life, which at times tempts even the harsh, scripture-quoting patriarch himself. They leave Cabot, Abbie and Eben on the farm, which itself figures so significantly in the intensely oedipal configuration.

Abbie is a compelling character. O'Neill describes her as thirty-five, and "full of vitality." She has "about her whole personality the same unsettled, untamed, desperate quality which is so apparent in Eben." Like Eben, she wants the farm. An orphan who has already endured a difficult marriage, and whose child and first husband have died, she married the 75-year old Ephraim Cabot in order to have a home. Without exonerating her, O'Neill represents her desire for the farm as different in kind from that of the men. As she says to Eben defiantly, "Waal—what if I did need a hum?" Her relation to nature as a generative force is also different from theirs. She speaks of "Nature—makin' thin's grow—bigger 'n' bigger—burnin' inside ye—makin' ye want t' grow—into somethin' Page 66  |  Top of Article else—till ye're jined with it—and it's your'n but it owns ye, too—and makes ye grow bigger—like a tree—like them elums—." She envisions a mutuality of possession which is conspicuously absent on the Cabot farm. And she taunts Cabot when he talks of the sky as "purty" and like a "wa'm field up thar," asking him, "Air yew aimin' t' buy up over the farm too?"

Jealous when Eben goes off to see Min, Abbie tells Cabot that her stepson tried to make love to her. Here she becomes linked with Phaedra, as she has been with Iocasta. In spite of the dramatic stature the mythic dimension adds to her role, however, she remains, like the land, essentially an object of contention between father and son. Ephraim wouldn't consider letting her inherit the farm even though all his sons have disappointed him. "Ye're on'y a woman." When she reminds him that she is his wife, he says, "That hain't me. A son is me—my blood—mine. Mine ought t' get mine. An' then it's still—mine—even though I be six foot under."

Abbie decides to conceive a child who could inherit the farm for her. Cabot, not knowing that she has Eben in mind as the father, is ecstatic at the possibility of a new son. His reflections at this point provide the clearest indication of the kind of symbol system that O'Neill employs with consistency throughout Desire under the Elms. Cabot says to Abbie, "Sometimes ye air the farm an' sometimes the farm be yew. That's why I clove t' ye in my lonesomeness…. Me an' the farm has got t' beget a son!" Abbie, hearing what appears to be a barely conscious admission, tells him he's "gittin' thin's all mixed." Cabot insists, "No, I hain't. My mind's clear's a well. Ye don't know me, that's it." Cabot envisions having Abbie as the farm produce a son who would guarantee him an eternity of ownership. As Abbie says, he is getting things "all mixed." The confusion he articulates, however, is a primal one.

As Cabot goes on to explain himself to his wife, whose thoughts are actually with Eben, he reveals more fully what Simeon had referred to as the "somethin'—drivin' him—t'drive us!" Cabot describes himself in his youth as having been "the strongest an' hardest ye ever seen—ten times as strong an' fifty times as hard as Eben." Boasting of his achievement in making "corn sprout out o' stones," he speaks of the God he worships, insisting: "God's hard, not easy! God's in the stones!" He projects, as Frederick Wilkins has said, "his own hardness onto his conception of the deity."

Ephraim's battle with the stony soil and his disdain for the softness of the mother of Simeon and Peter, and the mother of Eben, suggest the hierarchy that Sherry Ortner discerns. His pride derives from his mastery of the land and his sense of superiority over the women. However, his satisfaction with his way of being in the world is flawed. He suffers from a persistent unease and loneliness.

In the book, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, Susan Griffin suggests that man's efforts to distance himself from the feminine and from the natural world contribute to his sense of exile and homelessness. Her prologue is a meditation on man: "He says that woman speaks with nature…. But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature." This passage seems to echo the revelation of Cabot's "lonesomeness," which is prefaced by his conflation of Abbie and the farm. The sequence of his reflections seems to suggest, as the theorists do, a profound connection between man's conception of landscape and gender, and the experience of alienation.

Cabot is uncomfortable in the house, the sphere of the feminine: "It's oneasy. They's thin's pokin' about in the dark—in the corners." At home, he is troubled by "somethin'," which he feels "droppin' off the elums"—the symbols of a "sinister," but violated maternity. His grueling work on the land, bound up as it is with assertion and control, affords him no comfort either. He would try to console himself by remembering what he possessed: "It was all mine! When I thought of that I didn't feel lonesome." But neither his periodic efforts to conjure up the exaltation of ownership, nor his attempts to seek temporary refuge in the barn with the cows, alleviate his essential isolation.

The attraction of Abbie and Eben thwarts Cabot's hope for a new heir. With thoughts of a child, and with increasing love for Eben, Abbie re-opens the parlor of Eben's mother and insists that he court her there. When with trepidation they sit together in the parlor, both Eben and Abbie sense the approval of the maternal spirit, and the easing of her cares. Eben decides that his mother accepts his union with Abbie, who insists on her similarity to the mother, because it would serve as revenge against Cabot.

Page 67  |  Top of Article

After Abbie bears the child he believes is his own, Cabot arranges a celebration. His neighbors easily guess who the child's father really is. But Cabot outdoes everyone there with his age-defying dance, performing one of what John Henry Raleigh calls his "legendary feats" (55). O'Neill once said, "I have always loved Epraim so much! He is so autobiographical" (Sheaffer 130). But while Ephraim Cabot is permitted a dazzling display of endurance, it is Eben who is granted a release from what O'Neill, in another reference to the play, called "old man Cabotism" (Sheaffer 250).

Eben, finding it difficult to respond to his newborn son, tells Abbie, "I don't like this. I don't like lettin' on what's mine's his'n. I been doin' that all my life. I'm gittin' t' the end of b'arin' it!" He is ready for the ultimate confrontation with the father, which is precipitated by Cabot's disclosure that Abbie wanted a son in order to get the farm for herself. When Abbie fears that she will lose Eben, she makes a desperate effort to prove her love for him above all else, by murdering their baby. It is through the appalling act of infanticide that O'Neill resolves the violent tensions of the Cabot household. The death of the baby interrupts a bitter cycle of succession that threatens to stretch into a future where the sins of the fathers—and brother—are visited upon the children. It also shocks Eben into a transformation.

After he reports Abbie to the sheriff, Eben acknowledges his own unwitting complicity in her crime. He says, "I want t' share with ye, Abbie—prison 'r death 'r hell 'r anythin'! … If I'm sharin' with ye, I won't feel lonesome, leastways." Eben's lines suggest that he is no longer in the throes of an oedipal obsession with Abbie, or with the farm. Newly able to love Abbie, he has moved beyond his father's relation to woman and the land, and the loneliness it engendered. By having the son break free from its influence, O'Neill seems to subvert the imagery that has informed the play. The son is rewarded for his renunciation of the paradigm his father had glorified. Having made it possible for his mother's spirit to rest, Eben now manages, through his determination to stand by Abbie, to earn the father's "grudging admiration," a reconciliation of sorts. When the sheriff looks around the farm "enviously," and says, "It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!" we are able to gauge the distance Eben has travelled from the imperatives that shape the "tragedy of the possessive."

Source: Bette Mandl, "Family Ties: Landscape and Gender in Desire under the Elms," in Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer-Fall 1987, pp. 19-35.

Preston Fambrough

In the following essay, Fambrough investigates the mystical aspects of Desire under the Elms and the influences of Greek tragedy.

A notion which recurs continually in modern attempts to define tragedy is that of "mystery." According to Richard Sewell, tragedy "sees man as a questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside" (4-5). George Steiner locates the uniqueness of the form in the "inexplicable" (128) nature of the forces that destroy the protagonist, forces "which can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational prudence" (8); while Richmond Y. Hathorn defines tragedy as "a work of literature which has as its chief emphasis the revelation of a mystery" (223).

The admission of an irreducible core of mystery at the center of the human experience runs counter to the prevailing intellectual current of the past two centuries—the rationalism of the Enlightenment followed by the reductive positivism of its successors. And just as Nietzsche traced the decline of Attic tragedy to the advent of Socratic rationalism, so George Steiner attributes the eclipse of the form after the French classical period to modern faith in reason and science to reveal all truth and resolve every human dilemma (8). Joseph Mandel is wide of the mark in asserting that nineteeth-century naturalistic determinism is "tragic" (5104-A): fate ceases to be tragic the moment it can be reduced to knowable forces amenable to scientific analysis and control. As Steiner explains, the antithesis of tragedy lies not necessarily in comedy but in didacticism, naturalism and the literature of social criticism, a literature which reduces man's nature and experience to knowable quantities and hence views all his ills, individual and social, as remediable (8).

In his deliberate and sustained effort to revive Tragedy on the modern stage, Eugene O'Neill, while paying lip service to the modern science of psychology, repeatedly insisted on mystery as the essence of his vision of human destiny. In 1919 he wrote to Barrett Clark, "Perhaps I can explain the nature of my feeling for the impelling, inscrutable forces behind life which it is my ambition to at least faintly shadow at their work in my plays" (qtd. in Cargill 100). Page 68  |  Top of Article Elsewhere he asserted that his interest lay in the relationship between man and God, rather than between man and man (qtd. in Krutch, Nine Plays xvii). In interpreting the latter remark, Törnqvist explains that O'Neill thought of himself as a religious playwright, not "in the strict sense that such a designation can be bestowed on Eliot or Claudel … but in the wide sense, that what chiefly concerns him are ultimate, transcendental phenomena" (11).

There are a number of oft-quoted remarks of O'Neill's which might seem, in isolation, to indicate a conventional positivist scepticism toward the transcendental or supernatural, a rejection of mystery in favor of the science of psychology. In the manuscript version of his foreword to The Great God Brown, the playwright affirms that "if we have no Gods, [sic] or heroes to portray we have the subconscious, the mother of all gods and heroes." Repeatedly, in his working diary notes for Mourning Becomes Electra, he speaks of the necessity for finding a "modern psychological approximation of the Greek conception of fate from without, from the supernatural" (qtd. in Clark 534); and he explicitly denies the existence of any supernatural element in Electra (Clark 536).

But thoughtful critics have always discerned an element of intransigent mysticism beneath this surface allegiance to positivism. Asselineau cautions that, the playwright's disclaimers notwithstanding, the psychological view of fate at work in Electra does not "entirely supersede the traditional belief in an external fate" ("MBE as Tragedy" 147). Törnqvist explains that while O'Neill shares the naturalist's preoccupation with heredity and environment as determinants of human destiny, "positivism was foreign to O'Neill's antirationalistic, mystical mind" (29). And he points to the curious mingling of scientific and metaphysical language in such expressions as the following: "I'm always acutely conscious of the Force behind—(Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it—Mystery certainly)" (qtd. in Gelb 4 and Törnqvist 17). Chabrowe sees in Desire, Strange Interlude, Electra, and Long Day's Journey into Night "attempts to reveal man's struggle against the mysterious force that shapes his existence and limits him" (xvi). And Krutch contends that "at a time when naturalism was the literary norm, he wrote plays that were symbolic in method and mystical in intention" ("O'Neill Revolutionary" 29).

Desire under the Elms, "the first of O'Neill's works in which the influence of Greek tragedy is clearly manifest" (Gelb 539), is charged with an uncompromisingly mystical view of the forces at work in and through human beings, forces which may manifest themselves in forms recognizable by the science of psychoanalysis—e.g. Eben's Oedipus complex—but which ultimately transcend scientific or rational explanation. And whether or not O'Neill's emphasis shifts in the course of his career from an "external" to an "internal" concept of fate, as Chabrowe suggests (102), in this play the two coincide and fuse much as they do in O'Neill's ancient models. In Greek tragedy, action appears to proceed naturally from a given quantity called "character," a complex of distinguishable human traits usually seen in part as having been shaped by past experience and perhaps even by heredity (e.g. Antigone, Hippolytus) in ways that reflect universal "laws" of the human experience. At the same time, the action appears as the product of supernatural forces, a reaction against some breach of the cosmic order. As Kitto explains, "the gods are not directing events as if from outside; they work in the events" (128, Kitto's emphasis); "the action is seen on two planes at once, human and divine" (133). Similarly, in Desire, we are made cognizant simultaneously of the dark, only partly knowable forces of the individual subconscious and of a superhuman cosmic principle working itself out through the action of the tragedy.

In Desire the leitmotif "thin'" functions to reveal at every turn of the action the transcendent, inscrutable force working through the multiplicity of identifiable human motives in the play. The motif is established in scene two where it recurs several times in quick succession. When Eben bitterly accuses Ephraim of having killed his Page 69  |  Top of Article mother, Simeon replies, "No one never kills nobody. It's allus some thin'. That's the murderer." When Eben inquires "What's somethin'?" his brother replies "dunno." In this exchange, the basic significance of the motif is already revealed. Simeon contends not merely that people are the pawns of a force beyond their control, but that this force can only be identified as a "thin'." This recourse to the indefinite pronoun establishes from the outset the essential inscrutability of the fate at work in the play. Of course we are tempted to supply an explanation—Ephraim's grimly irrational Puritan work ethic, perhaps a function of sexual guilt or repression. But it is not his inarticulateness that makes Simeon hesitate to oversimplify the old man's motivation by naming it. And this cryptic generalization echoes throughout the play in characters' attempts to account for their own or each other's actions and to articulate the mysterious influences they sense at work around them.

Still in the second scene Simeon, in asking Eben to explain his long-standing grudge against the elder brothers, remarks that "Year after year it's skulked in yer eye—somethin'." Later in the play Ephraim, recounting to Abbie how he once left his stony New England farm for a rich and easy life in Ohio, only to abandon his crop and return home, explains, "I could 'o been a rich man—but somethin' in me fit me and fit me—the voice of God sayin': ‘This hain't wuth nothin' t'Me. Get ye back t'hum!’" (2.2). The tone of wonder in which he exclaims "I actooly give up what was rightful mine!" (2.2) underscores the profoundly incalculable nature of a force that could drive the intensely covetous Ephraim to such an uncongenial act.

The old man, throughout the play, is conscious of a hostile presence in the house: "They's thin's pokin' about in the dark, in the corners" (2.2). "Even the music can't drive it out," he exclaims during the festivities in honor of the baby, "somethin'" (3.1). And finally, after he learns the truth about Eben and Abbie's relationship and the child's paternity: "That was it—what I felt—pokin' around the corners—while ye lied—holdin' yerself from me—sayin' ye'd already conceived…. I felt they was somethin' onnateral—somewhars—the house got so lonesome—an' cold—drivin' me down to the barn—t'the beasts o' the field" (3.4).

The mysterious influence at work on Eben and his father can be identified, at one level, with the avenging spirit of Eben's mother. Having driven Ephraim out of the house, the same "onnateral" force seems to impel Eben toward Abbie in spite of the young man's fierce resistance and to preside over their union in the parlor that is sacred to the dead woman's memory:

Abbie: When I first come in—in the dark—
      they seemed somethin' here.
Eben: (simply) Maw.
Abbie: I kin still feel—somethin'….
Eben: It's Maw. (2.3)

Yet to equate the supernatural element of the play absolutely with the mother's ghost, as Racey does (44), oversimplifies O'Neill's tragic cosmology. Eben himself, baffled at first that his mother's ghost should seem to favor a union between him and Abbie, her rival for the land, at last thinks he discerns the spirit's purpose: "I see it! I see why. It's her vengeance on him—so's she can rest quiet in her grave!" (2.3). But we know that in fact this love, while punishing Ephraim, will also destroy the dead woman's beloved son as well as his child. The tragic catastrophe clearly transcends what could conceivably be the will of Eben's mother's ghost. I believe Abbie's frantic rejoinder here, "Vengeance o' God on the hull o' us!" (2.3), provides a clue to the underlying cosmology of the play. As often seems the case in Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, there appear to be at least two levels of superhuman forces at work here. First there are the immediate and circumscribed influences impinging directly on the characters—Cabot's Old Testament god, the ghost, the darkly irrational "Desire" of the title. But apparently these fragmentary forces partake of a larger, more remote, more inhuman and inscrutable will. This is what Abbie intimates in emending Eben's explanation of their passion as retribution on Cabot for his cruelty to the dead woman. The deity she evokes here is something much vaster than the petty tyrant Ephraim serves: it is Moira, the ultimate will of the universe itself.

When Eben learns that Abbie has murdered their child, he cries "Maw, where was ye, why didn't ye stop her?" (3.3). Again, it is Abbie who senses the truth: "She went back t'her grave that night we first done it, remember? I hain't felt her about since" (3.3). This observation not only reveals the limited scope of the ghost's influence within the larger cosmic design; it adumbrates something of the relationship between this cosmic design and human justice or morality. Kitto has Page 70  |  Top of Article explained, in analyzing Greek tragedy, that while the logos of the tragic universe includes principles we recognize as "just"—the wicked seldom if ever go unpunished—there are uncharted realms of the cosmic law which transcend human justice (148). In Desire under the Elms, as in most tragedies, the innocent suffer with the guilty.

In the Iliad, the anthropomorphic gods, even the mightiest of them, are usually seen to be clearly subordinate to Moira. Zeus himself bows to this inexorable force at least twice in relinquishing his determination first to save the life of his son Sarpendon and later the life of Hector. Steiner maintains that the Greek Pantheon, representing the partly intelligible elements of man's destiny, serves as a "reassuring mask" between us and Fate (5-6). O'Neill's tragedy reveals a similar cosmology. The principal characters are motivated directly by demonic elements—the ghost, Ephraim's god, the "desire" of the title—which, though beyond the ken of science and reason, are in some way apprehensible and identifiable. The ubiquitous leitmotif "thin'" emerges as the common denominator linking these half-knowable forces and pointing to the ineffable mystery beyond.

Source: Preston Fambrough, "The Tragic Cosmology of Desire under the Elms," in Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer-Fall 1986, pp. 25-29.

Hollis L. Cate

In the following essay, Cate argues that the poetic language of Ephraim Cabot provides insight into his character.

My contention … is not only that Eugene O'Neill's character Ephraim Cabot is a spontaneous poet but also that the old man's total character cannot possibly be understood if his poetic nature is not taken into account. With all his faults old Cabot does have at least one inherently redeeming side.

O'Neill once wrote Professor A. H. Quinn: "But where I feel myself most neglected is just where I set most store by myself—as a bit of a poet, who has labored with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty, where beauty apparently isn't." In making the statement O'Neill mentions Desire under the Elms among other of his plays, and well he should have, for old Ephraim Cabot, now generally considered the protagonist of the play, is one of O'Neill's most forceful poets. Professor Quinn in 1926, two years after the appearance of Desire, published an article in Scribner's Magazine dealing with O'Neill as poet and mystic. Though the article seems to be gathering a little dust these days, anyone making an approach to Desire under the Elms in particular should give it his attention; O'Neill certainly shows his poetic side in creating the speeches of Ephraim Cabot. The old man comes to mind as one reads Mr. Quinn's observation: "Even in the most degraded man, O'Neill recognizes the saving grace that comes from his divine origin." If Cabot is given to degradation on the one hand, his poetry is a "saving grace" on the other. Further, Professor Quinn was speaking boldly, at the time, to several critics in saying "it is a pitiful stupidity of criticism that sees only the repellent … in Desire Under the Elms." O'Neill himself had a tender feeling for Cabot. He said in a letter: "I have always loved Ephraim so much! He's so autobiographical!" Although O'Neill was, no doubt, referring to his sleeping in the barn as Cabot does, there is no denying that Ephraim, like his creator, is "a bit of a poet." Clearly, one redeeming feature of Desire and of Cabot himself is his role as spontaneous poet, a "maker" who turns again and again for his images to the mysterious world of Nature about him.

The role of Nature itself in the play is highly significant. [In his Eugene O'Neill] Frederick Carpenter says that in the final analysis the spirit of Nature is the hero of the play. Cabot certainly seems to agree. Nature is for the old man the one true abiding force, God's revelation of Himself to man; and, further, in the Romantic tradition it is a solace, an escape from the encroachments of the everyday world. Ephraim, in his closeness to its presence, habitually looks to Nature for his metaphors and similes. In part he is an Emersonian man who senses that "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact" and who uses spontaneous images in his speech. No other Page 71  |  Top of Article character in the play even approaches him in his use of poetic diction because no other character longs as he does to have at least a glimpse through Nature of that mysterious sphere beyond temporality. With all his shortcomings Cabot at least recognizes the beauty and harmony of Nature. It is a mistake to assume that Ephraim thinks that God is only in the stones, contrary to S.K. Winther's observation that Cabot reads the lessons of the stones as the true symbol of God's reality. Mr. Winther's statement that Cabot "listens to the voice of nature" and is "exalted by her beauty" is to be stressed as much as, if not more than, the point that the old man is preoccupied with identifying the stones with the Deity.

There has been a great deal of critical comment on Cabot's attitude toward God, the crux of it being that Ephraim has created God in his own image, that is, God is hard, isolated, lonesome, and unsympathetic. But there is more to Cabot's nature than what these adjectives describe, despite the fact that he always refers to himself as "tough" and "hard." O'Neill on one occasion describes Cabot's eyes as taking "on a strange, incongruous dreamy quality." Here we get a glimpse of the introspective Cabot whom the other characters fail to see and whom Cabot himself is not fully cognizant of, a man whose vision, from time to time, transcends the external, material world. When he says, "The sky. Feels like a wa'm field up thar", he reveals a sensitivity which is congruous with eyes of "dreamy quality." Later he refers to the sky again in a conversation with Eben:

CABOT. Purty, hain't it?
EBEN. (looking around him possessively) It's
      a durned purty farm.
CABOT. I mean the sky.
EBEN. (grinning) How d'ye know? Them
      eyes o'your'n can't see that fur.

Again Cabot looks upward, comments on the sky, and is typically misunderstood. Eben's remark about the old man's eyesight is, of course, ironic. Cabot "sees" in a spiritual way far more effectively than any other character in the play. Ephraim, like Oedipus and Gloucester in King Lear, doesn't see and yet he does. [In his A Poet's Quest] Richard Dana Skinner describes him as "the nearsighted one, of narrow vision and narrow pride, imperious, yet in many ways completely identifying himself with a lonesome and hard God." [In her Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension] Doris Falk similarly points out that God to Cabot is an image of his own ego. His poetic diction, however, indicates that he carries on an intuitive search for the Deity's true revelation through Nature; and we must remember that he has a poetic side that one can easily identify with a God not hard and lonesome. Neither of the observations above takes into account the old man's recognition of an aesthetic in Nature. Indeed, there was more of God to be found by Cabot's staying on the farm than by going to the West in search of gold. Another view is that "the harsh, loveless, and covetous Puritanical religion practiced by Ephraim Cabot is a perversion of religion that cripples love and destroys man" [Peter L. Hays, "Biblical Perversion in Desire Under the Elms"]. But the spirit of beauty and harmony is within him, as him poetry shows; unfortunately, however, he fails to grasp its full essence or develop its potential and therein lies the heart of the old man's tragedy.

Cabot's reliance on poetic diction is evident in almost every scene in which he appears. At one point he says, "When ye kin make corn sprout out o'stones, God's living' in ye!" In a sense Cabot's corn is his poetry, which is prompted by a muse at least partially divine, for he draws spiritual strength through his recognition of man's dependence on Nature and, thus, on God for a language which expresses the harmony of existence itself, a language made up of forceful figures of speech: metaphors, similes, personification, and synecdoche.

Cabot's metaphors and similes include references to familiar objects as well as to animals. In the first place he describes himself as he, in part, sees himself and as he knows the other characters see him, but his total being, as stated earlier, goes far beyond his own descriptive terms. He says that he is as "sound'n tough as hickory!", "a hard nut t' crack", "hard as iron yet!", and "like a stone—a rock o' judgment". Several times he says he is getting old, "ripe on the bough." Revealing a side of his nature seldom seen, Ephraim recalls the Song of Solomon and is very much carried away in a well-known poetic speech addressed to Abbie: "Yew air my Rose o' Sharon! … yer eyes air doves; yer lips air like scarlet; yer two breasts air like two fawns; yer navel be like …" and so on. Later he says to those who have come to the dance: "What're ye all bleatin' about—like a flock o'goats? … thar ye set cacklin' like a lot o' wet hens with the pip! Ye've swilled my likker an' Page 72  |  Top of Article guzzled my vittles like hogs, hain't ye?" His hearers dictate his imagery, and "doves" and "fawns" used in his speech to Abbie are replaced with "goats," "hens," and "hogs," with the appropriately descriptive words "bleatin'," "cacklin'," "swilled," and "guzzled." Cabot, forever the poet, even spontaneously uses onomatopoeia. He later, in typical fashion, tells the others that they are "all hoofs!" and their "veins is full o'mud and water." Quite often in heated moments he reaches for his figurative language. Such is the case when he berates Eben: "It's ye that's blind—blind as a mole underground…. They's nothin' in that thick skull o' your'n but noise—like a empty keg it be!" Rarely is there a simple statement without the figurative analogy for driving home the point. Speaking to Eben again the old man says, "A prime chip o' yer ye be!" In addition to the metaphor itself there is internal rhyme, as well as an emphasis on labial formations which Cabot bites off in grim, tight-lipped fashion. His final figure comes late in the play after the death of Abbie and Eben's child and after he has learned of their affair: "Ye make a slick pair o' murderin' turtle doves!:" He is the unrelenting poet to the end.

Cabot, as a spontaneous image-maker, uses both personification and synecdoche. When he describes the mysterious "something'" that pervades the house, he says: "Ye kin feel it droppin' off the elums, climbin' up the roof, sneakin' down the chimney, pokin' in the corners!" Cabot conveys the personified movement he wishes to convey with well-balanced participial phrases. In speaking to Abbie and Eben at the end of the play, he tells them that young fools like them should "hobble their lust," which, in the image, become an animal of vice that should be restrained. Finally, in saying to Eben, "An' the farm's her'n Abbie's! An' the dust o' the road —that's your'n!", Ephraim makes his point by using a part for the whole, significantly, an unpleasant part.

This … is not an attempt to vindicate Ephraim Cabot; several critics have enumerated his faults and shortcomings, making telling points against him. But if he is a man of tragic stature as several critics have said or implied, then one must consider carefully, in reaching such a conclusion, the old man's speech as an integral part of his nature. O'Neill once said in a letter: "… I'm always, always, trying to interpret Life in terms of lives, never just lives in terms of character. I'm always actually conscious of the Force behind—(Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it—Mystery certainly)—and of the eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression." Cabot, in his effort to catch a glimpse of the true Force, seems determined not to be an "infinitesimal incident in its expression." O'Neill leaves us with the impression that Cabot, with all his vitality, robustness, and strength, is living yet somewhere on that rocky New England land because we see him as a part of Nature, the partial essence of which he spontaneously expresses out of his poetic consciousness and because we are secure in the truth that Nature is still there, as both O'Neill and Cabot knew it would be.

Source: Hollis L. Cate, "Ephraim Cabot: O'Neill's Spontaneous Poet," in Markham Review, Vol. 2, No. 5, February 1971, pp. 115-17.


"The Censored Audience," in Nation, Vol. 120, No. 3117, April 1, 1925, p. 346.

Cohn, Ruby, "Eugene O'Neill: Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.

Conkin, Paul K., A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929, University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Cunningham, Frank R., "Romantic Elements in Early O'Neill," in Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill, edited by James J. Martine, G. K. Hall, 1984, pp. 65-72.

Easterling, P. E., The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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Freud, Sigmund, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by A. A. Brill, Modern Library, 1995.

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Harper, Douglas, Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Heberden, Melodee, Maria McCracken, and Dave McCracken, Gold Mining in the 21st Century, New Era Publications, 2005.

Holliday, J. S., Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, University of California Press, 1999.

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Black, Stephen A., Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, Yale University Press, 2002.

Black's literary biography provides insight into O'Neill's life and work. In particular, it traces the autobiographical elements in the dramatist's plays.

Dutta, Shomit, ed., Greek Tragedy, Penguin Classics, 2009.

This anthology of classical Greek tragedies includes works by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. The plays in this volume influenced not only O'Neill's work but nearly all dramatic works ever produced. Indeed, Greek tragedies are some of the first recorded plays, and they lay the foundation for the art of drama and the theater.

Findling, John E., and Frank W. Thackeray, Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century, Greenwood Press, 1997.

This interesting history provides a context for the Cabot farmhouse and its inhabitants in 1850. Given the book's scope, it also covers the early twentieth century and thus the context of the era in which O'Neill was living and writing.

Kramer, Peter D., Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind, Eminent Lives, 2006.

This biography of Sigmund Freud presents a straightforward account of the psychoanalyst's life and work. It will add not only to any student's understanding of Freud's basic principles, but also to the themes underpinning much of the literature produced in the early twentieth century.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400014