Desire Under the Elms Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Banned in Boston and England, narrowly escaping a ban in New York, and its Los Angeles cast arrested for obscenity, Desire Under the Elms, with incest, adultery, and infanticide openly treated, brought O’Neill into conflict with various censors and brought much of the public to the box office. It ran for 208 performances on and off Broadway and may be the first important American tragedy.

The play demonstrates O’Neill’s exploration of Greek theater. It does not derive directly from any particular play, but its material echoes Hippolytus and Medea, which contain incest and infanticide. The inhibited, puritanical society of New England in 1850 seemed to O’Neill appropriate for the epic Greek quality he sought. A further debt to the Greeks occurs in the sense of an inevitable fate awaiting the participants, Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, and Ephraim’s new wife, Abby Putnam.

The desire of Eben and Abby for each other is apparent from the moment she steps into the house, although it is masked by Eben’s antagonism and her caution. He is loyal to the memory of his dead mother, whom he feels was robbed of her land and worked to death by Ephraim. The farm is his, he believes, and Abby is an intruder, seeking to steal his inheritance. She, in turn, has learned to fight for what she wants, and now she seeks security and a place of her own.

If Eben were not there, quite likely Abby would have made a good wife for Ephraim as long as he lived; however, the mutual physical attraction of Abby and Eben cannot be resisted. In a powerful scene in which Abby lures Eben into the parlor and declares her love, promising that she will take the dead mother’s place, “with a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love,” the adultery is consummated.

One psychoanalytic critic noted that the play seems to have been written by someone in...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Desire Under the Elms Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When the news of gold discoveries in California reaches New England, Simeon and Peter Cabot, who have spent their lives piling up stones to fence their father’s farm, become restless. In the summer of 1850 they are ready to tear down the fences that seem to hem them in, to rebel against their close-fisted old father, and for once in their lives to be free. One day, Ephraim Cabot hitches up his rig and drives off, leaving the farm in charge of his three sons, Simeon, Peter, and their younger half brother, Eben, all three of whom hate their father and see him for what he is: a greedy, self-righteous hypocrite. The older brothers hate Ephraim for what he did to them, but Eben hates his father because he stole the land that belonged to his mother and then worked her to death on the farm. Eben feels that the farm belongs to him, and he means to have it. He inherits some of old Ephraim’s stony implacability as well as his sensuality, and he gives expression to the latter on his trips down the road to visit Minnie, the local prostitute, who earlier belonged to his father.

Realizing that Simeon and Peter want to go to California, yet have no money to take them there, Eben thinks up a plan to get rid of them once and for all. While Ephraim is away, he offers them three hundred dollars each in gold if they will sign a paper renouncing all claims to the farm. Eben found the money, which belonged to his mother, buried beneath the floorboards of the kitchen. The brothers accept Eben’s offer and set off for California.

Shortly afterward, old Ephraim arrives home with Abbie Putnam. He is seventy-six, she thirty-five, but she has decided that she wants a home of her own. When old Ephraim offers to marry her, she accepts him at once, and by the time she moves into the Cabot homestead she is determined that whatever happens the farm will be hers someday. She tries unsuccessfully to make friends with Eben, who at first hates her as he would hate any other woman coming to take his mother’s place and the farm that rightfully belongs to him. After a time, though, Eben begins to notice that life on the farm is easier since his stepmother arrived. However, the realization that Abbie can influence his father as she desires only...

(The entire section is 915 words.)