The plot and its development of theme in Desire Under the Elms run closely parallel in a naturalistic way to the chronological order of events that occur. This order of events, one critic claims, underpins the theme of crime and the law of retribution, certainly a natural order. This is how the critic describes the chronology:
- In Part I, in the absence of their father and after Eben returns with the news that Ephraim Cabot is procuring a new wife--a threat to all the brothers--Eden buys his two half-brothers off. He pays them for their shares of the farm with the gold of his father, gold whose hiding place his mother revealed to Eden after she secretly watched her husband hide it.
- In Part II, Eben steals Ephraim's wife Abbie from him after she has promised her old husband a son. When the community realizes that the child cannot be Cabot's, Eben is the cause of his father's humiliation.
- In Part III, Eben suffers loss and future punishment after he tells Abbie he hates her and that he wishes the baby, who has the claim to the farm, were dead. Abbie's murder of the child prevents Cabot from having the heir he wants, and dooms herself to punishment. Ephraim, who has feared "lonesomeness" is left isolated, crying "God's hard and lonesome"--with Simeon and Peter in California and with Abbie and Eden, who takes responsibility for causing Abbie's actions, taken away by the sheriff.
With this order of events, then, the plot mainly involves Eben's loss of his mother (symbolized by the two large Elm trees whose branches surround the house), the loss of the farm since it was hers, and his Oedipal search for a mother in Abbie (who tells him in the parlor, "I'll be your mother") with whom he can bring ridicule on his loathed father. These naturalistic and subconscious drives of Eben, whose name seems a distortion of Eden as the letter b is a distorted d, drive the plot to its fatalistic end in chronological order, just as the the sun rises and sets each day to the notice of the Cabots--"ain't it purty"--ending with "a noise of dead leaves in the wind."