How was Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms influenced by classical mythology?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Incest, infanticide, and looming fate in Eugene O'Neil's Desire Under the Elms conjure both mythology and Greek tragedy in a naturalistic setting in which characters driven solely by subconscious and primordial drives submit to their desires and instincts without any intellectual or higher order motivation.

That Abbie and Eben are fated for each other is suggested, too, in Part I, Scene Four, as Abbie arrives with Ephreim and is described as having

...a gross sensuality....a hard determination i her eyes....unsettled, untamed, desperate quality which is so apparent in Eben.

Later, in O'Neill's naturalistic drama as Abbie and Eben are drawn to each other in their animalistic natures, there are echoes of Hippolytus in which the wife of Theseus, Phaedra confides in her nurse that she loves Hippolytus, her husband's illegitimate son. After Hippolytus rejects the love of Phaedra, she commits suicide, but leaves a note which accuses Hippolytus of rape; consequently, Theseus, disowns Hippolytus, exiling him with curses. After this, Hippolytus commits suicide.  While O'Neill's plot does not follow this plot line of Hippolytus, there is a rejection by Eben of Abbie as he leaves her after she informs him that she has suffocated their son so that no threat to Eben's inheritance will exist, and in order to prove that she truly loves him. However, like Hippolytus, Eben rejects her and runs to the sheriff, although he does return, declaring his fated love again and his guilt:

EBEN: 'm as guilty as yew be! He was the child o' our sin.

Another allusion to Greek mythology that is suggested in O'Neill's drama is that of Euripedes's Medea; although circumstances differ, there does exist the idea of infanticide. And, then, there is in Under the Elms an Oedipal conflict of father and son between Cabot and Eben for superiority. Just as Laius and Oedipus vie for supremacy at crossroads and Oedipus marries his mother, Cabot and Eben become rivals for the love of Abbie, and Eben gains superiority by impregnating Abbie after becoming her lover. In a manner of speaking, Eben also becomes a brother to his own child since Abbie is his stepmother, so a parallel exists between Oedipus and Eben in this respect, as well. But, it is Ephraim's poignant misery--"God A'mighty, I be lonesomer'n ever!"--and Eben's need for love that raise O'Neill's Darwinian struggle to the level of tragedy.  

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Desire Under the Elms

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