Desire Under the Elms

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Ephraim Cabot, a selfish skinflint, owns the best farm in the county. He has robbed his youngest son, Eben, of his birthright by taking land belonging to Eben’s mother as his own upon her death. Eben swears to recover this land.

When Ephraim goes away, leaving his three sons in charge of the farm, Eben persuades his two half brothers, Simon and Peter, to renounce their claim to inherit in exchange for $300 each. Simon and Peter set out for California. Ephraim returns home with a new wife, Abbie.

Eben resents Abbie and is hateful to her. Meanwhile, she convinces Ephraim that they should have a child. She also seduces Eben, convincing him that he can get revenge on his father by making love to her.

Abbie bears Eben’s child, whose arrival occasions a party. The celebrants realize that 76-year-old Ephraim is probably not the child’s father. At the party, Ephraim taunts Eben with how Abbie has tricked him out of his inheritance. Eben confronts Abbie, who now loves him.

To show that Abbie really loves Eben, she smothers their child. Eben gets the sheriff, but then realizes that he loves Abbie. He falsely admits complicity in the infanticide. Both are arrested. Ephraim is left alone with his farm.

In this play, as in many of his other plays, O’Neill is much influenced by Greek tragedy, particularly by such plays as Euripides’ MEDEA and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy.

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(The entire section is 505 words.)