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.



(The entire section is 505 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Cabot farmhouse

Cabot farmhouse. Isolated New England farm, originally belonging to Eben Cabot’s mother, that becomes the property of her widower Ephraim Cabot and his two sons after Ephraim works her to her grave, as Eben claims. Life on the farm, as on so many farms in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, is a challenging existence, which is one reason why Eben is able to bribe his half brothers to leave. After Ephraim arrives home with his new wife Abbie Putnam, who will inherit the farm if she produces a son, Peter and Simeon leave for California, and the passionate psychological struggle among the remaining three characters begins.

The action takes place in various rooms of the green and “sickly grayish” Cabot farmhouse: the kitchen, the porch, the bedrooms, and the parlor, described in stage directions as a “grim, repressed room like a tomb.” This room has been preserved as Eben’s mother left it and is where Abbie’s seduction of Eben takes place. At the end of the play, Abbie kills their love child to prove her love to Eben. The sheriff who comes to arrest them admires the farm and concludes, ironically given the tragedies the farm represents, that he wished he owned it.

Much of the action of the play takes place outside: by the gate, where characters stand at sunrise and sunset, and in the barn, where Ephraim sometimes sleeps with his cows. The most important features outdoors, however, are the “two enormous elms” which bend over the roof of the farmhouse and whose “sinister maternity” represents the spirit of Eben’s dead mother.


*California. Home of the gold strikes of 1849. Although never seen in the play, California represents escape for the inhabitants of the Cabot farmhouse. “They’s gold in the West,” Peter Cabot says to his brother Simeon at the play’s opening, and the dreams of “fields o’ gold” soon draw these two characters away from this farm strewn only with stones.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. Attempts to trace the plays to probable sources. Sees O’Neill’s writing of plays as opportunities “to confront and solve” problems in his own life. Analyzes the composition and final text of Desire Under the Elms in relationship to O’Neill’s death wish after his mother died.

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Recognizes O’Neill’s plays as efforts at self-understanding. Attempts to analyze the plays in relationship to events in O’Neill’s life. Especially effective at developing the psychological and mythic elements in Desire Under the Elms.

Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979. An effective, short introduction to O’Neill’s life and plays, emphasizing the tragic dimensions of the dramas. Sees “the spirit of nature” as the “final hero” of Desire Under the Elms, since the play emphasizes that human attempts at ownership and possession result in pain and inevitable loss.

Gannon, Paul W. Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.” New York: Monarch Press, 1965. Provides a clear, if oversimplified, summary of the plot and commentary on the characterization, staging, and major themes and problems in the drama.

Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. The most authoritative biography of O’Neill. Includes helpful details about the incidents in O’Neill’s life related to Desire Under the Elms, as well as about the play’s composition and immediate reception.