Desire Under the Elms Summary, Themes and Characters

O’ Neill’s play Desire Under the Elms is a story about a young woman married to an old man who cements her relationship with her stepson. The play ends with a tragic note—the lady kills her new born in order to prove her love and loyalty to her stepson lover. The overtone of incest in the play caused much controversy. By the time we finish reading this topic, we shall learn why O’ Neil’s plays are a continuous inspiration to the newer generation of authors from America as well as readers across the world.


Act Wise Summery of the Play


Act I, Scene I

As the curtain rises, audience see Eben Cabot with his halfbrothers Simeon and Peter who have just come back from work. Eben calls them in for supper. They stop in front of the house to remark on the beauty of the setting sun. They talk of going to California in search of fortune for an easy life. They are tired of the hard life of working in the fields. The farm belongs to their father Ephraim Cabot who went missing without anyone’s knowledge two months ago. They are not sure of his being alive. However, Eben who has been busy in the kitchen comes out and he shows no interest in going to California leaving his farm behind.

Act I, Scene II

Scene II takes the readers inside the house where the three brothers have their supper. While the two elder brothers share their doubts about their father, Eben violently reacts to them saying that Ephraim is not his father. However, Eben fondly remembers his dead mother.

Act I, Scene III

Next morning, Eben wakes up his half brothers to inform them that their father is alive and has married at New Dover for the third time a lady who is about 35 years old. The brothers realise that all their fortune, the field will go to that lady now. Eben strongly rejects this notion and says that the farm actually belongs to his mother and he is the rightful heir to the farm. Eben tells them that he hates his father who has murdered his mother. However, his two elder brothers believe that two-thirds of the farmland belongs to them too. Eben strongly rejects the idea. Eben lures them so that they relinquish any claim to the land, promising money, which he stole from his father, for their trip to California. The brothers agree to leave the property if Eben pays them 300 dollars in lieu of their share in the farm. Eben becomes happy to find that they agree. He prepares to visit Minnie, a local prostitute, in the town and the two bothers taunt him.

Act I, Scene IV

Eben is seen brooding over his food, thinking something deeply. He senses his father approaching home with his new bride. He goes to the gate and with glowing possessive eyes stare at the farm, which he believes, cannot go to anyone but him. Both brothers get emotional while planning to leave the house and the land where they have given 30 years of sweat and blood. Soon they compose themselves thinking California will not only give them fortune but some freedom too. As their father proceeds home, angry Simeon and Peter sign on the papers leaving their claim on the land. They wait to see their new mother. Ephraim Cabot enters with Abbie Putnam, his new bride, and introduces her to his two elder sons. Abbie is more interested to see the house, which she mentions, as “my house” instead of “our house” than to know her new family. Abbie goes inside the house in search of Eben to tell him that she is the lady of the house from now. Meanwhile insulting their father, Simeon and Peter leave the house for California as free men. As Abbie goes in to explore her new home, she finds Eben in the kitchen. She at once tries to befriend Eben, a handsome young man, but he rejects her. Abbey tells him that in her past she had been in search of her own home. Now she has found her own home and the property belongs to her. These revelations make Eben furious. Older Cabot enters the room and prays to God to smite his two undutiful elder sons. He asks Eben to go to work in the field but Eben answers that he cannot work alone.

Act II, Scene I

Two months later, on a hot Sunday afternoon, Abbie, dressed in her best, is seen sitting at the end of the porch. Very carefully, trying not to make any noise and later when caught by Abbie, ignoring her existence, Eben goes out of the house. Abbie passionately makes advances towards him. She very swiftly asks Eben not to hide his emotions towards her. She sees his desire in his lustful eyes. Abbie tries to come close to him at times through seduction and at times through a commanding voice. Though Eben is confused, he agrees with her and leaves. Abbie knows what is he up to and angrily asks him if he is to see Minnie, the prostitute. Eben replies that he finds the village prostitute better than her for at least she does not want to steal his fortune. Later Abbie asks her husband if he has plans to leave the farm to Eben. Old Cabot brushes it aside and says that when he dies he would rather burn his property that was earned with his sweat and blood than leave it to anyone. He says that he will turn the livestock free. Even Abbie becomes free thereafter. Abbie asks whether she has any right over the property but as the field needs a son to work for it, Abbie cannot inherit the farm. Abbie declares that she wants a son from Cabot. At this idea, the old man is overcome with pride, joy and emotion and both pray to God to bless them with a son. While Cabot is joyous hoping for a son in his old age to replace his loneliness, Abbie becomes busy plotting her future.

Act II, Scene II

That night, in their bedroom, old Cabot is excited dreaming of a son from Abbie. It turns out an unsuccessful attempt at making a baby that puts Abbie into another thought. Old Cabot remembers his past – how much hard work he put in the farm and how lonely he was after the death of his first and second wives. Now his only hope is Abbie and the son she will bring. Abbie promises him a son too, veiling the threat in her voice. Cabot, feeling cold and lonely in the room, goes off to the barn. He finds peace talking to the cows.

In another room, Eben, also alone, thinks of the oppression created by the stonewall. He and Abbie stare at each other through the wall. He senses Abbie’s closeness. Both feel nervous and uneasy. Abbie moves to Eben’s room and kisses him. Forgetting his hatred of her, Eben too returns her love. Abbie declares her love for him. The scene ends with a confused Eben remembering his dead mother as Abbie goes to the open parlour downstairs.

Act II, Scene III

Totally confused, Eben goes to the parlour. Abbie tells him that she senses someone inside the parlour; Eben replies it’s his mother who, he believes, hates Abbie for stealing her place at home. Eben misses his mother who was so kind and soft to him and who used to sing for him. Abbie promises to be kind and soft to him too and would love him like his mother. However, passion overcomes her and soon they passionately express their love for each other.

Act II, Scene IV

Next morning, as Eben, now has a bold and confident expression, leaves for the farm; Abbie expresses sadness over the parting for the whole day.

Act III, Scene I

The next spring, Abbie bears a baby boy. Neighbours gather at Cabot’s house for celebrating the arrival of Cabot’s new family member. But the guests suspect that the father of the baby is Eben and gossip about it. However, no one dares say that in front of Cabot. As Cabot very proudly announces his ability to make a boy at the age of 76, Abbie looks for Eben among the invitees.

Eben in a room closely watches his boy and tells Abbie that he does not like his baby to be related to Old Cabot. Abbie asks him to be silent and wait for the right time. Eben, unable to tolerate the celebrations and the locals’ gossips about him and Abbie, goes out. On the other side, even old Cabot comes out to the barn to have some peace and solace. The party goes on.

Act III, Scene II

On the set is shown the exterior of the Cabot house after half an hour. Eben with a dumb face is standing at the gate gazing the night sky. Old Cabot comes up from the barn with his eyes on the ground. As he sees Eben standing there, with a cruel triumphant smile he slaps Eben’s back and asks him why has he been outside and not being part of the dance in honour of the new born inside. Soon quarrel over the farm follows and Eben says that he will possess the farm anyway. A furious and suspicious Cabot discloses Abbie’s secret in plotting against Eben to secure the farm for herself and her son. Abbie wanted her husband to cut off Eben from the property after his death. Trusting his words, Eben breaks down with grief and tries to kill the woman in rage. While Cabot resists him, he attacks the old man but Cabot overpowers him.

Abbie comes out to find Eben beaten badly. When Cabot goes inside to party, Abbie tries to kiss Eben asking if he is hurt. Eben, sobbing violently, reacts by asking her if she had designed the whole game of love with him. Abbie admits that initially when she first met him, she had conspired, but with time she has fallen in love with him. Abbie asks Eben to forgive her. He calls her a liar, wishing his dead mother come back to life to help him in murdering the woman. He wishes the baby had never been born and vows to join his two brothers in California, since Abbie has used him to get a son so that she can be heir to the land. It wasn’t love for him but the desire for the farm had driven her to him. Abbie keeps on saying that her love for Eben is true and she desperately wants him in her life. As Eben goes inside the house, Abbie, confused and alone, promises to prove her loyalty to Eben.

Act III, Scene III

After a few hours, just before the dawn, Abbie rushes to the kitchen to meet Eben and kisses him wildly and informs him that she has proved that she loves him more than anything in the world. But Eben, cold and unmoved, prepares to leave the house, saying that one day he will be back to his son, who will look just like him. Abbie tells him that she had killed the baby to prove her love to Eben. Eben falls to his knees. Horrified and in deep rage and grief, he accuses her of committing such a sin and rushes away to summon the Sheriff. Eben starts hating her more. The scene ends with Abbie running to the door after Eben saying that she loves him and she does not care what he does but she would still love him.She faints on the floor.

Act III, Scene IV

After an hour, Abbie is seen in the kitchen waiting for Eben to come back with the Sheriff. Cabot, not finding Abbiein the bedroom beside him, goes to the baby and wishes him good morning. He becomes happy finding the baby in sound asleep and remembers that the baby did not cry all night as he usually does. Quietly he leaves the room to find Abbie in the kitchen. Abbie confesses to him that she has killed the baby. Abbie also tells him that the baby is Eben’s. Cabot is amased to learn that Eben has gone to bring the Sherriff. Eben returns alone and tells Abbie that while describing everything to the Sheriff, he realised how much he loves her and hopes that they can run away together. However, Abbie insists that she must be punished for committing the sin. Eben also realises that he too has to take his share of punishment in the sin. As the Sheriff arrives to arrest the criminal, Eben tells him that he planned the killing. Both are taken away to prison by the Sheriff. Old Cabot turns the livestock loose in the forest and plans to leave for California. As he seeks his hidden money, he discovers that it has already been stolen. Eben confesses that he had given those to his brothers to pay the passage to California. Old Cabot gives up his plans and accepts God’s will to make him lonesome again and to work in the farm alone.

Major Themes

The following are some of the important themes of the play.

Human greed, passion, desire, lust and aversion

The play deals with themes like intense greed, lust, passion, desire, etc. that end in despair. The characters are somehow influenced by intense desires. As the play begins, the three Cabot brothers Eben, Peter and Simeon are introduced and by the end of the first scene, it is clear that they hate their old father. While the older sons hate their father for he made them work hard in the farm, Eben, the youngest sibling, hates him, as he believes that the man had snatched his mother’s property and had overworked her to death. Eben thinks that he is the only inheritor and must be the landowner. Eben’s greed and passion lead to his later tragic life. He plans to win his inheritance through Abbie, and at the same time avenge his father.

Both Eben and Abbie fall in love and their passions sow the seeds of a greater tragedy. Initially both want to possess the farm and the house, but over time they change due to their passion. Initially Eben hates Abbie for she assumes the position of his dead mother in the house. However, through his passionate relationship with her, Eben realises his hidden desire. He discovers comfort in Abbie who not only has become his lover but a mother figure too. Abbie too starts loving him and to prove her allegiances he smothers the infant in its cradle. The passions of Eben Cabot and Abbie Putnam lead to a complicated relationship that causes their tragedy.

Ephraim is not free of faults. He does not love his sons and never thinks of passing on his property to his rightful heir after him. Rather he intends to have a baby from Abbie to inherit his property.

Complex relationships between parents and children

The most complicated relationship dealt with in the play is the relationship between parents and children. It is the core thematic focus of the play. Conflict takes place between Eben, who is emotionally volatile, his young stepmother Abbie and his eccentric, controlling father. The relationship between Eben and his long dead mother is quite interesting. Eben hates his father like his other two half-brothers. After his mother’s death, the property has been transferred to his father, which Eben cannot take easily. He still remembers her fondly and sees his mother around him in the house. Eben’s resentment of his father is due to his hunger to own his farm. When after a lengthy,unannounced absence, Ephraim returns with a new bride less than half his age, Abbie, he seems her as a new competitor for ‘his’ farm. His relationship with his stepmother actually is his mother’s revenge on his father.

Then, there is clash between love for his mother and sexual love for Eben. After his mother’s death, Eben has been constantly missing her. Abbie seduces Eben saying that she will be his mother. His Oedipal search for a mother in Abbie is very hard to miss. Symbolically, Eben and Abbie consummate their love in his mother’s parlour. It is the same place where child Eben had bonded with his mother. Throughout the play, Eben feels his mother’s presence in the farm in a supernatural form. When Abbie says that she feels something in the parlour, Eben responds with “Maw…Maw allus
loved me.” After their union in the parlour, the restless spirit of Eben’s mother vanishes. At once, it becomes difficult for the audience/ readers to accept this complex, inappropriate, morally wrong relationship between a mother and her young son. Unaware, both Ephraim and Eben compete with each other. Not only visiting Min, the village prostitute, but in having a passionate relationship with Abbie, Eben competes against his father and his hatred and anger is deep. However, these love triangles lead to the final tragedy.

When Abbie tells her old husband that she wants to have a baby, Ephraim rejoices at the idea. When the son is born, though the entire world guesses it right that it is Eben’s, the old man is proud of his fatherhood. Eben, the real father of the son, becomes depressed for to him once again his father had stolen something that was ‘rightfully’ his. The child brings more complications to the parents that end in gruesome, tragic consequences.

Abbie kills her child, to regain Eben’s love. Eben’s first reaction is his desire to have Abbie pay for her sin. However, he too claims participation in the crime and shares her punishment. The lovers depart from the farm in the custody of the Sheriff. Thus, the complicated relationships between (step) mother and son, lovers, and competitors determine their tragic fates.

Search for a “Home”

The action of the play takes place entirely in and around the Cabot farmhouse, which is quite appropriate, as the house is the focus of the conflict between the major characters. All of them claim ownership of the house and all have their own reasons. To Eben, the two large Elm trees whose branches surround the Cabot farmhouse, symbolize his mother who is dead. Eben’s loss of his mother marks the loss of the farm since it was hers. At the beginning of the play, a description about the kitchen of the farmhouse informs us:”. . . Kitchen utensils hang from nails. Everything is neat and in order but the atmosphere is of a men’s camp kitchen rather than that of a home.” It signifies that the farmhouse has failed to offer Eben the satisfaction of a home and Eben a reason to this dissatisfaction—the farmhouse does not belong to him. His father has stolen the farmhouse. Thus, Eben yearns for a home of his own. Similarly, Abbie has the same desire. When Abbie arrives at the farmhouse, she utters: “Hum! It’s purty—purty! I can’t b’lieve it’ sr’ally mine”. Abbie says in Scene iv, Part I: “A woman’s got t’ hev a hum”. Both Eben and Abbie are aware of their desire that make them plot, plan which lead them to the passion for love, that destroys both. Initially both are afraid of each other’s intention, so both feel hostile toward each other. Even at the end, Eben misunderstands that Abbie’s final goal is to possess the farm and the house. Thus the land and the farmhouse are two most essential and significant elements in the play.

The Oedipal father

The play is further indebted to the Greeks in its classical oedipal hatred of the father. Sophocles’ play “Oedipus Rex” had the very themes of incest and immoralities. Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes in Greece was left behind after his birth fearing the prediction according to which he would kill his own father and marry his mother. After an unfortunate series of events, he fulfils the prediction that brings destruction to his city and disaster to his family. Influenced by the story, Sigmund Freud talked about “Oedipus Complex,” signifying a state in which the child feels sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and yearns for the death of the parent of the same sex. Eben is so loyal to the memory of his dead mother that he feels her presence everywhere in the house; his mother has a strong influence over his life; he hates his father Ephraim for there is an unconscious rivalry for mother’s love. Ephraim appears to be the oedipal father whom Eben wishes to destroy. To Eben, the stonewalls of the farmhouse are a protection, a shield, where he lives with the spirit of his mother and the sheer hatred of his father.

Major Characters

The following is a list of the major character of the play.

Eben Cabot

Eben, the third son of Ephraim Cabot by his second wife and halfbrother of Simeon and Peter is the central character and protagonist in Desire under the Elms. The twenty five year old is a “tall and sinewy,” dark and rather good-looking, but with an expression that “is resentful and defensive. His defiant, dark eyes remind one of a wild animal in captivity.” Eben is impetuous, volatile and emotional. Eben’s relationships with his father Ephraim and his stepmother Abbie are the focal points of the play. Like his older half-brothers, he hates his father for the way the self-righteous old hypocrite treated his mother but even more for having held the farm as his. He believes his mother died of over work. He thinks his father married his gentle mother because she had a legitimate claim to ownership of the vast land. Eben is determined to retain control over the farm and land his mother had possessed.

As audience meet Eben in the first scene of the play on the farmhouse porch, they are sure of Eben’s impulsive, curious and soft nature. He is different from his older half-brothers Simeon and Peter. Where Eben is busy in the kitchen preparing supper for them, his brothers come from the field (digging stones and laying them into a boundary around the farm). Eben differs from his brothers in his thoughts. Eben is determined to possess the farm whereas Simeon and Peter long for a better life in distant California. Eben is so determined to gain the land that he buys out the potential claim of his half-brother’ shares with money stolen from his father. He offers each three hundred dollars. Ebenis calculative. The first act of the play also reveals Eben’s not-so-normal relationship with his father. He prays for the death of his father who has been away for two months.

That Eben resolves to get his land back from his father and does not want to share it with his two elder half-brothers actually resembles his father. In spite of his alleged “softness”, Eben is the closest to the old man in his yearning to own the farm, in his vengefulness, and finally in his acceptance of punishment from the “hard” God. Eben’s offering them gold in exchange for renouncing the farm and having an adulterous relationship with his stepmother to avenge his father, shows how closely he resembles the latter. Then Eben’s attachment to the farm is similar to the nature of the old man.

Eben’s first reaction towards Abbie is also quite normal. When Ephraim arrives home with his new wife, Eben immediately starts hating his young stepmother. In fact, he exchanges bitter words with her. Despite his initial hatred, he enters into an adulterous affair with Abbie and fathers her child. Eben’s fatherly love for his baby is reflected when he really wishes the community to learn that the baby is his. But when Abbie urges Eben to be patient, with no option left, he goes out of the house and eventually becomes the cause of his father’s humiliation. Believing his father’s words, Eben denounces Abbie. He suffers and angrily wishes his baby, who to Ephraim has the claim to the farm, were dead. But he goes to the authority to get Abbie arrested for infanticide. However, like a true lover, he also takes the responsibility of the action. Eben realises that they both have sinned in the name of love and both must share the punishment. Together they are taken away by the sheriff and they depart from the farm for prison.

Ephraim Cabot

The old widower’s character is built much before he is physically introduced to the audience. As the play begins, we learn that one day without exchanging any word, Ephraim had gone away, leaving his three sons in charge of the farm. Eben, his youngest son (from his second wife), blames him to be his mother’s murderer, insisting that he killed her with overwork and had taken over the farm. To Eben, he is a greedy old fellow. His other two brothers also throw light on Ephraim’s brutal nature and after years of slavery to the old man, they prefer to go away to California. Ephraim is a farmer who works in the New England farm with the help of his three sons. He has made his sons work like animals on his farm. They all hate their father bitterly. Eben has a reason to hate his father whom he believes has stolen his rightful inheritance.

Ephraim marries three times. His first wife was a hard worker who bore Simeon and Peter and was much like himself. Second was Eben’s mother who was a softer person. The lady’s parents had some claim to the farm. The final marriage, that to a much younger Abbie Putnam is held some twenty-five years after his second wife’s death.

As Ephraim enters the stage, he comes with his third wife— a thirty-five-year-old lady called Abbie Putnam. Old Cabot, a myopic, is seventy-five years old, “gaunt, with great wiry power, but stoop shouldered from toil with a face as hard as the rocks on his farm”, yet at the same time “there is a weakness in it, a petty pride in its own narrow strength.” His three sons see this marriage as their father’s deliberate intention to cheat them of their inheritance. However, over and over again, we hear old Ephraim Cabot lamenting his loneliness. The ineffable loneliness of the man manages to arouse pity among the audience. He marries to gratify his loneliness. Therefore, when Abbie convinces him that they should have a son, he is overwhelmed with the idea of a company and a suitable son to whom he can leave the farm. He is sensitive to Abbie and to the baby, seeks love and wants to love. Unfortunately, he finds only coldness within his house and among other people. However, the old man accepts the harsh truth that the baby he is so proud of doesn’t belong to him; it’s Eben’s son. Ephraim, who fears “lonesomeness”, is left isolated. Ephraim, who is left alone by all, presents a bleak view of human condition.

There is no apparent reason of Ephraim’s selfish and stern nature. No clue is provided to understand the man’s negative disposition. Ephraim has the best farm in the village. His three young sons work really hard giving their sweat and blood in making it prosperous. However, the old man announces that he would love to burn all his property upon his death than leave the land to Eben. Eben, like Ephraim, identifies with both the land and its livestock (sleeping in the barn with the cows is comforting to him). He considers that none of his sons has the right to inherit since each is a rebel against the hardness of their father, differently. The man seems so vengeful when he taunts Eben on the day of the celebration that Eben should better hope nothing to inherit after the arrival of the baby. The proud Ephraim is oblivious as his neighbours openly mocking him as a cuckold. He complains to Eben how Abbie has tricked him out of his inheritance. This false news leads to Abbie’s final act of infanticide.

The two positive traits shown in the character is his religious mind-set and his firm belief in hard work; both have made the character a typical New England Puritan. He is a God-fearing, God obsessed patriarch. His constant reference to God is a significant aspect of his character. His God is angry, as he says— ”God’s hard, not easy,” and his state of loneliness is a punishment from Him. Like other farmers, once he headed to the Middle West where the land was so fertile that one merely had to plant the crops and wait them to grow. However, this comfort distressed him there, and he heard God guiding him that this is not what He wanted. He came back to the farm listening to God’s order and forced the earth into fertility. He very often recites passages from the Bible. Even at the end, old Ephraim says nothing more than crying “God’s hard”. The long monologue in Part II, Scene ii from Ephraim, full of Biblical quotations, is an excellent example of poetic eloquence and lyricism.

Abbie Putnam Cabot

Abbie Putnam, an ambitious, good looking young widow is the only woman character in the play. She is the thirty-five-year-old third wife of the seventy-six-year-old Ephraim. Her face is marred by an obstinate chin and a “gross sensuality.”

Abbie is no exception to others in the play in terms of having a desire in life. She is a woman in constant search of a home of her own. Her marriage to an old man is solely to gain possession of a home. Later she wishes to get hold of the farm. Eben, whom she later begins to love, acquaints her with how hard her life was until Ephraim came along. She has no love for him, only a desire to have a place where she could belong.

When Abbie enters the farm with her husband, she is at once attracted by Eben’s youthful good looks. Whenever she talks to him, she does it with her most seductive tone to attract him. Firstly, it was to gain acceptance of her as his mother since Eben is deeply attached to his dead mother. Initially, Eben considered her as no better than a lady who sold herself for the property. However, two months later, she approaches him and unable to control his emotion, Eben enters into an adulterous union with her. It is interesting to note their adultery is committed “with a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love.” She not only convinces him that he can avenge his father by making love to her, but she also influences him to court her in the parlour, the room where his mother’s funeral wake had taken place and assumes the role of his dead mother.

The following year, when a son is born to Abbie, Ephraim, duped by flattery, believes the child is his and makes the baby his heir. The heir’s arrival occasions a party and Abbie can clearly see that the celebrants realize that old Ephraim is probably not the boy’s father. When Eben hates to pretend what is rightfully his, belongs to his father just like the farm, Abbie tries to make him calm. Taunted by his father, Eben threatens to kill Abbie and wishes the baby dead. By this time, Abbie is so madly in love with Eben that she cannot take his hatred. Destiny plays a cruel game and to prove her love and gain Eben’s faith, the mother smothers the baby. However, she later realises that instead of the baby, she should have killed the old man. A devastated Eben, on the discovery of the murder of his own flesh and blood, rushes to the sheriff only to realize that he loves Abbie. He understands her intention—that she loves him than anything else in the world. On his return, very unexpectedly Abbie discovers with strange joy that Eben admits the responsibility of the crime and punishment due to his love for her. Abbie is a tragic character portraying a woman in love with a man who murders her own children; then in her tragedy, she finds some consolation but no way can escape her destiny or punishment.

Both Eben and Abbie’s characters share some common traits. The farm holds immense significance to both the lovers. To Abbie, it is a place to belong to and set down roots; to Eben, it is a place of kinship with his dead mother and something rightfully his.

Both are closer to the natural order of human existence than any other characters in the play. Their attraction towards each other has been mutual and natural. Both are the children of nature and natural laws bring them together in love. Both become slaves of physical desire and later destiny. They both cannot and do not escape their destiny at the end.

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