There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.
O'Neill spends a comparatively long time describing these elms, and it is no fluke. They are one of the most potent symbols of the play: a symbol of Maw, the spirit who haunts the house and arguably influences many of the actions of the play. O'Neill is not subtle about his description: they are "maternal" and they are "sinister." They are no lovely, charming trees, but rather menacing and protective in an obsessive way. They do not frame the house so much as they envelop it in a fierce grasp, holding tightly in an almost strangling position. Their smothering of the house and its inhabitants is mirrored in the act of Abbie smothering her child.
His defiant, dark eyes remind one of a wild animal's in captivity. Each day is a cage in which he finds himself trapped but inwardly unsubdued. There is a fierce repressed vitality about him.
O'Neill describes Eben in an unforgettable fashion. He is attractive but dark, brooding, conflicted. He brims with repressed energy and vitality, but it appears to be in a menacing fashion. He is man whose repressed emotions – anger; lust; desire for revenge; bitterness; and loneliness – are manifesting themselves physically. His tenseness, tautness, and barely-concealed obsessiveness and anger stem from the sins of his father, his Oedipal feelings for his mother, his inability to navigate the divide between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and his sense that the things that matter are slipping away from him.
Fortunes layin' just atop o' the ground waitin' t' be picked! Solomon's mines, they says!
Simeon and Peter, like their father, are obsessed with money and the material. They hear of the California gold rush and are enticed by the stories that promise wealth without hard work. The audience/readers are aware of the dramatic irony of this statement, as it is well known that most people who went west for gold never "struck it rich" but rather languished in the dirty and dissolute mining towns that popped up. This desire for fast profits with little effort is what makes them unlike their father, for he worked assiduously and unceasingly on the farm to make it profitable (even sending two wives to their early graves in the process). All of the characters in Desire, then, want something they cannot have.
I meant--I hain't his'n--I hain't like him--he hain't me!
Throughout the play the Cabot family members struggle with either claiming or disavowing any similarities between themselves and their family members. The three half brothers insist they have nothing in common with their father. Eben's similarities with his mother are discussed numerous times. Cabot maintains that Eben is "soft" while he is hard, but also has moments when he accepts his son and says he needs him. Shared lineage is not depicted as something to be proud of; rather, in the tradition of Hawthorne, the sins of the father can indelibly shape and impact the behavior and mind of the son. Eben's relationship with Abbie purifies Eben from his tortured connection to his father, although in order to finally achieve that he will probably have to die. Overall, family is seen as oppressive, heavy, and complicated.
I mean, I'm yer new Maw.
It is clear Eben has a deep, almost problematic relationship with his mother. Critics discuss it in terms of the Oedipal complex, in which a son desires to kill his father and marry his mother. Eben claims to still be connected to his deceased mother, and desires nothing more than to revenge her early death by claiming the land that she invested her blood and sweat in. When Abbie comes on the scene, he is initially horrified that she is proposing to take his mother's place. It is only when she insidiously melds her seduction with the memory of Maw that Abbie succeeds, and, to an extent, secures the displacement/replacement of Maw with herself.
They wa'n't strong enuf fur that! They reckoned God was easy. They laughed. They don't laugh no more. Some died hereabouts. Some went West an' died. They're all under ground--fur follerin' arter an easy God. God hain't easy. (He shakes his head slowly.) An' I growed hard.
In a monologue delivered to Abbie, and, to some extent, to the void itself, Cabot explains how he came to the land and how he listened to God's commands to toil unceasingly, watching while others initially mocked him and then saw their own attempts at success fall away. Cabot became "hard" and unyielding, looking to assuage his loneliness but not finding it possible to have any love and affection for the two wives who helped make his land profitable. This hardness also ensured a fraught relationship with his three sons, who resented their father's demanding, unyielding nature and his seemingly mercurial temperament. O'Neill does not approve of this inflexibility and adherence to the Apollonian; he takes care to reveal how it can destroy lives and relationships.
Them eyes o' your'n can't see that fur.
It is a recurring comment that Cabot cannot see very well. He is described as nearsighted, and both his son and the townspeople gathered at the party tease him for his poor eyesight. This poor eyesight is interesting in light of the fact that Cabot is still incredibly strong of body, besting Eben in a fight even when the latter is decades younger than him. This is a metaphor, though, for how Cabot is unable to see the relationship between Abbie and Eben going on right underneath his nose. He is too selfish and stubborn to comprehend the betrayal of his wife and his son, and this shortsightedness will have dire consequences.
I killed him, Eben.
Abbie's killing of her infant is an undoubtedly shocking act, but one that seems almost foreordained when considering the Greek myths that play is based off of. Abbie is a Medea figure, and her murder of the child is similar to that woman's. The rage, passion, and desire for revenge that lead to this moment are also present throughout the text as clues. Abbie-as-Maw is another hint that this may be coming, since Maw does not want anything in the way of her and Eben. Some critics have found this killing problematic (for more than the usual reasons, of course), commenting that it is a plot device and not believable in the sense that Abbie should have killed Cabot. In rebuttal to that, it seems worth considering that Abbie is not acting in a rational way at all, and if she is the embodiment of Maw, this killing makes sense for the aforementioned reason as well as to hurt Cabot again. The infant's death is a result of a long chain of events that O'Neill suggests begin with an adherence to Puritan Christianity and an inflexible will.
An' mebbe I suspicioned it all along. I felt they was somethin' onnateral--somewhars--the house got so lonesome--an' cold--drivin' me down t' the barn--t' the beasts o' the field. . . . Ay-eh. I must've suspicioned--somethin'.
Like the elms that silently guard the house, there is a presence within -- the "somethin'" that Cabot and other characters speak of or feel. It is Maw, although Cabot does not understand this, and she is there to watch over Eben and to assure that she secures her revenge upon Cabot. The house in which her spirit resides (particularly the parlor) begins to assert its dominance and push Cabot back outside onto the land that he sacrificed human lives and relationships for.
It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!
The Sheriff's glib, toss-away comment means more than it initially appears to. He is merely stating what every other character has stated albeit in a lighter fashion; it is also an ironic statement, as people have killed for this piece of land. The farm is the ideal of many, as it represents ownership and autonomy; it is a Garden of Eden in some sense, especially as O'Neill deals with biblical imagery frequently. However, this land is where and why Cabot's two wives died; it made him hard and cruel; it pushed out Simeon and Peter; and it becomes the singular obsession of Eben, who tries to make it his own to avenge his mother. The land, when toiled on in the Cabot way, is poison, O'Neill suggests.
Desire Under the Elms Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Desire Under the Elms is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Family is not always the best way to find security, especially whn it is extremely dyfunctional and twisted. Simeon and Peter manage to get out, but Eben is stuck at the farmhouse with his Paw and the spirit of his Maw. He is forever trying to...
Abbie enters the story as the poor, much younger wife (I believe third wife) of Ephraim. Her goal is to inherit Ephraim's property for herself, and she has no scruples in her bid to secure her own future. Later in the story, she and Eben move...
There are a lot of similarities to Greek Tragedy and the whole Oedipus complex thing. THe basic psycho-sexual drives of people are examined through Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, Abby Putnam (Ephraim’s new wife). Eben and Abby both reflect this...