The setting is a New England farmhouse in 1850. Two great, oppressive, drooping elms frame the house. Eben Cabot, a handsome but hard young man, lives there with his two half-brothers, Simeon and Peter. Their father, Ephraim Cabot (known as Cabot), an old but strong man, left two months ago for an unknown reason. The brothers all want the farmland and claim that it is theirs. Eben believes his claim is strongest because his beloved Maw died working it, and for that he resents his father strongly.
The brothers hear that Cabot is on his way home with a new wife, and it is assumed the land will go to her. They accept Eben’s buyout of their shares so they can go to California to seek their fortune in the gold fields.
They barely stay long enough to see Cabot and his new wife, Abbie Putnam, a vivacious and buxom thirty-five year old, arrive at the farm. She is excited to see the land, which is clearly why she married Cabot.
When she sees Eben, his good looks and aloof demeanor immediately strike her. She revolts him because he fears she wants to take his land, and he refuses all of her flirtatious advances.
As time goes on, Eben has trouble controlling his desire and hatred for Abbie. She gets frustrated with him and tells Cabot offhandedly that Eben flirted with her. He grows irate and threatens to kill him, but she manages to convince him she did not mean it. Abbie decides she will have a son, which makes Cabot very happy. He has been lonesome of late, and claims that none of his past wives ever truly knew him; all he did was work hard his whole life yet is still lonesome.
Abbie continues to try and seduce Eben, and he finally gives in once he realizes that his Maw, whose presence haunts the parlor, probably approves of this union as a way to seek vengeance against Cabot. Eben and Abbie begin their torrid affair, and eventually have a son.
After the baby is born, there is a party at the house. Cabot is drunk and dancing around, naively uncomprehending of the gossipy townspeople’s comments about how blind he is to the affair of Eben and Abbie and the baby’s true parentage. Eben stays upstairs, conflicted about his son. Abbie joins him, and they embrace.
Later Eben steps outside and Cabot joins him. Cabot says jocularly that Eben should get married soon and get a piece of a farm, to which Eben retorts that this is his farm already. Cabot tells him that it is Abbie’s and his new son’s, and he thinks Eben should stay away from Abbie, and that he knows he trued to flirt with her. Eben is stunned by this, and believes Abbie had a son to trick him and get the land.
Eben and Cabot physically fight, and Abbie runs outside to break it up. Eben flings her aside. After Cabot goes inside, Eben spits out how much he hates Abbie. She is confused until he accuses her of her plot to take Maw’s land from him. Frantic and desperate, Abbie tries to explain that she never did such a thing, but Eben stubbornly refuses to believe her. He even says he wishes the baby had never been born, and Abbie realizes that the baby stands between them.
Eben proclaims he will go to California and get rich and buy the farm himself, and seek his revenge. Abbie wildly asks if she could fix things if he would love her again, and he says that is not possible because she is not God. After he leaves Abbie vows to earn his love again.
Before dawn of the next morning Abbie stands over the cradle and smothers the baby to death. She tells Eben, who is preparing to leave, what she did. She is feverish and proud, but he is horrified and says he will go tell the Sheriff. She does not care because she only wants his love. He departs.
Abbie sits at the kitchen table and Cabot comes downstairs. He asks for food and says the baby is sleeping, to which she dully says the baby is dead. Cabot is incredulous but sees that it is true, and bemoans his fate. Abbie cruelly tells him the truth of the baby’s parentage and Cabot says he will go get the Sheriff too. Abbie tells him not to bother since Eben already did.
Eben comes back and says the Sheriff is on his way. He then turns to Abbie and tells her that he realized he loves her more than anything and will take the blame for the baby’s death. Elated, Abbie embraces him. They disgust Cabot.
Cabot plans to go to California too and give up the farm; he set the cows free and wants to burn the whole thing down. When he realizes that Eben had taken the saved money and given it to Simeon and Peter to buy them out, he knows that God wants him to stay; he knows God is hard and life is to be lonesome.
The Sheriff comes to arrest Abbie and Eben announces he is guilty too. They are led outside and stare up at the beautiful sky before being led away. The Sheriff remarks on how beautiful a farm it is, and how he wished he owned it.