Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms Summary and Analysis of Part I Scene 4


The three brothers are eating breakfast. Eben looks glum and says he can feel their father approaching. He gets up to go work, but the other two remain, and stick to their plan to not work. Eben is excited that they are considering his offer, exulting that the farm will be his again.

Simeon and Peter drink a bit, and realize they want fresh air. Simeon looks at the ground and muses at his “blood an’ bone an’ sweat-rotted away – fertilizin’ ye-richin’ yer soul” (23). They can’t resist, and decide they should work just a little bit to help out.

Eben runs toward them and breathlessly says the old mule and his bride are on their way.

Simeon tells Peter they should get ready to go now, as he never wants to step inside the house once the old man is back.

They go upstairs and Eben lifts a strip of flooring near the stove to get his money out. When the brothers return with their carpetbags he counts out their money and they sign. They awkwardly say goodbye and walk out to the gate.

They wonder if they should wait and see their new maw. Simeon comments that all he wants to do is laugh because for once in his life he is finally free. They ebulliently jest and laugh.

Ephraim Cabot and Abbie Putnam come near. He is seventy-five, tall and strong but wizened. Abbie is thirty-five, buxom and languorous, stubborn and untamed.

Cabot announces that they are arrived, and Abbie gloats that this is all hers now. Cabot sees his sons and wonders why they are not working.

Drawing near, Simeon and Peter look at Abbie contemptuously. Abbie goes inside, and the brothers tell Cabot that Eben is just like him, and that he’ll eat him and spit him out. They boldly criticize Abbie and Cabot is amazed. They laugh that they are free and heading for the gold fields.

Laughing and whooping, the brothers dance around. Cabot backs up, shaking his head that they are lured by the “sinful, easy gold o’California,” which has made them mad (29). Cabot finally grows angry and threatens to put them in an insane asylum.

They gambol away and pick up rocks, throwing them and breaking glass of the parlor window. Cabot rages that he will beat them. They head down the road, singing a merry tune.

Abbie looks out the window and down to Cabot, asking if this is her room. He replies that it is their room.

Abbie goes downstairs and enters the kitchen, where she sees Eben before he notices her; she is filled with desire for him. She seductively tells him she is his new maw, and he explodes that she is not. She says she wants to be friends, that she understands why he is upset, that she is not the worst and he will grow to like her.

He derisively says his father bought her like a harlot and that the farm is his. She scornfully laughs and says they will see; she can have Eben driven off the land. She softly tells him they ought to be friends, and for a moment he is confused, torn by his anger and his desire. He snaps out of his confusion and yells that she is a witch and he hates her. He leaves in frenzy.

Abbie smiles to herself and washes dishes.

Outside, Eben approaches his father, who is talking to God. He mocks the old man, who retorts that he ought to be working.

The brothers’ song is heard in the distance.


Simeon and Peter free themselves from the shackles of their family and the land, and while this seems to be a good thing, they are merely exchanging one obsession for another. It is unlikely that they will strike it rich in the gold fields, as most did not and ended up wasting their time and what small capital they had in the elusive quest to strike it rich. Meanwhile, two members of the perhaps-incestuous triangle that will be Abbie-Cabot-Eben arrive. Cabot is an old man but one who possesses great physical strength. Only his eyes fail him, which is a metaphor for his inability to see the relationship that Abbie and Eben begin. He is a hard man, quick to lose his temper but full of passion and a desire to be known and understood.

Abbie is a complicated character. She is just as lonely as Cabot and Eben and is thus worthy of our sympathy. On the other hand, O’Neill paints her a rather coarse seductress, fleshy and flirtatious. She immediately zeroes in on Eben’s weakness –his love for his Maw –and makes that her seduction technique. She is depicted as utterly beguiling and dangerous.

There will be hints of the myth of Oedipus, the man who kills his father and marries his mother, in the relationship between Abbie and Eben. This is seen in not only the fact that Abbie is actually Eben’s stepmother, but because of that language of seduction she employs that suggests she wishes to take his mother’s place. In Part II, the lovers consummate their relationship after the presence of Maw supposedly gives her tacit blessing and vacates her seat of power, the parlor.

Now that we are several scenes into the play, it is notable that not once since the prefatory remarks about the set are the elms mentioned in detail, sat on, looked at, etc. They are merely there, standing next to and drooping over the house. Critic Timothy Dugan looks at these elms in an article, written to address the elimination of the elms from the set in the 2009 revival. He calls them “silent sentinels –keepers of unspeakable sex and murder –O’Neill’s Praetorian Guard.” They are initially described as rather mysterious. Abbie refers to them in the context of her growing a child within her, referring to them as part of her attempt to seduce Eben. Through referencing the trees in this way, O’Neill “was attempting to create shared meaning –reciprocal sexual conduct –between Mother and Son. Hence, Abbie’s first allusion to the ‘elums’ is an incestuous, feminized, visual cue that the [audience at the 2009 show] is deprived of.”

As the play continues, the characters speak at length about the stone walls, the land, the rocks, the house, the barn, the cows, and more, but “Weirdly, the trees are left alone. They are not defined, explained, or contextualized by any of the characters.” O’Neill described them in beautiful, poetic terms but then left them alone. Dugan suggests that this actually makes them more ominous. For the audience of a staging with the elms, they remain there, silent and threatening as the events onstage start to spiral out of control. They are anonymous, spooky, and judgmental. Of course, they are also tied to the maternal spirit in the house –Maw –and offer some foreshadowing for the deaths and drama to come (see analysis 5).