It is 1850, the setting a New England farmhouse. Two huge elms droop on either side of the house, maternal but oppressive.
Eben Cabot, a 25 year-old man, looks at the sky. He is handsome but scowling, filled with a rough energy. His two older half brothers, Simeon and Peter, more squat and practical, bowed with hard work, join him. Simeon recollects how his love, Jenn, died eighteen years ago.
The two brothers muse about gold found in California. It is like Solomon’s mines, just waiting to be picked up off the ground. They complain of how much and how hard they’ve worked in their lives, wondering when their father, who has been gone for two months without a word, will die. The old man married Eben’s mother thirty years ago, but she is dead now.
Eben says in a surly tone that he wishes their father had died. The smell of bacon draws them inside.
The kitchen is neat a clean but looks more like “a men’s camp kitchen rather than that of a home” (9).
Simeon and Peter chide Eben for saying that about their paw. Eben retorts that he is not his, and that he is not like him. All three reminisce about how good Eben’s maw was to them. Eben growls that Paw worked her to death.
He then asks how they will get to California, but says they won’t leave because they will wait until Paw comes home to get their share of the farm. They say two thirds of it is theirs, but Eben disagrees and says it all belongs to his maw, and is thus his. He asks why they never stepped in to help when their paw drove his maw to death working, and they reply that they were busy working too; there was no time to meddle.
They ask why Eben never did anything, and he defensively replies that he had chores to do. They all agree she never complained.
Eben announces that when Paw returns he will finally meddle, and yell at the top of his lungs.
Peter wonders where he went. Simeon says they don’t know –one day he just drove off in his buggy, telling them not to run away until he came back. He claims he would have stopped him, but Eben scoffs that they are both afraid of the strong old man.
Eben then announces he is going out to see Minnie, who Peter jests is the Scarlet Woman. Simeon teases him that “a new coat o’ paint’ll make a heifer out of forty” (14) but Eben says she is not that old. He gets angry, though, and promises to smash her face in. The brothers watch him leave and laugh that he is the spitting image of Paw.
On the road Eben wonders if he might kiss Min, and ruminates on how warm she is. He does not care about her being a prostitute.
Eben enters the house and bangs on his brothers’ door. He announces their father has married again, to a thirty-five year old woman. He heard it from the preacher.
The brothers are stunned and realize everything will go to her. They decide to head for California now. Eben looks at them shrewdly and says he will give them three hundred dollars if they sign away their rights to the farm. This will give them money to take a boat to California.
They are surprised, and Eben explains it is his Maw’s money, hidden away.
They demur, and ask Eben about Minnie. He is defensive, and says he simply took her. She used to be his father’s, and she is his. He says his father’s new wife is probably an old cow. Simeon asks if he might not try to take her too, and he laughs in disgust and leaves.
Simeon and Peter decide that they will wait and see if Paw is really married, and they won’t work at all until this happens and they will then consider signing the paper. They are excited to “play rich fur a change” (19).
Desire Under the Elms may be set in the 1850s in a New England farmhouse, but it is heavily influenced by ancient Greece myths, particularly the stories told by the playwright Euripides. O’Neill believed the Greek myths resonated in a universal capacity, and could be thus be set in a modern context. Hippolytus, the story of a woman who tries to seduce her stepson, which results in the death of the son and the despair of the father, was one source (see “Other” in this study guide), and Medea another. In the latter play, Medea takes revenge on her husband Jason for leaving her for a new woman by killing that woman and her own children.
Both, as scholar Wayne Narey writes “are works of passionate hatred as well as love, and both center upon tragic victims rather than tragic heroes.” While the plot of Desire has more in common with Hippolytus in their linear, horizontal plot structures (as opposed to that of Medea, which is more fungible in terms of plot), it is more akin to Medea in its evocation of “a passion associated with both the maddening fury of hate and convoluted ecstasy of love.” The story is one of possession, as Narey notes, beginning with the elms brooding over the house in a maternal and oppressive possessiveness. They smother their inhabitants, echoing the grotesque female power embodied by Aphrodite.
Whereas the elms symbolize the mother figure, the stone walls represent the father figure. These warring deities are similar to the warring deities of Artemis and Aphrodite in Hippolytus; “the pervasive influence of externalize gods upon characters’ actions” makes the play very Greek. Narey notes “Cabot’s god is clearly under siege by the chthonian spirit of Eben’s mother.” The characters often use the word “somethin’” to describe that which they cannot accurately understand or convey. Narey also suggests something else that embodies the “Greek” of the play: a “leitmotif running through the work…[of] animalism that is continuous and unrelieved, debasing the play’s nobility: the brothers move together like oxen, Cabot finds comfort with his cows, and Abbie sees Eben as a ‘prize bull’.” This imagery keeps the passion between characters less than noble, but may be an attempt to “suggest the essential animalistic passions from which those elemental gods sprung.” Overall, O’Neill’s plot as well as his themes and motifs are suggestive of the Greek works.
In terms of the characters introduced here, it is clear that family and family ties are important, albeit it in a complicated way. Simeon and Peter, whose names suggest the biblical, are half-brothers to Eben. They share the same father, but are reluctant to assume that lineage given their father’s inexorable hardness; they construct their identities through negation rather than affirmation. All three are angry at him for the way he treated Maw, a character who is dead before the events of the story but whose presence is critical, but they all have excuses as to why they did not intervene to prevent her death from overwork. All the brothers have a desire to own the land, articulating their claims and legitimacy. Eben is the most fervently attached to the land, however; Simeon and Peter are ready to give the whole thing up and chase their pipe dreams of gold in California. All three, in fact, are full of dreams and hopes – gold for the two brothers, land ownership and revenge for Maw’s death for Eben – but they seem unlikely to be achieved. Critic James Fisher notes that the author “depicts the suffering of individuals who are either self-deluded or untrue to their destinies.” This will be borne out with the introductions of Abbie and Cabot.
Finally, two of the main symbols of the play are mentioned in these early scenes: the elms, which as stated represent the mother; and the stone wall, which represents the father. Robert M. Dowling adds that the “stone wall can also be read as a symbol for God’s hardened will (Ephraim), imprisonment (Simeon and Peter), and a womblike partition from the outside world (Eben).”