Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why are Abbie and Eben so attracted to each other?

    Abbie and Eben's feelings for each other do not necessarily derive from a rational, logical place. Even though many love affairs are not logical, this is particularly evidence in the case of theirs. It seems as if they are being motivated by their unconscious drives. Abbie is attracted to Eben the moment she sees him and launches into her seduction of him without a pause. Eben cannot hold back his passionate feelings for her, either, thus making it seem as if their affair is preordained. Some critics factor Maw into this, saying that Abbie is an embodiment of Maw and that explains Eben's intense and immediate feelings for her. O'Neill's knowledge of Freud's writings brings these ideas of the unconscious and the subconscious into play here.

  2. 2

    Is Cabot or Eben more to blame for the tragedy of the infant's death?

    On the one hand, it is easy to blame Cabot. He is a harsh, unyieldingly stubborn man who brings three wives to the farm. The farm consumes him to the point that he does not care that the first two wives die and he alienates his three sons. His selfishness precludes him from seeing what is going on between Abbie and Eben, and, eventually, what happens with the child. Eben, though, is a man obsessed with revenge. There is no nuance in his view of his father. He is hot-tempered and tempestuous, quick to believe the worst of Abbie even though their love was established. His careless words push Abbie to commit the terrible act, and he (initially) cannot see what role he has to play in it. Thus, both men are as culpable in this tragedy as Abbie herself.

  3. 3

    How do the Greeks, Freud, and Nietzsche influence the play?

    The play may have a simple setting and be written in the vernacular, but that's where its simplicity ends. O'Neill brings in many outside influences. He reveals the hardness of Christianity in having Cabot speak of how God wanted him to work the land. He explores the tensions between Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian drives, endeavoring to show how adherence to the former at the expense of the latter is disastrous for a person. He explores the Oedipal complex as articulated by Freud. The story has echoes of other Greek myths besides that of Oedipus -the revengeful, child-killing figure of Medea haunts the character of Abbie, and the love triangle between a father, stepmother, and son found in Hippolytus manifests itself in that of Cabot, Eben, and Abbie.

  4. 4

    What significance do Simeon and Peter have in the play?

    Simeon and Peter seem like somewhat minor characters. They leave before the major action of the play and are never heard from again. They are, however, important in that they are members of this strange and cruel family, and want to extricate themselves from it in a way that Eben finds more difficult. They reinforce Cabot's misleading materialism in that they leave the farm so they can move to California and seek their fortunes in the gold rush, which quite obviously will not happen. They are just as committed to hard work as Cabot is, not being able to avoid working for more than a few minutes, and they also possess their father's hardheartedness in that they did nothing to prevent Eben's Maw from being worked to death. Thus, their characters reinforce the negative aspects of Cabot, and the fact that family is a corrupt and heartless institution in this play.

  5. 5

    Why is the farm so important to the characters of Cabot, Eben, and Abbie?

    The farm is important to Cabot because he worked his entire life to make it profitable. He felt God gave him this land, and wanted him to toil unceasingly to make it bear fruit. The land is what combats his loneliness, what makes his life and the various difficulties associated with it worth living. It is the way he proves his value to his God. For Eben, the land is the manifestation of his mother. His mother died working for Cabot, a harsh patriarchal taskmaster, and now Eben wants nothing more than to take it for himself so he can avenge his mother and banish his father. Abbie, for her part, wants the land for more inscrutable purposes, but we can hypothesize that as a woman she can say she owns or has control over very little in her life; Cabot's land is something she can control and reap the benefits from.