Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms Summary and Analysis of Part II Scenes 1&2


Scene I

It is two months later. Abbie is sitting outside, dressed in her best, bored. She senses Eben above her in the farmhouse and eagerly seeks him out. When he comes out their eyes meet and he turns away angrily. He is also dressed up, and heads off the porch to the path.

She laughs at how spruced-up he is. The desire between them is obvious, permeating the air. She languidly says how she knows he thinks she is pretty, and how warm it is outside. Eben scoffs that his father would not want to hear her talking like this. She retorts that it is easier now that she has made Ephraim softer, but Eben replies that he will fight them both for Maw’s land.

He turns to head out the road. She asks if he is going to see Min, which makes her upset. She spits out how Min has seen every man, but Eben laughs that she is better than her -at least she did not whore herself out for this farm which will never be hers.

She screams at him to get along, that the land will never be his. She glowers after him, filled with hate.

Cabot comes up from the barn. He appears dreamy, but not less strong. He asks if she was fighting with Eben again, and she says bitterly that he is the spitting image of Cabot. She says Cabot is too soft now, but he simply looks at the sky and says it is pretty. Abbie cannot agree.

He says he is getting old and would like his own place up there in the sky. He is tired of being cold, and he feels resigned. When he says how he has grown to appreciate Eben, Abbie asks suddenly why he is so taken with him all of a sudden. She asks if she is not his wife.

He grabs her hand and covers it with kisses, speaking words of love that she does not seem to notice. She asks if he is giving the farm to Eben and he replies he is not giving it to anyone. He adds that he wishes he could just set fire to the whole thing and watch it burn, but he would set the cows free. At her prompting he says he would set her free too.

Abbie turns the conversation back to Eben, saying he is taking up with that harlot Min and that he even demonstrated lust towards Abbie. When he hears this, Cabot flies into a rage and says he will kill Eben. Abbie is startled and tries to calm him down, saying she did not mean it and he needs Eben’s help on the farm. Cabot calms down.

Suddenly Abbie says maybe God will give them a son. Cabot is thrilled with this idea. Abbie seems grimly resolved, and says they will have one. She asks if there is a son if Cabot will give the farm to her. He says he would do anything, trembling with happiness and hope. He leans his head to pray.

Scene II

There is a wall dividing Eben’s room from Cabot and Abbie’s room. Eben appears desperate, Cabot wildly excited about having a son. Cabot says gleefully that he and the farm are begetting a son. Abbie tells him to go to sleep, and says glumly that she does not understand him.

Eben and Abbie seem to lock eyes through the wall. He stretches out and she rises. He flings himself on his bed and she relaxes.

Cabot raises his head and looks at Abbie, asking plaintively if anyone will ever know him. He explains how he came here fifty years ago and there was nothing there; he plowed the fields of stones even when people said it could not be done. They are not laughing now: some went west; some died. He grew hard. God is not easy, he knew, and he piled the stones into walls and grew harder; “yen kin read the years o’ my life in them walls” (44). He was lonesome, and took a wife. She had Simeon and Peter, and died. She was a good woman and worked hard but never knew him. The farm grew and it was all his, and he took another wife and had Eben. She was pretty and soft and did not know him either. They hated each other, and they wanted the farm but did not know what that meant. He was bitter. She died too, and then he heard a call from God in the wilderness. He went out and found her, his Rose of Sharon.

She looks at him blankly and he asks her if she understands him. She seems confused, and he becomes angry.

She says she might have second sight and promises him he will have a son. He shivers and says he believes her, but is cold and is going down to sleep in the barn where it is warm.

Abbie is a bit concerned and asks if he is ailing. He says he is just getting old, and goes downstairs.

Eben sits up. He meets Abbie’s glance through the wall. Both sigh. Eben opens the door and Abbie meets him. She kisses him furiously but then he becomes angry and pushes her off in a rage. They stand panting.

Abbie moans that she would make him happy, but he says she could not and that her kiss was like poison. They argue about Min for a bit, and Abbie says Eben is a dog and she only wants him for her own purpose.

Eben threatens her that she must leave his room. Abbie laughs at the lust she can see in him, and that one day this whole house will be hers. She tells him to come court her in the parlor downstairs.

He is fixated on her, helpless. After she leaves, he thinks about the parlor and says aloud, “Maw! Whar air yew?” (48.)


In these scenes we come to know Ephraim Cabot a bit better. He defines himself as perpetually lonesome, telling Abbie, “Ye don’t know me, that’s it,” (43) and then musing to himself, “Will ye ever know me –‘r will any man ‘r woman?” (44). In an extended monologue he speaks both to Abbie and to himself about how he came to this land which was only field and stone, and lasted longer than the other men who died or left. He grew as hard as the stones as he worked the land, knowing that God is hard and wanted him to demonstrate his endurance and will. Over time he grew lonesome and took one wife, then another after the first died. Neither of these women knew him. As he speaks, it is clear he is reaching out to Abbie for just one spark of human connection and understanding, and it is a sad moment when he turns to her and asks her if she knows him any more now and she appears resentful, blank. On the other hand, Cabot manages to dismiss Eben’s Maw with a simple “After a matter o’ sixteen years, she died” (45) without acknowledging the role his obsession with the land and her concomitant backbreaking work may have played in that death. His two first wives are invisible women, and he never pauses to wonder if he knew them and if he cared for them as more than helping hands.

In his old age Cabot’s eyesight is failing and he has grown tired. He desires the warmth of the animals rather than the coldness of his house, thus reinforcing the symbolic ties of Cabot to the land rather than the manmade. He vacillates between disdain of his son Eben and affiliation with and affection for the young man. He welcomes a new son, hoping perhaps that the child will bring him fulfillment by ending disputes over the land.

In terms of the land, Cabot seems more passionate about it than any of the women he has been with, despite his occasional outburst of affection for Abbie. He speaks more than once about a great catharsis manifested in burning the land and the barn, setting the cows free (setting himself free?), and letting the cultivated land go back to nature. His relationship with the land may be what O’Neill meant when he said his play was a “tragedy of the possessive –the pitiful longing of man to build his own heaven here on earth by glutting his sense of power with ownership of land, people, money –but principally the land and other people’s lives.”

Cabot is the most religious character, and his God is the unrelenting, authoritarian God of the Puritans. Cabot feels God wants to test him in terms of the hardness of the land and the loneliness he feels; he condemns his older sons for seeking the “easy” gold of California, as he worked hard his whole life. He named those sons Simeon and Peter, biblical names, and calls Abbie his “Rose of Sharon," a flower mentioned in Song of Solomon. One scholar, Jean Anne Waterstadt (referenced in Stella Gorlin’s piece), suggests that “Ephraim is the most creative, the most fulfilled member of the Cabot family; that he is the only one who has a sense of his own identity and realizes how and where he belongs.” She concludes that “Only Ephraim has the strength to make the earth produce; only Ephraim has the will to toil to the end of his days to preserve that productivity; only Ephraim loves the land; only Ephraim is ‘fruitful’; and ultimately only Ephraim values life.”

There is another way, of course, to view Cabot’s religiosity. O’Neill was very influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially the philosopher’s conclusion that the triumph of Greek culture was its uniting of Dionysianism and Apollonism. The former refers to rapture, embodied by dancing, sex, drugs, and more; once a person has engaged in these, he can look deeply into the nature of things and join a higher community on a higher plane. In the latter, an individual understands his limits and knows himself; he can, though, be reduced to a logician forced to repress any of his true impulses. In this play, Cabot represents the Apollonian, and as scholar Maurice M. LaBelle writes, both authors “see traditional religion as one of the principle obstacles to besetting modern man’s attempts to reign his barbaric Dionysian urges.” Cabot engages in these Herculean labors because of his God but the other characters are not religious. They still engage in the Apollonian impulse of controlling themselves, as when Eben tries to resist Abbie’s advances; Abbie tells him this is against his nature, and she is right. We will consider more of this dichotomy in the analysis for Part III of the play.