Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms Summary and Analysis of Part II Scenes 3&4


Scene III

The interior of the parlor is like a tomb. Abbie is dressed in her best clothes, but no longer appears confident and wily. Eben enters, and muses how he feels Maw in here. Abbie feels it too. She says the presence likes her, but Eben says his Maw would hate her for stealing her place.

He adds that Maw bears Cabot a grudge, and Abbie says they all do. Eben starts to talk of her, saying she sang for him and this was her farm and Cabot could not appreciate her; to all of this, Abbie says she will sing for him, she will get this farm, and she is not appreciated either.

Eben bursts into tears and Abbie embraces him, feverishly telling him she will replace his Maw, will be everything to him. She kisses him. It is restrained at first and then grows wild.

Terrified and trembling he pulls away, then addresses the presence, asking it what it wants. All of a sudden he lights up and says that he knows what Maw is saying –Abbie is the vengeance on Cabot so she can rest in her grave. Abbie is elated, and holds out her arms to him. Eben embraces her gleefully.

Scene IV

Eben, handsome and bold and content, walks out to the gate. Abbie opens the window near him and calls to him in a quiet and sultry voice. He comes over and they kiss and exchange flirtatious words. Abbie laughs and says that Cabot will never find out. She adds that this is her room –their room.

In a strange tone Eben says he knows his Maw has gone back to her grave to rest in peace. Abbie chides him not to say sad things, not after their night of love.

Cabot is seen walking up the road so Abbie withdraws. Eben joins him and asks if he is stargazing during the day. Cabot nods that the sky is pretty. Eben replies that the farm is pretty, and Cabot corrects him. Eben laughs that his father cannot see that far with his bad eyes.

Cabot becomes suspicious of Eben’s jovial behavior. Eben asks if he felt Maw go down to her grave to sleep contentedly, but, confused, Cabot says he slept with the cows, which are teaching him to sleep well.

Laughing, Eben claims to be the boss of the place, and walks away. Cabot scowls that Eben is softheaded like his Maw, and there is no hope for him.


In these two scenes Abbie and Eben finally consummate their passion for each other, Eben concluding that Maw is fine with the situation as it allows her spirit to seek revenge on Cabot. This, then, is no average love story. As discussed in prior analyses, the Greek myths of Hippolytus, Medea, and Oedipus underlie the text, as do references to biblical figures. In one of the most compelling articles written on the play, Jerry V. Stinnett discusses the Abbie-Maw conflation in light of the figure of Lilith, the ancient folkloric goddess.

He begins by noting the obvious importance Maw has in the play despite the fact that she is not a physical presence. She is embodied in the elms, in the “somethin’” mentioned by the characters, and in the evocations of Abbie and Eben. However, she is discussed only up to the point of Abbie and Eben’s encounter in the parlor; she then vanishes from their discourse. Eben, and most critics, assume that this disappearance means Maw has given up her hold on her son, but this may not be the case. Eben has not buried his Oedipal impulses, and this will prove disastrous for many characters in the play, including his innocent son. Maw is still there, and this must be accounted for.

Stinnett then moves into a discussion of Lilith, particularly the Lilith of Jewish folklore and tradition, whom he sees as a better force than Greek myths with which to interpret the events of the second half of the place. Maw-as-Lilith warring against Cabot’s pride and lovelessness is the central conflict of the play, and “serves as a unifying element by helping to create a coherent plot structure and vital moral ethos which in turn connects the various source materials – including Nietzschean philosophy, naturalism, Greek mythology, and biblical myth – into a single tragic whole.”

It is difficult to pin the “character” of Lilith down. She was incorporated into many belief systems, but the West knew her from Jewish and Kabbalistic systems. She was Adam’s first wife, “linked with men’s fears of feminine self-determinacy and sexuality”; she left Adam when he tried to control her. She eventually returns to Adam after he is separated from Eve, and couples with him while he is asleep. In myth, she becomes the seductress, the manipulator of men, and the queen of demons.

O’Neill, Stinnett limns, was familiar with the Lilith myth and would have been able to work it into his play. Ephraim is the Creator, a powerful and judgmental figure, claiming divine attributes such as unknowability and immortality. The farm is Eden, a place Ephraim-as-God presides over and coveted by all those who see it (the Sheriff). Eben is made in Ephraim’s image, as Adam was of God. Abbie is the representation of Eve, a helpmate for Eben-as-Adam, albeit without Cabot’s official approval. Her seduction comes from nature. Maw’s spirit, then, is Lilith, the first “wife” of Eben, who lurks in the penumbras of the farm. When Abbie tries to seduce Eben, it is notable that she fails until she evokes the spirit of Maw and claims it for herself. Stinnett writes, “it is not Abbie doing the seducing but Maw herself” and “She must in fact become Maw in order to woo Eben.” Abbie is now possessed by Maw, her own agency limited.

Stinnett considers what purpose Maw has in using Abbie, especially as there are tragic situations to come. He sees this as primarily positive, for Maw’s overarching purpose is to resist Cabot. She is immaterial whereas Cabot is concerned with only the material; she encourages Eben to take Cabot’s money. She opposes masculine forces, which constantly beset her. Eben does not understand her, giving the money to Simeon and Peter rather than liberating himself. Abbie is a new opportunity for Maw, as Eben desires her because she is attractive and because she is Ephraim’s. Unfortunately, the child Abbie bears Eben becomes “a plague and poisons their relationship”; he can still only view things in a possessive capacity. Maw-as-Abbie murders the child, and this is an act directed at Eben-in-his-father’s-image; for O’Neill the greed demonstrated by the father and son are greater than incest or murder. Eben is angry at first but there is still Maw’s Dionysian hold over him; he finally rejects his Apollonian side and “is forced into accepting the Dionysian nature that is his inheritance from his mother and in so doing is freed from the cycle of bitter and passionless materialism that Ephraim no doubt failed to escape when he inherited it from his father.”