Desire Under the Elms

Desire Under the Elms Summary and Analysis of Part III Scenes 1-4


Scene I

It is the following year. Eben sits upstairs, conflicted and quiet. In the next room a baby sleeps in its cradle. Downstairs it is festive, with people chattering together in a gossipy way, Cabot becoming drunk, and Abbie sitting alone, her face drawn and lonesome.

She asks offhandedly where Eben is. A young girl and a man tease her but she does not notice. The fiddler jokes that he is offering up prayers because unto him a – he pauses – brother was born. Everyone laughs.

Cabot aggressively steps forward and asks why no one dances. The fiddler says they are waiting for Eben. Cabot snarls that he has a new son now, but then relents and says Eben is a fool but is his blood.

An old farmer wonders at Cabot how he had a son at his age. Cabot grimly says he has a lot in him, and calls for more celebration.

The fiddler plays and people dance. Only Abbie sits alone, morose. The fiddler winks at Cabot and says he is spry, but he does not have good eyesight.

Cabot suddenly darts into the middle of the circle wildly and starts dancing and capering. The fiddler jeers and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel." Cabot looks ridiculous, whooping and praising himself and calling the younger generation soft and useless.

The fiddler stops playing, protesting he cannot keep up with his dancing. Cabot is pleased and pours a drink while everyone watches him hostilely.

Above, Eben gets up and walks to look at the baby; his face is almost tender. Abbie seems to sense this and gets out to go check on the baby. She tells Cabot not to touch her as she leaves. Sweating, Cabot decides to go outside for fresh air. Inside everyone gossips about them.

Upstairs Abbie whispers to Eben that the baby looks just like him. Eben sighs that he does not like this secret, but Abbie says they are doing their best and they must wait. Eben decides to leave the house on account of the music; they kiss.

Outside Cabot muses that there is something there, something disturbing the peace, and that he wants to rest in the barn. The fiddler plays and everyone dances.

Scene II

That same evening, Eben is staring up at the sky. Cabot comes toward him with a maniacal grin on his face, and tells him he ought to go in and dance with one of the pretty girls inside. In fact, he ought to think about marrying and find a share of a farm. Eben retorts he already has a farm and that it is right here.

Cabot laughs scornfully and says it is not Eben’s farm but it will be his true son’s, and he will never get around Abbie because she knows his tricks. He adds that Abbie told him Eben tried to make love to her.

Eben is shocked when he hears this. Cabot gleefully says Abbie told him that she would have a son so Eben would not get the land.

Eben angrily jumps up to confront Abbie, but Cabot stops him and they engage in a violent struggle. Cabot gets the upper hand and is strangling Eben when Abbie sees what is happening and runs out to break up the fight.

Cabot says he was not going to kill Eben; he adds that he will raise his son upstairs to be just like him. He laughs and goes inside.

When Abbie tries to comfort Eben, he pushes her away and begins to sob. Confused and distressed, Abbie asks what is wrong with him and why he is acting like he hates her. He calls her a whore and a liar who made a fool of him and had a son to keep him from getting the farm. Abbie is stunned and tries to convince Eben she really loves him.

Eben announces he will get his Maw to come and take revenge on them, or that he will tell his father the truth about the baby and then go to California. He will get enough money to buy back the farm. He condemns the baby, who he says is now there to take everything from him.

Abbie brokenly asks if he believes she loved him before the baby and he admits she did, but like a dumb animal. She says she hates the baby too because he tore them apart. Eben scoffs that she loves the baby and will give him the farm.

Distracted, Abbie says she will kill him before that happens. Eben turns to leave and Abbie grows frantic and clings to him, begging him to stay and asking him if she could prove that she was not trying to steal the farm if he would love her and kiss her again. He says he could but this will never happen because she is not God.

Abbie intensely reminds him that he promised, and Eben wonders if she is crazy. She calls after him that she will prove to him how much she loves him.

Scene III

Cabot is asleep in the bedroom; Eben is sitting at the kitchen table with his bag packed. Abbie leans over the cradle, terrified but desperate and committed. She leaves the cradle and runs to Eben, flinging her arms around him and telling him it is done. Eben dully says it does not matter and that he is leaving; Maw will take vengeance for him.

Abbie clings to him and says he does not need to go now because nothing can come between them. Her voice is strange enough that Eben asks what she did, and she says she killed him. Eben thinks she means Cabot, but she corrects him and says it was the baby. She laughs wildly.

He is stunned, and drops to his knees to ask Maw why she did not stop her. Abbie says quietly that Maw is no longer there and has not been since that night. She killed the baby by placing a pillow over his face.

Eben is filled with grief. Abbie explains that she did not want to do it but knew that he stood in their way. Eben yells that this is not what he meant to happen, and Abbie tries to calm him down. Irate, he says that she probably wants to pin this on him, and that she killed the baby to steal from him again. He announces that he will call the Sheriff and then go to California. Sobbing, he runs out of the house.

Abbie calls after him that she loves him and she does not care what he does as long as he loves her again.

Scene IV

Exhausted, Abbie sits at the table. Cabot comes downstairs, talking to her about how the baby is sleeping soundly. He asks her if she has made food and she says no. Cabot responds that she better do so soon because the baby will wake up. Abbie says dully that he is dead.

Cabot is confused and asks if she is crazy. She grows wild and tells him to go look if he does not believe her. He does so, and is utterly flabbergasted. He shakes her and asks why, and she orders him not to touch her. She says the baby is not his, that she hates him, and it was Eben’s child.

Cabot looks dazed and bewildered. He felt like he knew this to some degree, and then starts to tear up. He quiets himself and says he needs to be a rock of judgment, and that maybe it is better the baby is gone since the house was so cold.

He plans to go to the Sheriff, and Abbie tells him not to bother because Eben already has. Cabot pauses, and then tells her that if she loved him he would have never told the Sheriff on her. He looks old and tired, and feels terribly lonesome.

Eben enters morosely. Cabot asks him if he told the Sheriff and Eben assents. Cabot praises him as being like his Maw, but then threatens him to get off the farm.

Eben bursts into the room where Abbie is, begging for forgiveness. They embrace ecstatically. He explains how he realized he really loved her and that he wants to share her punishment with her. She shakes her head that this is impossible. He believes himself as guilty as she is; he will tell the Sheriff they planned it together. She cries that she does not want him to suffer. He says he does not care if he goes to prison as long as they are together. They kiss passionately.

Cabot comes in and sees them together, a “slick pair o’ murderin’ turtle doves” (77). He announces he will leave the farm forever –he turned the cows loose and freed them as he will free himself. He will burn the house and let Maw haunt the ashes, and will go find Simeon and Peter in California. He sings and pulls up the floorboard. When he sees that there is no money there, he is shocked. Eben tells him what he did, and Cabot sighs that now he knows God did this –God is hard, not easy. God is lonesome. He will stay here and grow old.

The Sheriff arrives and Cabot lets him in. Eben says he helped Abbie do it. The Sheriff takes them both. Cabot says goodbye to them.

Abbie and Eben proclaim their love and kiss. Eben points to the sunrise and says it’s pretty. Abbie agrees. The Sheriff looks around the land appreciatively and says it is a lovely farm and he wishes he owned it.


The play comes to a shocking end with the murder of the infant, Abbie’s way of ensuring that Eben does not leave her. It is a Dionysian act of monumental proportions, and as critic Maurice M. LaBelle writes, “That O’Neill should single out a woman to complete the evolution of Dionysianism is a major modification of Nietzsche’s attitude that females are ‘at best, cows’ whose sole raison d’etre is to provide recreation for the ‘warrior’ and bear Supermen.” Abbie Eben have reached their full Dionysian splendor; they are at the apex of their love, uniting nature, self, and love. They can die now that everything after will be denouement and ebb.

Cabot’s fate is seemingly in the balance, at least for a moment. As critic Jerry Stinnett writes, “Because of what he sees as Abbie and Eben’s betrayal, Ephraim is confronted with his own failings and the true nature of the farm which serves as his desire and his prison, and has momentarily embraced the liberation these shocking circumstances offered him.” for one moment Cabot rejects the Puritan work ethic and harsh God he has adhered to for his whole life, but this is short-lived. His Dionysian release is thwarted by his stoicism and stubbornness, and by Maw’s assurance that he would not have the money she died producing. He will remain on the farm until he dies alone and embittered.

One of the interesting scenes in the last act is the party held at the Cabots’ farmhouse. It serves to reinforce the blindness of Cabot to what is happening around him, but is also interesting for other reasons. As Timothy Dugan explains, O’Neill was influenced by the works of Henri Ibsen and August Strindberg, who used dances as metaphors for sexual discovery. In Desire, “through robust music, consumptive drinking, dance hypnosis and collective mongering we anticipate (we decipher) the horrific crime –death by asphyxiation –that is soon to be committed on a newborn. Eerily, the strutting and whooping of the revelers are not communal expressions of the child’s birth, but a surreal death rattle.” The Fiddler is an archetypal figure in literature, using nonverbal signals as well as jokes, puns, mimicry, hazing, and rumormongering to act as a craven agent provocateur. The gossip and canards are routed through him to the guests; he is “a sinister ‘orchestrator’ and cipher” “debases the principle of the festive gathering and sustains the merciless hoax acted-out on the Cabots.”

The Greek myths mentioned in past analyses have come to fruition. Like Hippolytus, the father is left alone, and son will be dying soon (it is likely Eben will hang). Like Medea, the woman has killed her child. Like Oedipus, the son has supplanted the father, tried to kill him, and “married” his mother. It is a tragedy for certain; O’Neill once said, “in all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place.” However, some critics question Abbie’s killing of the child as a mere plot device, suggesting that she would not truly do that given that he is “the ultimate bond between them and the symbol of their shared future” (Dowling).

Finally, it is worth considering, especially in light of the earlier comment about Nietzsche’s views on women, what role women play in this play. In most of O’Neill’s works, the characters are mostly men, although women, many mostly unseen or invisible, are present as well. There are some independent women, but many are wives, mothers, or whores. Maw in Desire is no purely benevolent force, however; she is “sinister” and “oppressive." Abbie is seductive but holds Eben in a pieta pose at the end of the play. She is flawed, human, albeit expressive of classic dangerous female sexuality. Thus, there is no definitive answer to how O’Neill depicts women, other than that it comes from a traditional patriarchal perspective but deviates from it as well.