The Themes in Desire Under the Elms

The theme of incest is the most controversial one in the play Desire Under the Elms. Abbie Putnam has married Ephraim Cabot to get a home and is determined to possess his farm after his death. Equally insistent is Eben, Ephraim's grown son, who regards the inheritance as his right. Abbie persuades the doting Ephraim to leave the farm to her child if she shall have one.

Eugene O'Neill (1888- 1953)

Then, she cast her eye on Eben to provide the baby, which Ephraim is too old to give her. At this moment calculation breaks down. The young man and the young woman are drawn to each other with a force which neither can withstand. When the child is born and the truth comes out, the angry Ephraim disillusions his son about Abbie. But she by now is ready to prove by desperate means that she truly loves Eben If the child-heir is to come between them, she will kill it. She does, and Eben, appalled, but convinced, takes his stand by her to claim a share in her guilt. They are arrested together. This powerful and beautifully constructed play attracted the attention of a district attorney who was anxious to clean up Broadway. He gave the producers a few days to lose it, failing which he proposed to bring the matter before a grand jury. The sensation naturally benefited the play, which was exonerated by a citizen play-Jury selected to go and see it. Its popularity was further assured by its being banned in Boston and having its whole cast arrested in Los Angeles.

The grip of the Life-Force is another striking theme of the play. A strong note of mystery is struck in the pantomimic passages of Desire under the Elms. Act II, Scene II reveals the two bedrooms on the top floor of the Cabot house. It is the evening of a hot summer day, two months after Abbie has made her appearance on the farm. Eben is sitting on the bed in his room in undershirt and pants. In the other bedroom Abbie and Ephraim are sitting side by side on the edge of their bed in a night-shirt and night-dress. Suddenly, Eben gets up and paces up and down distractedly. Abbie hears him. Her eyes fasten on the intervening wall with concentrated attention. Eben stops and stares. Their hot glances seem to meet through the wall. Unconsciously, he stretches out his arms for her and she half rises. Then aware, he mutters a curse at himself and flings himself face downward on the bed, his clenched fists above his head, his face buried in the pillow. Abbie relaxes with a faint sigh, but her eyes remain fixed on the wall; she listens with all her attention for some movement from Eben. The multiple set and the pantomime help to inform the audience of Eben's desire for Abbie, even before he has become fully aware of it himself. This desire was first aroused the moment Eben first saw Abbie from far away arriving at the farm in the buggy. Reporting to his brothers that he can feel-rather than see-that it is Ephraim and Abbie who are in the distant buggy, he squirms as if he had the itch, an indication of his desire for Abbie, for what is the father's property. The description may be compared to the one concerning Abbie's lust for Eben: "Her body squirms desirously". In the bedroom scene (Act II, Scene II) their mutual desire, under the impact of or rather corresponding to the heat of the summer night, has reached a bursting point. The scene settles to the truth of Abbie's earlier pronouncement that Nature will beat Eben (Act II, Scene I). It is starkly ironical in its demonstration of the impenetrable barrier that exists between husband and wife despite their closeness in the matrimonial bed and the lack of such a barrier between the lovers despite the physical wall separating them. After Ephraim has left to seek the warmth his wife denies him, among the cows in the barn, the contact between the lovers is firmly established. "Eben and Abbie stare at each other through the wall. Eben sighs heavily and Abbie echoes it. He acts as if he saw every move she was making, he becomes resolutely still. She seems driven into a decision-goes out the door in rear determinedly." What O'Neill presumably wanted, to express here, as generally in the play, is what the characters feel subconsciously, above all that they are in the grip of a life-force stronger than themselves-what Abbie terms Nature which makes your want to grow into something else till you are joined with it.

Variations on desires among the characters are another vital theme of the play. Abbie, the young wife, desires a home and security. That is why she marries to the old 75 years old Ephraim just for the sake of land and the security. Simeon and Peter, the two sons, desire freedom from the hard labor of a New England rock bound farm and wants own independence in the gold mining work of California. They set out for California to achieve their desires. Eben, the youngest son, desires to possess what was his mother's (with the obvious Freudian theory) land and in the latter part of the play, he strongly desires for the physical love from Abbie. And the old Ephraim, the father, desires to escape from his tragic sense of loneliness by possessing the farm he has made out of impossible land, since human love fails him in each of his wives and in his each sons.