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Character Analysis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

CABOT, Eben, third son of Ephraim Cabot and half-brother of Simeon Cabot and Peter Cabot. Eben is twenty-five years old, "tall and sinewy," dark and rather good-looking, but with an expression that "is resentful and defensive. His defiant, dark eyes remind one of a wild animal's in captivity." There seem to be smouldering fires within him and "a fierce repressed vitality." He hates his father, as do his older half-brothers. Eben, the son of Ephraim's gentle second wife, hates his father for having worked her to death, but even more for having held the farm as his. Ephraim had married Eben's mother because she had a legitimate claim to ownership of the farm. Now the son believes that his father has stolen his rightful inheritance. Of all three sons Eben is most like his father in his attachment to this hard-scrabble farm. He buys up the shares of his half-brothers, using Ephraim's own secret hoard of gold, and wishes for the death of his father (who has been away for two months), for then the farm would be his, and with the death of family hatred his mother's unquiet ghost would be exorcized.

 

But Ephraim continues his pattern of filching from his son and outdoing him in everything. Even when visiting the town prostitute Eben knows that his father has preceded him. Now, when Ephraim returns with a new wife, Abbie Putnam Cabot, the cycle continues and Eben realizes that Abbie will get the farm. But despite his initial hatred of her, he is eventually seduced by her. In mythic terms, Phaedra has seduced Hippolytus, and Oedipus has slept with his mother. In Freudian terms the son has supplanted the father. But love has also entered this house, and with the consummation of Abbie and Eben's relationship, the ghost of Eben's mother leaves; her hostile spirit has turned kind.

 

As a result of this affair a son is born to Abbie. Ephraim rejoices in it as his, though all the world knows differently. Once again Ephraim has stolen something belonging to Eben, and the son commences to hate the child, especially when Ephraim taunts him with the announcement that the farm will go to the child or Abbie. He now wishes for the death of the child and turns against Abbie. Several myths now come together here: the Oedipus myth, the myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, and now the myth of Jason and Medea. Like Medea, Abbie kills her child, but her motivation is to regain the love of Eben.

 

His first reaction is to impose the same Old Testament justice that his father espouses. Abbie has sinned in killing her own flesh and blood and therefore she must pay; while on another level, the son would have preferred the death of his father, a Freudian view. Therefore his initial reaction is to follow the path of the angry God of retributive justice and he informs on Abbie. But then Eben wavers as his instinctual side comes into the ascendant. He is a child of nature and the land, subject to their rhythms and laws, the laws which brought them together in love. For that reason he returns to the farm to share Abbie's blame and punishment. Both have sinned in the name of love, and both must share their doom together. They depart from the farm for prison as the sun is rising and go forth in a shared devotion, almost a transfiguration.

 

Both Eben and Abbie are characters who seem to be doomed by some malevolent deity, partly because they are both too close to the natural order of human existence. They are the two who seem to be most attuned to the rhythms of nature and therefore cannot escape their destiny. It is important to note the significance of the farm for both of the lovers. For Abbie it means home and a place to belong and set down roots; for Eben it is a place of kinship with the earth, a small world insulated against what is outside. For him the stone walls that imprisoned his brothers are protection, where he lives with the spirit of his mother but also with classic Oedipal hatred of his father. Yet he is the only son who can have any comprehension of what the farm means both to him and his father, and therefore he must wrest ownership from his father. Eben and the farm are one.

 

Though he does have some of his father's characteristics, Eben is not quite so punitive in his conception of God. He also follows the Dionysian God of instinct, even more than his father, and in surrender to that God he achieves a different kind of fertility. Nonetheless, when he hears of his child's murder, the Apollonian, judgmental, wrathful God makes him inform on Abbie, in unexpected contrast to Ephraim, who says he would never have told. This episode of Puritanism, of Old Testament rage, is short-lived, and in love he returns to Abbie. He then offers her a love which renounces everything, including life, to share in her punishment by accepting part of the guilt. This is the love, the charity of which Paul spoke in the New Testament; "Now there remaineth Faith, Hope, and Love, these three; and the greatest of these is Love."

 

Obviously, Eben and his love for Abbie are not to be taken literally, otherwise one would have merely a melodrama of incest. In bringing his material together on a strong basis of myths reinterpreted in an American setting, O'Neill has obtained resonances from the Greeks, the Old and New Testaments, Nietzsche, Freud, and American history. As a result he has communicated the sense of doom, the feelings of pity and terror of which Aristotle spoke. Oedipus, Hippolytus, Judas Iscariot, and finally Jesus as interpreted by Saint Paul, all provide qualities of Eben Cabot, and it is through the sensitive use of all these myths that O'Neill has managed to give extraordinary power to the characters of a play which remains one of the finest in the American theatre.

 

CABOT, Simeon. Oldest son of Ephraim Cabot, brother of Peter Cabot, and half-brother of Eben Cabot. Simeon is thirty-nine years old, heavily built, fleshy, and "bovine" in countenance. Like Peter, Simeon has worked resentfully on his father's farm all his life and cannot wait to leave it. His character, however, is not as hard as Peter's. When Simeon sees a golden sunset he recalls his wife Jenn, dead for the past eighteen years: "She'd hair long's a hoss's tail—and yaller like gold." His occasional recollection of her "makes it lonesome." For him, as for Peter, the farm's stone walls imprison them and he is happy to take from Eben his thirty pieces of gold (a significant number, reminiscent of the price paid Judas Iscariot) to free himself from slavery to his father and to seek his fortune in California. Nonetheless, he identifies with the "number one prize stock" that he and his brother have helped raise. Significantly, it is Simeon who announces the theme of escape from prison when he speaks of the walls "crumblin' and tumblin!" and takes the gate off the hinges: "We harby 'bolishes shet gates, an' open gates, an' all gates, by thunder!" He hates his father and as a character possesses the same symbolic significance as Peter: he is the son who must revolt against patriarchal dominance and exploitation and against the Puritan, Old Testament, wrathful God, or the Nietzschean Apollonian God. Also like Peter, he foreshadows the Dionysiac satyr-performance of Ephraim at the celebration for the birth of Abbie Putnam Cabot's son. As a last act of defiance, Simeon joins Peter in heaving rocks through the parlor window.

 

CABOT, Peter. Second son of Ephraim Cabot, brother of Simeon Cabot, and half-brother of Eben Cabot. Peter is thirty-seven years old, heavily built, fleshy, and "bovine" in countenance. He has worked resentfully on his father's farm all his life and cannot wait to leave. Although he has some sensitivity to the beauty of the sunset, it reminds him of "gold in the sky—in the West—Golden Gate—Californi-a! Goldest West!—fields o'gold." For him, as for Simeon, the stone walls they have helped to build on the farm imprison them, and he is happy to take from Eben his thirty pieces of gold (a significant number, reminiscent of the price paid Judas Iscariot) to try his fortune and find freedom in California. He is a trifle more practical and less sensitive than Simeon but he too has some regrets about leaving the farm—for the "number one prize stock" that he and his brother have raised. He hates his father and, like his brother, possesses some symbolic significance as a character. An unwilling follower of the Protestant ethic, Peter is a son who must revolt against patriarchal tyranny, the Puritan wrathful God of the Old Testament, or the Nietzschean Apollonian God. As he leaves he becomes the ecstatic, intoxicated follower of the "easy" God his father forsook; and in his departing song and dance he, with his brother, foreshadows the boasting, drunk-en, Dionysiac satyr-dance performed by Ephraim Cabot at the celebration for the birth of Abbie Putnam Cabot's son. As a departing act, Peter and Simeon heave rocks through the parlor window.

 

CABOT, Ephraim. Father of Simeon Cabot, Peter Cabot, and Eben Cabot, and husband of Abbie Putnam Cabot.  He is seventy-five years old, "gaunt, with great wiry power, but stoop-shouldered from toil." His face is as hard as the rocks on his farm, yet at the same time "there is a weakness in it, a petty pride in its own narrow strength." His eyes are close-set and myopic.

 

Ephraim is the archetypal New England Puritan, the believer in hard work as a means to glorification, the man who thinks himself to have a pipeline to the deity and actually hears God speaking to him. His God is an angry god, one of toil and punishment, not one of consolation, and as a result, Ephraim's life has become one of great loneliness. However, the "weakness" in his face indicates his occasional "lapses" from this harsh creed. Once he went away from his rock-riddled farm, following others from the locality to the Middle West where he found the land so rich that one merely had to plant the crops and sit back until they grew. But this ease distressed him, and finally he heard God speaking to him to say that this is not what He wanted. "God's hard, not easy," as Ephraim constantly says. Cabot believes that God, in fact, ordered him back to the farm, where he built his stone walls and forced the earth into fertility. Ephraim has also married three times. First to a woman like himself, a hard worker, who bore Simeon and Peter. Second, to Eben's mother, a softer person, but whose parents had some claim to the farm; she died, like her predecessor, worked to death by Eben's driving destiny. The third marriage, that to Abbie Putnam, a much younger women, is a curious response to the stirrings of nature within Ephraim in a spring some twenty-five years after his second wife's death.

 

This indicates not so much a "lapse" from service to the severe God of Puritanism, but rather an instinctive unity with the very farm itself. As he himself recognizes, Ephraim has become in effect the rock-strewn, hardscrabble farm, both in its difficulty and its fertility. For this reason, he identifies with both the land and its livestock. In fact, the only place where he really finds comfort is sleeping in the barn with the cows. This identity with nature sends him forth to seek a wife, to gratify his loneliness, but also, as he reads it, in response to the will of an Old Testament God. He wants to have a suitable son to whom he can leave the farm, but none of his boys seems right. Each is a rebel against the hardness of the father, though their responses are different. After years of slavery to the old man, the older boys decide to follow the demands of the "easy" God and go to California for gold. Nonetheless, they are so identified with the farm by their very "bovine" appearance that they regret leaving it. Significantly, they relate to the "fustrate, number one prize stock" they have bred, not to the imprisoning stone walls they have built to make the land fertile. Eben, despite his alleged "softness," is the closest to the old man in his desire to own the farm, in his vengefulness, and finally in his acceptance of punishment from the "hard" God.

 

But Ephraim is more than merely a God-fearing, God-obsessed patriarch of the New England persuasion. He is the Oedipal father whom, in Freudian psychological theory, the son seeks to destroy and supplant in his mother's bed. He is also briefly a participant in an almost Dionysian revel when he capers like a satyr at the celebration of the birth of Abbie's child by Eben. He then becomes the personification of the punishing God when he hears of the murder of the child, but in momentary despair thinks of renouncing his harsh God, following his "easy" one to California, and destroying the results of his service to the harsh God of Puritanism or, in the Nietzschean terms, the Apollonian God. For this reason, he will turn the livestock loose and burn everything, but by the end of the play, the hardness has won and Ephraim's life on the farm will continue. He is hounded by his own destiny and must pay for even his minor attempts to escape. In this manner, Ephraim becomes a mythic figure, a combination of the forces of New England Puritanism, Greek myth, Freudian psychology, and Nietzschean theory; in addition, he is emblematic of Nature herself, which cannot be denied. He should not be taken literally, though such a reading is possible, but symbolically, against the background of these varied sources. The key to his character is the long monologue in Part II, Scene ii, in which his dialect reaches a level of poetic eloquence that O'Neill does not always manage. Here, too, the excellent use of Biblical quotation when lyricism is beyond Ephraim's personal vocabulary is both totally in character and indeed inspired.

 

But one must not forget the ineffable loneliness of the man, which must also arouse pity, as well as terror for the fate which engulfs him. In his own way, he has sought love and wants to love. He is sensitive to the loneliness and the coldness he finds within his house and among other people. His farewell words to Abbie indicate these qualities: "Ye'd ought t'loved me. I'm a man. If ye'd loved me, I'd never told no Sheriff on ye no matter what ye did, if they was t'brile me alive." This loss of Abbie makes him "lonesomer than ever"; but then the wrathful God controls him again as he returns to find Eben and Abbie in each other's arms, awaiting the Sheriff: "Ye'd ought t'be both hung on the same limb an' left thar t'swing in the breeze an' rot—a warnin't t'old fools like me t'b'ar their lonesomeness alone—an' fur young fools like ye t'hobble their lust." His theology is bleak and seems to offer no true happiness: his vision of heaven is to have a farm "up thar," and one wonders whether the cultivation will be as difficult "thar" as on earth. The Sheriff's concluding remark contains tremendous irony: "It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!" Ephraim Cabot is a titanic figure who must both fight and serve an angry God, and in a sense he is a symbol of a singularly bleak view of the human condition.

 

CABOT, Abbie Putnam. Wife of Ephraim Cabot and lover of Ephraim's son, Eben Cabot. Abbie is the thirty-five-year-old third wife of the seventy-six-year-old Ephraim. She is a buxom, good-looking woman whose face is marred by an obstinate chin and a "gross sensuality." She has married Ephraim solely to gain possession of a home and the farm. She had a hard life until Ephraim came along. Yet she has no love for him, only a desire to find a place where she can belong, and in fact she has a physical aversion to her husband.

 

When Abbie arrives at the farm, she is attracted by Eben's youthful good looks and uses her most seductive tone to gain his acceptance of her as his mother. Eben, however, sees her as a conniving interloper, a harlot who sold herself for the farm. Two months later, on a hot afternoon, Abbie accosts Eben. Clearly their physical attraction is almost unbearable, and she takes advantage of the situation. She herself is a ripe woman who responds to the stirrings of nature, and indeed finds herself one with it.

 

Eben fights against her, arousing her jealousy. However, as Abbie had predicted, nature proves too strong for Eben. Even though he repulses her once more, she finally persuades him to court her in the best parlor, the room in which his mother's funeral wake had taken place. When the two of them consummate their love in that room, it becomes theirs, and the restless spirit of Eben's mother vanishes. Here the myth of Phaedra and Hyppolytus is relived in the union of the two, together with the inclusion of the Oedipus situation by which Eben supplants his father.

 

By the following year, a son is born to Abbie and Eben, as all the world well knows, except Ephraim. But the balance of the lovers' existence has been disturbed by the arrival of their child; Eben detests pretending that what is rightfully his belongs to his father just like the farm. The farm, fertility, and ownership all become one to him, but when Ephraim taunts him by saying that the farm will go to Abbie or "his" son, Eben wishes the child dead, turning against Abbie in hatred. She, by now the slave of her destiny and physical desire, smothers the baby, in an attempt to regain Eben's love. Here again, O'Neill uses myth, this time that of Medea, who killed her own children because she had lost the love of Jason. But, as Abbie herself later realizes, she should have killed the old man, because Eben is devastated by the discovery that Abbie has murdered his own flesh and blood. All she can do is attempt to make him understand her motivation—that she loves him, Eben, better than anything else in the world. She could bear anything, if only Eben would again say he loved her.

 

But Eben rushes off to inform the Sheriff, and Abbie is left to face the Old Testament wrath of Ephraim. When Eben returns, Abbie discovers with strange joy that he has come to claim participation in the crime and plans to share her punishment because of his love for her. As they depart from the farm in the custody of the Sheriff, they go toward a rising sun and into a new existence which will be made easier by love, a love that, like that expressed by Saint Paul, surpasses all other virtues.

 

The character of Abbie, then, must be taken on a symbolic, nonliteral level as well as a literal one. She is the modern embodiment of a series of mythic resonances, coming from Ancient Greece, through Old and New Testaments, American history, Sigmund Freud, and even Nietzsche, even though he saw women as little more than recreation for mankind. She is Phaedra attempting to seduce Hippolytus, Jocasta who loves her son as child and husband, Medea who murders her children, and the victim of a malevolent deity and hence unable to escape her destiny. This deity is both the wrathful God of Puritanism and the Old Testament and the Apollonian God of Nietzsche. Yet even in her tragedy she finds some consolation in the other side of the Nietzschean dichotomy, that is, in the Dionysian ecstasy of her love for Eben. It is this deeper level of meaning that makes this play an important contribution to the American theatre and makes the character of Abbie Putnam tragic, rather than merely weak or pathetic.

 

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