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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1985



Desire Under the Elms, written and first produced in 1924, is Eugene O'Neill's first great tragedy. In fact, Travis Bogard calls it the "first important tragedy to be written in America" (Bogard 200). Inevitably the play has been much interpreted. In addition to Louis Sheaffer's discussion in his superb critical biography of O'Neill (Sheaffer 126-131), three basic analyses need acknowledgment here: Philip Weissman, a Freudian psychiatrist, has analyzed the autobiographical structure (Weissman 432-460); Edgar F. Racey, Jr., the mythic structure (Racey 57-61); and Bogard. the Nietzschean pattern (Bogard 215-225). These are useful, illuminating works and, taken together, appear to constitute a complete probing of the drama, a totality of interpretive criticism. Indeed, little does remain to be said, and the possibility of suggesting anything new seems remote. There is, however, one unnoted implication for the character of Ephraim Cabot that may help enrich both appreciation and understanding of the density of the play.

Cabot remains one of O'Neill's most remarkable creations. Of this dour, tyrannical old Puritan protagonist, his maker has surprisingly remarked, "I have always loved Ephraim so much! He's so autobiographical" (Sheaffer 130). O'Neill's "love" of the old farmer, however, is not shared by commentators on the drama, although Cabot does evoke appreciative comment and analysis as well as damnation. Doris Falk calls Ephraim "a self-centered, loveless man who has projected his own personality into that of his God, a tyrannic, ascetic, restrictive embodiment of Puritanism." She identifies Ephraim's God as "only an image of his own ego." Falk also condemns Cabot's "exploitive egotism," his pride, his "brutal lust" (Falk 94, 98).

John Henry Raleigh is somewhat less harsh in his view of Ephraim, calling him first "a great grotesque, a powerful buffoon ... an almost endearing old miser and lecher." Then Raleigh observes, "But the essence of his character is not dryness and narrowness: on the contrary, he is complex and expansive." Raleigh finds that Ephraim "has an ego of monumental proportions and is, in fact, that very God he keeps referring to and calling upon. For what he really represents is pure power, physically and emotionally" (Raleigh 54).

Racey points out Cabot's "rash injustice" against his second wife and the "solitary sterility which has been his lot." He suggests that Ephraim must atone for his sin by being confined, in the end, to the "rocky solitude of his farm" (Racey 60, 61).

All of these observations are, in their way, both persuasive and at least partially correct. Yet each has missed something vital. Even when Frederic Carpenter acknowledges Ephraim's "towering stature" and his "inward reality" as the "embodiment of the highest heroism of modern man" (Carpenter 108), or when Sheaffer asserts that Cabot "takes on epic dimensions" (128), or when Bogard characterizes him as a "God-driven man" (218), there remains unsaid and untouched a central truth of the character. That truth rests on the meaning of the omnipresent stones with which Ephraim has struggled all his life.

The symbolism of stone is analyzed by J. E. Cirlot as follows:

Stone is a symbol of being, of cohesion and harmonious reconciliation with self. The hardness and durability of stone have always impressed men, suggesting to them the antithesis to biological things subject to the laws of change, decay and death, as well as the antithesis to dust, sand and stone splinters, as aspects of disintegration. The stone when whole symbolized unity and strength; when shattered it signified dismemberment, psychic disintegration, infirmity, death and annihilation. Stones fallen from heaven served to explain the origin of life. (Cirlot 299).

Cirlot also discusses mythic and religious meanings of stone, recalling that many stones have been worshipped and also quoting Genesis 28.22: "And this stone which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house" (299-300).

M. L. von Franz reinforces what Cirlot says: "Self is symbolized with special frequency in the form of a stone, precious or otherwise." She also associates the crystal with stone as symbolic of the self, explaining that "The mathematically precise arrangement of a crystal evokes in us the intuitive feeling that even in so-called 'dead' matter, there is a spiritual ordering principle at work." Von Franz continues:

Perhaps crystals and stones are especially apt symbols of the self because of the "just-so-ness" of their nature.... For while the human being is as different as possible from a stone, yet man's innermost center is in a strange and special way akin to it (perhaps because the stone symbolizes mere existence at the farthest remove from the emotions, feelings, fantasies, and discursive thinking of ego-consciousness). In this sense the stone symbolizes what is perhaps the simplest and deepest experience--the experience of something eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable. (Von Franz 208-209)

Von Franz further points out that "The alchemical stone ... symbolizes something that can never be lost or dissolved, something eternal that some alchemists compared to the mystical experience of God within one's own soul" (210).

If, then, in "dead" matter there is a "spiritual ordering principle at work," the stones on the Cabot farm, the stones from which Ephraim has created walls, have an honorific significance and point to qualities in him not previously acknowledged.

A re-evaluation of the old farmer might begin with the concession that he is rightly named. "Ephraim," from the Hebrew, means "fruitful." and for Cabot the name does not always work ironically. Apart from the fact that he has not fathered the child to whom his third wife gives birth, he has lived a fruitful life, although not a balanced one. Not only has Ephraim made a stony land productive, but the stones with which he is identified do not suggest just sterility, waste, or death--meanings commonly associated with stones. Rather, those stones are the cause of Ephraim's fruitfulness and, as Cirlot and von Franz make clear, also symbols of man's concept of self and thus of life. Additionally, Ephraim's preference for the barn and the company of the cows over his house and association with his wife and son reinforces the symbolism of the stones in his life.

The stoniness of the Cabot farm is first indicated in the stage directions when O'Neill notes that "The south end of the house faces front to a stone wall...." (O'Neill 136) Then, early in Part One, Scene One, Ephraim's son Peter, ironically named, complains, "Here--it's stones atop o' the ground--stones atop o' stones--makin' stone walls--year atop o' year--him 'n' me 'n' then Eben--makin' stone walls fur him to fence us in!" (138). He views the farm bitterly as a prison. Eben,* the youngest son, accuses his half-brothers of building stone walls in their hearts as they labor to build the actual walls on the farm because they did nothing to make life more bearable for his mother, their step-mother (142-143).

When old Cabot finally appears, O'Neill says that his face "is as hard as if it were hewn out of a boulder ..." (155). Near the end of the play, after Abbie has confessed the murder of her infant son and has told Ephraim, "An' he was Eben's son--mine an' Eben's-- not your'n!" (200), her husband asserts, hardening "his face into a stony mask," that "I got t'be--like a stone--a rock o' jedgment! (201). Then, as Ephraim tells his son and wife goodbye when they leave with the sheriff, O'Neill once more--and for the last time--describes Cabot's face as stony (205).

As earlier indicated, however, the pejorative meanings of stone may not be the essence of Ephraim's character. One of the most memorable scenes in all of O'Neill occurs when Cabot tries to convey to the uncomprehending Abbie his feelings about and knowledge of God and of the earth that is his farm. As this oddly mated couple sit side by side on their bed, with Abbie concentrating her attention on the wall that separates their bedroom from Eben's, Ephraim speaks of the fields of stones that used to constitute his farm and of thee consequent "hardness" of his life and of his god. The old man, who is at times almost inarticulate, grows lyrical as he reviews the struggles of his life and his accomplishments while he has followed the admonitions of his "hard God." He remembers succumbing to temptation once when he traveled "t' broad medders, plains whar the soil was black an' rich as gold. Nary a stone. Easy. Ye'd on'y to plow an' sow an' then set an' smoke yer pipe an' watch thin's grow." But he heard "the voice of God sayin': 'This hain't wuth nothin' t' Me. Git ye back t' hum!' I got afeerd o' that voice an' I lit out back t' hum here...." Ephraim obeyed the command of his "hard God" and returned to his stony New England land. The stones he piled into walls. "Ye kin read the years o' my life in them walls, every day a hefted stone, climbin' over the hills up and down, fencin' in the fields that was mine, whar I'd made thin's grow out o' nothin' like the will o' God, like the servant o' His hand. It wa'n't easy. It was hard an' He made me hard fur it" (172).

Significantly, Ephraim acknowledges that the women who had been his wives had made him feel "lonesome." But, "The farm growed. It was all mine! When I thought o' that I didn't feel lonesome" (173). His relationship with his sons has been a tormented one, characterized by mutual loathing. "They hated me 'cause I was hard. I hated them 'cause they was soft. They coveted the farm without knowin' what it meant" (173).

When, at the end of this monologue, Abbie turns "a blank face, resentful eyes to his, Ephraim asks her, "Air ye any the wiser fur all I've told ye?" Then he adds, "Ye don't know nothin'--nor never will" (173). He complains that the house is cold and "oneasy" and departs for the barn, "whar it's warm." He will talk to the cows because "They know. They know the farm an' me. They'll give me peace" (174). Abbie, like her predecessors, has made the old man "lonesome."

Ephraim's belief in an Old Testament deity and his identification with stones associate him with the Apollonian polarity in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, as Bogard has pointed out, while the son who becomes his rival and supplanter and the wife who betrays him with her stepson represent Nietzsche's Dionysian power. Abbie and Eben seek after the "easy God"; Ephraim remains faithful to the "hard God."

As one comes to understand the stones Ephraim has wrested from the earth and the walls he has created from those stones, one sees Ephraim less and less as a hard, life-denying old despot, Peter and Simeon less as deprived offspring, Abbie and Eben less as life-affirming lovers. The truth emerges that Ephraim is the most creative, the most fulfilled member of the Cabot family; that he is the only one who knows who he is; that he has a sense of his own identity and realizes how and where he belongs. 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.

It is not, of course, just the stones on the Cabot farm that are symbols; the walls that Ephraim has created from the stones also bear symbolic significance. These walls probably mark the boundaries of the farm in addition to identifying individual fields. A pattern of enclosure emerges that identifies those walls with such ancient structures as Stonehenge. Cirlot mentions the sun-symbolism of that "stone-circle" and adds, "It also partakes of circle-symbolism (that is, of the cyclic process, Oneness and perfection) ..." (300).

To O'Neill himself the stone walls stood as proof of Ephraim Cabot's faithfulness to his inheritance, of his integrity. The Gelbs have described the playwright's farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut (Brook Farm), as partial inspiration for the Cabot farm. They record that O'Neill told a young man from the Provinctown Players that the kind of stone wall that abounded on Brook Farm was what he was writing about in Desire Under the Elms.
One wall that O'Neill pointed out, "Though it now ran through a weedy, uncultivated area, ... had once marked a boundary of tilled soil. These walls, he said, were symbols of the old New England farmer's roots--reproachful monuments to the farmers who left their field to go out west, where there were no stone and where farming was easier. [O'Neill then]
quoted some of Ephraim Cabot's lines...." (Gelb 540-541)

Ephraim's identification with stones does not ultimately represent the hardness of his heart or of his way of life. The stones suggest more than spirit-numbing, soul-killing labor. They speak of the unity and strength which Cirlot mentions, of Ephraim's "reconciliation with self." Von Franz's comments take the affirmative meaning of stone a step beyond Cirlot's. In following the dictates of his "hard God," Ephraim has obeyed the "spiritual ordering principle"; he has experienced "something eternal"; he may indeed have "God within [his] own soul."

--Jean Anne Waterstradt


Bogard Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Carpenter Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill. New York: Twayne, 1964.
Cirlot Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1962.
Falk Falk, Doris V. Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958.
Gelb Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill, enlarged edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
O'Neill O'Neill, Eugene. Desire Under the Elms, in Nine Plays. New York: Modern Library, 1941, pp. 135-206.
Racey Racey, Edgar F., Jr. "Myth as Tragic Structure in Desire Under the Elms." In O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Gassner. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 57-61.
Raleigh Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.
Sheaffer Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Von Franz Von Franz, M. L. "The Process of Individuation." In Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl G. Jung. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1964, pp. 208-210.
Weissman Weissman, Philip. "Conscious and Unconscious Autobiographical Dramas of Eugene O'Neill." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, V (July 1957), 432-460.

* "Eben" may be a shortened form of "Ebenezer," which means literally "stone of help."



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