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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. V, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1981



Polarities lie at the heart of Eugene O'Neill's dramas. For a dramatist whose primary concern was the quest to establish a unity, emotionally and psychically, in his characters, a concentration upon polarities focused attention on whether the polarities could or could not be harmonized. A brief review of O'Neill's plays brings a whole catalog of polar opposites to mind, defining in each case a set of particular spiritual or psychic tensions that, for O'Neill, had to be balanced before twentieth century man could "belong." O'Neill deals with belonging, in ancient terms, that cannot be implemented, spiritually, in the modern context. Like Yank, Brutus Jones seeks consciously to find faithful expression of those yearnings after transpersonal meaning which are unconscious. Jim Harris and Ella Downey record the racial rift between black and white. Dion Anthony represents the personality split between Dionysiac and Apollonian man. In Mourning Becomes Electra, the Freudian Pleasure Principle is set against the repressive Puritan ethic. Con Melody is faced with the double images of himself. And the Tyrones are torn between the symbolic contents of day and night. Yet, the most important polarity of all may be that of the Anima-Animus archetypes, particularly the Anima, as they work themselves out in Desire Under the Elms.

Contrary to Oscar Cargill's note dealing with Carl Jung's influence in The Emperor Jones, where he holds that, "From the artistic point of view, how far O'Neill subscribed to the Jungian thesis is immaterial,"1 the fact remains that one sees more of the artistic process in operation as one sees O'Neill's dramatic art conform itself to the depth psychology of Jung. How far O'Neill follows Jung's paradigms may shed light on how thoroughly the Jungian psychological model may have set the direction for the playwright's artistic and, even, spiritual vision. Ann Belford Ulanov is quite suggestive for any consideration of O'Neill's general practice with Jungian polarities when she holds that, "The psyche is composed of various opposites, such as: conscious-unconscious, reason-instinct, active-passive, etc.; the symbolism of the masculine-feminine represents all of these polar opposites."2 Remembering that O'Neill made continuous reference, pejoratively, to God the father, and longingly, to God the mother, one can at least suspect that the Jungian archetypes of Anima-Animus, of soft and hard, may also supply clues toward a pattern in O'Neill's use of polarities.

To begin with, O'Neill was probably very aware of Jung's view of the Collective Unconscious. His constant interest in the Behind Life force would almost assure that he was sensitive to the psychologist's distinction between a personal unconscious, the residue of personal experience that has drifted out of the authority of conscious exercise, and a collective unconscious, a legacy of needs, responses, and instincts so common to man through the millennia that they constitute a body of archetypal experiences implanted in all mankind independent of any individual experience. This body of unconscious life would constitute the Behind Life energy drawing man on to his destiny. It does not derive from subjective experience; it is purely objective to each individual--a body of psychic luggage having everything to do with the formation of men while man, as he receives it, has nothing to do with the formation of it. Access must be had into this objective dimension of the psyche so that the release of its energy at the conscious level of experience be a positive one. As archetypes of the collective unconscious, the anima and animus mediate to the ego this deeper, collective, objective dimension of the psyche. Access to this objective body is given to the conscious, masculine ego through the anima and to the feminine ego through the animus.

The archetypal opposites dictate how, at the level of image, O'Neill structured the play's setting. The elms and the rock walls establish, at the subliminal level, the polar contents of the anima and animus. The rocks which enclose the farm within its boundaries symbolize the masculine elements contained in the animus. The spirit that makes for hardness is the spirit that embraces and controls the farm and the Cabots. It serves to wall in the militant, aggressive animus instincts, while walling out, as best it can, any presence that would temper the harsh obsession with masculinity. But, at the same time, the elms brood over the entire setting, trying to descend and envelop the house with the affects and emotional contents of the anima. The spirit of Woman hangs over the house. At the level of image alone, we are aware that the conflicting energies of these archetypes, by the end of the play, will either be harmonized or be mutually destructive. The issue is, will the spirit of the elms descend to fuse with the spirit of the rocks?

Given their universality and their absolute need to be reconciled, the archetypes constitute the tragic tension between opposites that drives on all individuals to their own form of resolution. In his employment of them, O'Neill found a tragic force that propelled his characters to action, a secular equivalent to the force of the Gods in Sophoclean tragedy. The anima-animus opposition constitutes the Behind Life force which, independent of conscious will, drives the Cabots and Abbie on to tragic consequences with a pressure nearly as absolute as that of the Gods on Oedipus. Finding such an equivalent in modern drama is quite difficult because of the age's aversion to absolutes. But what is wanting by way of viable Gods, O'Neill substituted for from the realm of psychology. Acceptable because sublunary and secular, these forces of the archetypal instincts, as well as the Freudian Pleasure Principle, were seen to operate as universally throughout mankind as once the Gods prevailed. Psychological forces, at the secular level, approximated as closely as possible to the absolute presence that spiritual forces once exercised on man at the religious level. O'Neill was ready to tap Freud and Jung for these equivalents as set pieces in his Behind Life force; and these forces, be they Freudian or Jungian, constitute imperatives upon all being. Man "must" belong, consciously, in the same sense that he once belonged, unconsciously, as animal. Man, consciously, "must" possess transpersonal meaning in the exercise of surviving religious instincts, be the God crocodile or money. Man, merely by being mortal, "must" experience the claims of the pleasure principle which, however, has to accommodate itself to Puritanism. Melody "must" love self before he caters to being loved by others. An imperative set by Nature must be harmonized to another imperative, generally determined by conscious choice. To yield to the anima is the natural imperative in Desire Under the Elms; to regulate the animus is the struggle imposed by the anima on Eben's conscious will.

While parallels between drama and its influences are important, the parallels alone would mean little if they were to do nothing more than slavishly incorporate recent psychological theories. What is germane is to show how O'Neill incorporated these theories, and pressed them to their limits within the play, while simultaneously preserving the integrity of his own artistic viewpoint. Contrary to Jung, O'Neill never saw his polarities working to resolution. The original stamp, however, that O'Neill imposes on the polarities is his equating of the feminine archetype to the quality of love, and of the masculine archetype to man's greed for possessions. Even as Jung insists that the archetypes must be harmonized, O'Neill insists that the unregulated passion for possession must be brought under control by other human needs--in this case, love. Everyone "must" love; yet, everyone must possess some goods. Both must be fulfilled if human needs are to be happily satisfied. The elimination of one (love) by the other (possessiveness) marks the failure of man to attain psychic wholeness as well as, for O'Neill, spiritual unity.

Desire Under the Elms opens with the animus--hardness and possessiveness--exerting the dominant energy in the Cabot household. As the rocks encompass, contain, and gird the property, so the consciousness of the men is held in bondage by the hard, loveless ethic of possessiveness. Eben, Sim and Peter, in thrall to their father's hard nature and greed, make a virtue out of hardness and ownership--and yet they reveal the emptiness of that "virtue" in their dreams of tomorrow and retreats into nostalgia. Visions of possession and dispossession alternately preoccupy them, and from the opening line of "God! Purty!" (a curious juxtaposition of the anima to the divine), through Sim's wistful recollection of his dead wife, Jenn, through the brothers' crude debate over Min, to Eben's lamentation about his Ma, the anima's feminine energy challenges the monolithic authority of masculine hardness. The energy of love seeks expression equal to the energy the Cabots pledge to owning land, money and women. Because the feminine spirit has never been integrated into the Cabot home as an object of dignity and equality, the anima broods as an atmosphere about the house. Though hardly endorsing Jung's views, Dr. Phillip Weissman's psychoanalytic reading of Desire Under the Elms does seem to underline the fact that it is the enigmatic feminine presence which insists on a balanced polarity with the masculine spirit: "In Desire Under the Elms, as in Long Day's Journey Into Night, the character of the woman (Abbie and his mother) remains an unconscious enigma to the author, in sharp contrast to the realistic portrayals of the father."3

The Jungian particulars proceed in this fashion. The anima archetype lies quietly suppressed until the entry of Abbie, when sex agitates the anima contents of Eben's psyche and brings them into more violent antagonism with the animus. With Abbie's entrance, springing Sim and Peter loose to California and serving also to intensify more exclusively the opposition of Eben to Ephraim, Sex, prefiguring love, is about to challenge the possessive compulsions of the Cabots. Eben becomes the character in whom the anima energies will be most violently in contest with the animus archetype.

With the death of his mother, Eben had lost, at too early a stage, that object that mediates between the unconscious and the ego. The anima force, love, did not get fully liberated, and Eben's energies came under the aegis of Ephraim's masculine drive to own the farm. Like every individual, Eben must structure a harmony between the feminine and masculine components of his own nature. In O'Neill's terms, Eben's Unity of Being--his belonging--was denied him at his mother's death; and in the ensuing years, his anima, his need for love, has never been able to establish a psychic equality with his need to possess the farm. The whole environment of masculine hardness has forbidden him the means to relate to his feminine archetypal energy as energy that stands in relation to masculine energy as an equal "other." Psychically, for all the sons the patriarchal values of greed cannot be modified, complemented or disciplined by the anima energies of love. Thus it is that while Eben is emotionally bound to his mother and love, he is intellectually bound to his father's possessive greed.

Jung perceives Eben's paradox as the result of his ego being identified to the anima, making no conscious separation between the ego and the compulsive, automatic energy of the anima. The feminine energies in Eben, never maturing, hold on to him, controlling him emotionally until such time as he can create a mature communication with his anima. Eben suffers from the psychic split of wanting love but never admitting that need to a status equal to wanting the farm. Needing to be soft, he cannot be such because his family ethic opposes it. In his environment, softness has been a term of disdain. But until he admits, consciously, the "other," the need to love, to an equality with the need for property, he will never possess an ego in control of the anima, nor will his psyche be a smooth, self-regulating system of balanced polarities. In short, his unity of being will be forfeited. Jung's description of the emotional patterns that identify such an anima immaturity could have served O'Neill as apt descriptive terms for his characterization of Eben. Speaking of the emotional affects of the troubled anima on man, Jung holds that the anima "intensifies, exaggerates, falsifies, and mythologizes all emotional relations with his work and with other people of both sexes.... When the anima is strongly constellated, she softens a man's character and makes him touchy, irritable, moody, jealous, vain, and unadjusted. He is in a state of discontent and spreads discontent all around him. Sometimes the man's relationship to the woman who has caught his anima [in this case, Abbie] accounts for the existence of this syndrome."4

Given Eben's incomplete and agitated anima energies, Abbie's appearance on the farm establishes the conditions for another Jungian phase of anima experience, projection. With his anima image initially established by his mother, Eben's anima is now caught by Abbie, who almost immediately fulfills several of the archetypal images of the anima, the spiritual guide in the role of mother, the beloved one, and the harlot. The confusion of Eben about the anima's balance with the animus is reflected in his inability to separate his nostalgic love of his mother from the hard desire to revenge himself on Ephraim in her name. But the confusion, slowly, will be resolved. O'Neill accepts Jung's lead when he allows the mother's presence to recede from her room after Eben and Abbie's first sexual ceremony, giving evidence thereby that Eben's psyche is moving toward maturity and wholeness. For Eben, love very quickly becomes an imperative nearly equal to possession. Unfortunately, the imperatives exercise themselves by turns. The desire for love is not yet integrated with but, rather, is followed by the desire to own the farm. But the anima-animus polarities cannot be resolved by taking turns at dominance; they cannot both be equal but separate, operating at detached moments in time. They must be made to coexist, to operate as mutual complements, one enhancing the other, not canceling the other out. So, too, with love and possessiveness; they must be mutual assets to each other. But as long as Abbie and Eben try to have the farm and each other, at the same time, without letting love qualify their greed, the psychic split of the anima-animus energies, pretending to be psychically merged, creates a self-destructive contradiction. Unqualified materialism pretending to coexist with love--which "must" qualify materialism--is mere illusion preceding the breakdown of relationships both individual and societal. (The self-destructive split, more pronounced in Ephraim than anyone else, must lead to his wild, chaotic, dervish dance that symbolizes, visually, the inability of hard, masculine, possessive energies to maintain, any longer, control over the Cabot fate. The dance, in short, represents the inability of the psyche to maintain the lies any longer.)

In the infant child, the mutual but separate claims of the anima-animus, of love and possession, find incarnation. It is the child of cross purposes, and because the illusion cannot continue, the child must die. But it will die in the name of the anima, in the name of love as a repudiation of unqualified materialism. The patriar¬chal values, which to now Eben and Abbie support, must be diminished, consciously, so that the claim of love, of the anima, can be given complete respect and be allowed to become as complete and powerful a force as its psychic energy demands. As woman, as love, the anima must be conceived as equal to man, to possessiveness, to the animus. Abbie, making this correction first, attains to the spiritual totality when she kills the child, disavowing herself from greed in her love for Eben. Eben, then, parallels this disavowal, freeing the anima from the control of the unconscious. He now controls the anima; it does not control him. (This Jungian implication contradicts Dr. Weissman's contention that Eben "is unable to grow beyond his sexual feelings for his mother and his death wishes for his father. Thus he is destined to an inability to resolve his Oedipal striving."5) The patriarchal values, now modified by the feminine spirit, come under the discipline of love. This sets a great precedent for American society, but one that O'Neill could not accept.

Eben and Abbie have their tragic victory, but O'Neill does not permit the play to end on that note. To do so would contradict his view of history as cyclical. Even as Yank starts in the caged atmosphere of the berthing compartment and ends in the gorilla's cage; even as Jones's flight proceeds in one great circle to return to where he started; even as Jim Harris and Ella start as children playing Painty Face and end in the psychic retreat to the same game; so, too, in Desire Under the Elms, possessiveness must return to dominate the closing of the play. Eben and Abbie's tragic wisdom must be undercut. The sheriff's wish to own the farm negates the possibility that Eben's and Abbie's spiritual maturity will become precedent for any larger section of society. Herein, O'Neill once again denies the view of history as linear process in an indictment of American society's similar denial of the humanizing force of love.

What remains to contemporary, materialist societies is the alternate solution to the archetypal polarities revealed by Ephraim. As the animus-dominated man who fails to detach his ego from the unconscious, Ephraim is nevertheless driven to satisfy the anima's demands with Abbie, who is chosen, not in love but, rather, in lust. And for Ephraim, she cannot be seen for herself but is seen, also, as the farm. "Sometimes ye air the farm an' sometimes the farm be yew," he says.6 Unable to separate the two drives, Ephraim cannot see love and possessiveness as separate entities to be dealt with, consciously, as equals. Forbidding the equal inclusion of the anima, Ephraim remands his being to an incompleteness, psychically and spiritually. For Ephraim, the anima has been suppressed and attached to the ego for so long that it causes love to be transmuted into mere sex. When this identification of the anima to the ego continues past middle age, as it obviously has for Ephraim, the consequences for that individual are delineated in a personality profile of Jung's which, but for one exception, could stand as a point for point description of Ephraim's character. "After the middle of life, ... a permanent loss of the Anima means a diminution of vitality, of flexibility, and of human kindness. The result, as a rule, is premature rigidity, crustiness, fanatical one-sidedness, obstinacy, pedantry."7 Rendered incapable, therefore, of learning from Eben's experience, Ephraim has no alternative within the parameters of his psyche but to seek a furtive solution to his anima needs in his pathetic decision to collect the freed cows and continue his prospects of sleeping with them.

The overview to be drawn from this application of Jung's theory derives from the emphasis which Jung and O'Neill gave to the successful resolution of the anima-animus polarity. Jung implied that it was a decisive step in the reconciliation of all opposites, such as consciousness-unconsciousness, spirit-nature, fate-free will. As they depart for jail, Abbie and Eben have harmonized the polarity; each has earned that unity of being which, for Eben, had been lost since his mother's death. With the integration of the anima, they come out of their struggle truly possessed of tragic wisdom and victory. Their strength now is superior to masculine hardness. Each has discovered that quality of self worthy of being perpetuated eternally. And since O'Neill, so often, was willing to have his characters posit the existence of God when they possessed the object of their ideal longing, the spiritual portent of Eben's union with Abbie is somewhat obvious. A God made possible through the incarnation of the feminine spirit--a God in the form of God the mother--comes into being, taking the measure of the incompleteness latent in any devotion to a hardgod, God the father, Ephraim's deity. Ann Belford Ulanov reveals this religious dimension of the Jungian feminine: "The feminine ... is a factor which must be recognized as essential for the full exercise of the religious function. Thus, if the feminine is neglected, undervalued, or misconstrued, the result, psychologically, is a diminishing of one's growth to wholeness, and the result, theologically, is that the Imago Dei does not achieve its full stature."8 Unique among O'Neill's plays, Desire Under the Elms dramatizes two characters coming into possession of this real unity and spirituality--a tragic victory made possible by O'Neill's steady application of Jung's vision of the anima.

The play's resolution, however, turning as it does upon the sheriff's concluding remark which dismisses the lesson made available by Abbie and Eben's fate, is exclusively O'Neill's construction. Unlike Jung, there will be no resolution of the polarities for him. O'Neill projects, then, an American society devoted to the hard Gods of masculine greed and possession plunging again and again into the competition for ownership. The Imago Dei will exist only in infantile terms. Americans will never find the spirituality they need, but they will never stop trying to find it in and through the possession of things.

--Patrick J. Nolan

1 Oscar Cargill, "Fusion Point of Jung and Nietzsche," in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher. (New York: New York University Press, 1963), p. 408, n. 1.

2 Ann Belford Ulanov, The Feminine in Jungian Psychology and in Christian Theology (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971), p. 291.

3 Phillip Weissman, "Conscious and Unconscious Autobiographical Dramas of Eugene O'Neill," American Psychoanalytic Association Journal, 5 (July, 1957), 458.

4 Carl Jung, "Concerning the Archetypes With Special Reference to the Anima Concept," in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, v. 9, pt. 1, ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al., trans. by R. F. C. Hill (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 70-71.

5 Weissman, p. 456.

6 Eugene O'Neill, Desire Under the Elms, in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York: The Modern Library, 1941), p. 171.

7 Jung, p. 71.

8 Ulanov, p. 292.



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