Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. X, No. 1
Spring, 1986



Władysław Reymont's place in Polish literature is well established. What Is less well known is his influence on other major writers. In this paper, we outline some striking similarities between Reymont's Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Peasants, and Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. We present evidence that O'Neill could have been familiar with Reymont's work when writing Desire Under the Elms, and suggest that he may have been influenced by it.


O'Neill is known to have borrowed heavily from Classical drama, and it has been assumed that Desire Under the Elms was to some extent modeled after Euripides' Hippolytus and influenced by intermediate adaptations of the Greek tragedy, such as Racine's Phaedra (Racey). The Hippolytus myth belongs, in turn, to a large and cohesive group of stories that feature what has been called the "lustful stepmother" motif (Yohannan).1 The plots of all the stories in that group are essentially identical: a woman who occupies a maternal position vis--vis the young hero attempts to seduce him and, failing to do so (because of his unwillingness to commit quasi-incest), accuses him of raping her or of attempting to do so. Besides the Hippolytus myth itself, the best known examples of this group are the Egyptian "Tale of Two Brothers" (Erman 151f), the Biblical story of "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" (Genesis 39.1-23), and the story of Bellerophon and Stheneboea (Apollodorus, Library II.3). A similar tale is told of Peleus, the father of Achilles (Apollodorus, Library III.13). It should be noted that Hippolytus is unusual among these stories in that the lustful stepmother, Phaedra, actually compasses the hero's death.

Despite similarities to Hippolytus and the other "lustful stepmother" stories, O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms differs from them in a number of crucial respects. Unlike the protagonists in the ancient stories, the stepmother in O'Neill's play (Abbie) and the young hero (Eben) actually do have an affair. In addition, Desire Under the Elms is set in an agrarian ambience that is not paralleled in the other versions of the story: in the ancient versions, the events unfold on the upper strata of society. The Greek versions are placed in royal households, and Potiphar is a member of the palace guard. It is true that Bata and Anubis, the Egyptian brothers, seem to live on a farm; but they are also deities and their story is enacted, as its translator remarks, in a supernatural world (Erman 150). Although it is characteristic of ancient literature to deal with kings, heroes and deities, and for modern protagonists to be relatively commonplace, it is the particular character of this humble ambience and the specific ways in which O'Neill creates it that are important here.

One of O'Neill's chief tools in evoking the rustic ambience is the archaic, rural New England dialect that his characters use. The effect of the dialect on the audience is complex. It keeps us constantly aware of the rural setting of the play and of the fact that its characters are simple farm folk. They are not so well educated or sophisticated as we, but their language does have a vigor and charm that we admire. This, in turn, seems to reflect or embody the natural beauty of the play's physical setting, as, for example, in the opening exchange between Eben and his half brothers as they watch the setting sun at the end of the working day:

Eben: God! Purty!...

Simeon: (grudgingly) Purty.

Peter: Ay-eh.   (O'Neill 203-204)

There is no comparable use of language among the ancient versions of the tale of the lustful stepmother.

O'Neill's language is both the chief vehicle for the creation of the drama's distinctive ambience and also typical of that ambience. In every aspect, setting and character penetrate each other. Prominent natural elements are personified explicitly or implicitly, while the protagonists, in turn, seem to have absorbed their personalities from the setting.

The most conspicuous example of the personification of natural elements is the pair of elm trees that overhang the Cabot farmhouse:

Two enormous elms are on each side of the house. They bend their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles. (202)

The two trees seem to have been inspired in part by the statues of Aphrodite and Artemis that flank the action of Euripides' Hippolytus, and they obviously retain the symbolic value of the statues as embodiments of destructive feminine force. Moreover, Euripides' text includes a brief lyrical outburst involving trees. Lines 215 and following have the hysterical Phaedra begging her nurse to let her go hunting: "Send me to the mountain. I will go to the forest and to the pines, where hounds go tracking the dappled deer." Yet this and several similar allusions to the beauty of nature in Euripides' play cannot be adduced as models for the prominence of the natural setting in Desire. Like the Cabot house beneath the elms, O'Neill's characters seem on the verge of being absorbed into their setting. This is not true of Euripides. On the contrary, in Hippolytus and Greek tragedy in general, nature tends to be dwarfed by contrast with the vivid and outsized protagonists.

The Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers also provides some parallels for the treatment of nature by O'Neill. Trees, for example, loom large in the later part of Bata's story, when, after being exonerated from the charge of rape, he retires to the mysterious Valley of the Tar, and hides his heart for safekeeping in the cedar for which the valley is named.2 In addition, just as Ephraim Cabot sleeps in his barn with his cows, to whom he imputes superior wisdom, so Bata is able to converse with his cows. Indeed, their warning saves him from being fatally ambushed by the jealous Anubis. These similarities, however, like Phaedra's longing for pines, are isolated and undoubtedly coincidental.

Not only does O'Neill personify elements in the play's natural setting; he also makes his human characters draw some of their personality traits from their surroundings. This is most conspicuously true of Ephraim Cabot. Although there is softness and sensuality in his character, he has done his best to assimilate himself to the hardness of the rocky fields that he farms. He interprets this, in turn, as a reflection of God's own character. His speech to Abbie in the second scene of Part Two illustrates these tendencies:

When I come here fifty odd year ago--I was jest twenty an' the strongest an' hardest ye ever seen--ten times as strong an' fifty times as hard as Eben. Waal--this place was nothin' but fields o' stones. Folks laughed when I tuk it. They couldn't known what I knowed. When ye kin make corn sprout out o' stones, God's livin' in yew! They wa'n't strong enuf fur that! They reckoned God was easy. They laughed. They don't laugh no more. (236)

O'Neill's stern father figure is unusual among lustful stepmother stories. In most instances, the father figure is somewhat colorless--sympathetic enough to deserve the hero's loyalty and yet easily gulled by his wife. Hippolytus' father, Theseus, a passionate adventurer, is an exception, but he has nothing in common with Ephraim Cabot--except for some experience in digging up boulders.

Just as life at close quarters with nature has produced Cabot's extreme toughness, so also it fosters occasional outbursts of exuberant vitality. This is evidenced in the drunken banter and wild dancing at the party with which Part Three commences. Despite the tension between the insufferably proud father, Ephraim, and his incredulous neighbors, the overall impression of the scene is one of unrestrained joviality and spontaneity.


Desire Under the Elms is based, then, to some extent, on Euripides' Hippolytus. Yet it changes the plot of Hippolytus in a basic way: there is an actual love affair between the stepmother and the young hero. O'Neill also introduces a distinctive rustic ambience, which is given prominence by his use of an archaic dialect that is a constant reminder of its presence. Moreover, this ambience is typified by natural elements that are personified, especially the overhanging elms, and by the reverse: characters who seem to have derived their personalities from qualities of the natural setting. (Ephraim Cabot's toughness is the most prominent case in point.) Neither this ambience as a whole nor any of its constituent parts are modeled on Euripides' Hippolytus, nor on any of the "lustful stepmother" tales mentioned so far.

It is of course possible that this ambience is simply the product of O'Neill's fertile imagination. However, the rural setting is not characteristic of his work, and it is suggestive and perhaps significant that a virtually identical ambience occurs in a slightly earlier version of the stepmother tale--one which, like Desire Under the Elms, includes the consummation of an affair between stepmother and young hero. This work is Władysław Reymont's epic novel, The Peasants (Reymont). Published between 1902 and 1909, The Peasants is the story of the Boryna family and their village of Lipce. And not only is the rural dialect of the region featured prominently, but The Peasants and Desire Under the Elms contain striking and pervasive similarities in setting, characterization and plot. In the next section we outline a number of the most remarkable parallels.


Both stories are set in rural communities where the beauty and power of nature dwarf the human inhabitants. The importance of the natural element in Desire has been discussed above. The four volumes of The Peasants--named after the seasons of the year, beginning with Autumn--all contain extensive paeans to the rugged beauty of Lipce. The permanence of the village, its fixed setting in the universe, is observed by Agata, an itinerant beggar, when she returns after two seasons' absence: "And Lipce stood on this side and that of the pond, as it had stood no doubt ever since the world began, buried in its wide spreading orchards, and in the undergrowths of its enclosures" (S, 12-13).

Both O'Neill and Reymont find in trees, which they personify, their favorite symbol for the forces of nature. O'Neill's description of the elms was cited above. In much the same way, Reymont personifies the trees that are cut down by the local gentry:

There fell enormous pine-trees. green with the moss of age; and firs, arrayed in their dark verdure, and spruces with their many outspread arms; oak-trees, too, fell, with dry russet leaves still upon them, and overgrown with gray lichens as with beards--ancients of the forest that the thunderbolt would not blast, and the lapses of centuries had failed to crumble, now succumbed to the axe! ...

Groaning, the forest was slowly giving up its life as the trees fell: though these were like brave men in a battle, who, packed close and propped up by one another, fall little by little, giving way only to resistless might, and without a cry topple over into the jaws of death by whole ranks at a time. (W. 276)

The characters of the two patriarchs, Boryna and Cabot, are identical in many respects. They are both strong in spite of their years, and they occupy major positions in their communities. Yagustynka and Vavrek, two villagers, describe Boryna:

"Boryna is still hale, he may marry again...."

"Hale he is, but over sixty."

"Never fear, Vavrek; any girl would have him, if he only asked her."

"He has buried two wives already." (A, 13)

Boryna is "as the stalwart oak" (A, 215). "His gait was full of mettle, and he looked surprisingly young. Clean-shaven, with hair newly cut, and his wedding-suit on, he made a rarely handsome figure; besides which, portly and broad-shouldered as he was, the dignified expression both of his features and his whole outer man made him conspicuous from afar" (A, 213). When Dominikova--whose daughter, Yagna, Boryna seeks as his third wife--reminds Boryna politely, "Only note this: you are somewhat elderly. Besides, we are all mortal," Boryna responds: "Oh, but I am hale--good for a score of years yet. Never you fear!" (A, 161).

Boryna, like Cabot, is strong, proud, stubborn and tough. His neighbors "knew too well that headstrong pride of his, for which he would let himself be roasted alive without uttering a cry; they also knew how he always considered himself above the others, how he would give himself airs, and consider himself the best in the village" (W, 161). "Always had he been a hard man, and a stubborn; but now he had turned into stone" (W, 258). "His hand was heavy on everybody, and when he laid it on anyone, that one must bend even to the ground, and all things be done according to his will" (W, 259). "He was a farmer and the son and descendant of farmers--the foremost man in Lipce" (Su, 12).

Cabot is described as "seventy-five, tall and gaunt, with great, wiry, concentrated power, but stoop-shouldered from toil" (221). When he is irritated by the neighbors' laughter at the start of Part Three and steps forward, "glaring about him," "there is an immediate silence," and they respond to his harangue with "a grumble of resentment," "but they are all evidently in too much awe of him to express it openly" (249).

Both patriarchs, exhausted by long years of toil and widowed twice, feel similarly lonely. Here is Boryna:

Now he was as lonely as a signpost. There was no one he could complain or tell things to.... He had to think of everything, and make up his mind, and care for everything all by himself--a dog's life!... Never could he speak to anyone, nor get any advice or assistance (A, 24). He was a poor, desolate man, with no one on earth to advise him (A, 35).

Old Cabot, reminiscing about his life, reveals similar feelings:

I was hard an' He made me hard fur it. All the time I kept gittin' lonesomer. I tuk a wife.... I was allus lonesome. She died.... The farm growed. It was all mine! When I thought of that I didn't feel lonesome. But ye can't hitch yer mind t' one thin' day an' night. I tuk another wife--Eben's Maw.... She was purty--but soft. She tried t' be hard. She couldn't. She never knowed me nor nothin'. It was lonesomer 'n hell with her (237).

Still, he takes a third wife, because the potential lonesomeness of incompatibility is less terrifying than the lonesomeness of isolation: "A hum's got t' hev a woman" (221).

Both Boryna and Cabot are suspicious and distrustful. Witness Boryna's house and its owner:

As when a broken vessel has been repaired with wire woven around it, it indeed looks whole, yet somehow leaks and lets the water through, though the place of leakage is invisible to the eye, so was it likewise in that hut: ... through unseen fissures, the secret mistrust it contained came forward by drops; and though resentment was no more so keen, suspicion still remained alive and undying [W, 164]. Hard as he tried, the old man could not quite rid himself of this distrust (W. 165). Thenceforward he had no peace. Every evening he watched in secret, hiding behind corners, making the round of the house and the messages, looking under the thatches; and often, waking up at night, he would listen for hours together or, jumping out of bed, go round the premises with his dog [W, 167].

Cabot is also aware that something is wrong in his household: "Even the music can't drive it out--somethin' ye kin feel droppin' off the elums, climbin' up the roof, sneakin' down the chimney, pokin' in the corners!" (253). He is right. When Eben tells Abbie, "The old critter's liable t' suspicion an' come sneakin' up," she responds, with "a confident laugh": "Let him! I kin allus pull the wool over his eyes" (245).

The patriarchs' sons, Antek and Eben, and their lovers, Yagna and Abbie, are defined essentially by their rebellious attitudes towards the old men, and so strike the reader as similar characters themselves.

Reymont's and O'Neill's stories unfold in similar ways, and the similarities are much closer than is rendered necessary, or even likely, by the mere presence in each work of the so-called Hippolytus motif. For example, both patriarchs marry young wives partly as an affirmation of their continuing virility, and both choose to celebrate their victories in this area in the same way--by vigorous dancing in the presence of the community. The scenes are remarkably similar. Boryna (Cabot) enjoys himself at a festive occasion. His son Antek (Eben) is absent and his young wife Yagna (Abbie) is gloomy and irritable. The guests enjoy the festivity, but are well aware of the situation and do not refrain from spiteful comments. Despite the tension, Boryna (Cabot) treats them to a display of vigorous dancing. A few passages from both scenes will illustrate the similarity.

Holding Yagna in a strong grip, Boryna lifted the skirts of his capote over each arm, settled his hat upon his head, clicked his heels together, and set off, swift as the wind!

Ah! but how he danced! Now turning round and round, now with a backward step, now bringing his foot down as if he would stamp the floor to shivers....

Furiously, unceasingly, the players went on playing the Mazur dance!

The crowds in the corners and at the door looked on in silent wonder: Boryna was so indefatigably active, and ever at higher and higher pressure, that he instilled not a few with riotous boisterousness. (A, 217-218)

[Cabot], unable to restrain himself any longer, prances into the midst of the dancers. [He] starts to dance, which he does very well and with tremendous vigor. Then he begins to improvise, cuts incredibly grotesque capers, leaping up and cracking his heels together, prancing around in a circle with body bent in an Indian war dance, then suddenly straightening up and kicking as high as he can with both legs. [The fiddler] starts "Pop, Goes the Weasel," increasing the tempo with every verse until at the end he is fiddling crazily as fast as he can go. [Finally, he] stops playing (and says) exhaustedly: "God A'mighty, I got enuf. Ye got the devil's strength in ye" (251).

Yagna is not happy: she "ate scarcely anything at all. In vain did Boryna urge and coax her, entreating her as one entreats a child to eat. She could not even swallow the meat before her; she was so hot, so tired!" (A, 222). "Just look at Yagna!" exclaims one guest. "Is she not gloomy as night?" (A, 224)

Abbie, likewise, is "very pale, her face is thin and drawn, her eyes are fixed anxiously on the open door in the rear as if waiting for someone" (247). Before she leaves the room, Cabot, like Boryna, speaks to his wife "with real solicitation":

Cabot: Air ye able fur the stairs? D'ye want me t' help ye, Abbie?

Abbie: No. I'm able. I'll be down agen soon.

Cabot: Don't ye git wore out! He needs ye, remember--our son does! (He grins affectionately, patting her on the back. She shrinks from his touch.)

Abbie: (dully) Don't--tech me. (252)

And the public response in both households is the same. Cabot's guests note clearly the tension between husband and wife, and Boryna's guests "began to make fun of him openly" (A, 222):

"Boryna's eyes are shining like a wildcat's."

"Say, like tinder, my friend--rotten tinder!"

"Aye, the man will weep over this day yet." ...

"But I'd lay my head that in no long time--say, before the Carnival begins--Yagna will again be running after the lads." ...

"All this will end you will see. 'Tis no affair of mine, but to my mind, Antek and his family have been unjustly dealt with."

"Of Antek, too, people talk--say they have been seen together here and there." The voices dropped lower as the spiteful talk went on. (A, 224-225)

At the Cabots', the farmers and their wives evidently have some similar "secret joke in common. There is no end of winking, of nudging, of meaning nods of the head toward Cabot" (247). The fiddler is particularly outspoken:

Bet I kin tell ye, Abbie, what Eben's doin'! He's down t' the church offerin' up prayers o' thanksgivin'. (They all titter expectantly.)

A Man: What fur? (Another titter).

Fiddler: 'Cause unto him a -- (He hesitates just long enough) brother is born! (A roar of laughter.) (247)

And later:

Fiddler: (with a wink at the others) Ye're the spryest seventy-six ever I sees, Ephraim! Now if ye'd on'y good eye-sight...! ...

A Woman: (loudly) What's happened in this house is plain as the nose on yer face! (252)

Although lonely and ridiculed, both Boryna and Cabot intend to hold on to the land they have worked so hard to acquire. It might be said that both Boryna and Cabot are similar in refusing to relinquish the privileges of youth at the appropriate time. Both display the same fault in respect to their land and their sons. Neither is willing to countenance a natural transition of control and ownership to his son. Boryna is repeatedly adamant in refusing to share his property with Antek:

"I won't give in!" he almost cried aloud: "as long as I can move these limbs of mine, not one acre shall be given up to anyone!" (A, 25)

"The land is my own. Let anyone else dare claim my property!" (A. 33)

"While I live, you'll not have so much as a smell at my land!" (A, 41)

"No! Were I even to be quite ruined--made a beggar--no! Beg I may, but so long as I live, not one inch of my land will I give up...." (W, 166)

And Cabot, when Abbie asks if he might leave his land to Eben, answers:

Leave ...? (Then with resentful obstinacy) I hasn't a-givin' it t' no one!

Abbie: (remorselessly) Ye can't take it with ye.

Cabot: (thinks a moment--then reluctantly) No, I calc'late not. (After a pause--with a strange passion) But if I could, I would, by the Eternal! 'R if I could, in my dyin' hour, I'd set it afire an' watch it burn--this house an' every ear o' corn an' every tree down t' the last blade o' hay! I'd sit an' know it was all a-dyin' with me an' no one else'd ever own what was mine, what I'd made out o' nothin' with my own sweat 'n' blood! (232)

Each son claims that the property is rightfully his. Eben: "Didn't he slave Maw to death? ... It was her farm! Didn't he steal it from her? She's dead. It's my farm" (207-208). And Antek is advised by his brother-in-law, the smith: "We can fall back on the courts of justice. And there is another point besides: the land he got as your mother's dowry. ... For so many years he has sown therein and garnered therefrom! For these he must pay you well, aye, and with percentage too!... And if he is after all unwilling to give the promise, the law may then come in and force him" (A, 188).

The conflict leads to violent confrontation in both cases. Boryna declares, "Mine the land is, and I can do with it as I please" (A, 196). Antek shouts his defiance, and physical conflict ensues.

Boryna, in a paroxysm of rage, struck him such a blow in the face that he fell with his head breaking the pane of a glazed press, which he brought to the floor with him. Springing up instantly, streaming with blood, he charged his father. They both rushed at each other like mad dogs, with a mutual clutch, driving and being driven backward and forward about the room, pushing and hurling one another against the bed, the great trunk, the walls, till their heads rang again.... They rolled down upon the floor, so closely gripped in hatred that they turned over and over, each strangling each, each crushing the other, as best he could (A, 199)

In Desire, Eben's claim to the farm and Cabot's response--"the farm's her'n! An' the dust o' the road--that's your'n! Ha!" (255)--leads to comparable conflict:

(Eben] tries to throw Cabot aside. They grapple in what becomes immediately a murderous struggle. The old man's concentrated strength is too much for Eben. Cabot gets one hand on his throat and presses him back across the stone wall (255).

Both lathers had remarried partly in retaliation against their sons' persistent claims. Boryna had reasoned, "'Without a woman at home, I must either be ruined or make over the farm to my children. ... They would raise a hue over it, the rascals!' But at the thought there rushed over him a wave of indomitable self-confidence, which immediately filled his soul and confirmed him in his purpose" (A, 32-33). And Cabot explains a similar process to Abbie: "It aged me--them coveting what I'd made fur mine. Then this spring the call come--the voice o' God cryin' in my wilderness, in my lonesomeness--t' go out an' seek an' find!" (238).

Marriage does not bring happiness to either Boryna or Cabot: neither their deep need for companionship nor their hope for permanent protection of their land is fulfilled. But there is one hope: to have a child would be a means of preserving the land by eliminating the claims of Antek and Eben. When Boryna assumes that Yagna is pregnant, he

stared at her in wonder, and so did her mother. Then they exchanged glances full of meaning, and went out to whisper together in the passage. They came back gay and joyful, and embraced and kissed her with the most tender affection.... (W. 76)

And Cabot is equally ecstatic when Abbie tells him, "Maybe the Lord'll give us a son":

Ye mean--a eon--t' me 'n' you? ... It'd be the blessin' o' God, Abbie--the blessin' o' God A'mighty on me--in my old age--in my lonesomeness! (234-235)

Of course, Abbie wants a son, not out of love for Cabot, but to confirm her right to the farm.

Cabot: They hain't nothin' I wouldn't do fur ye then, Abbie. Ye'd hev only t' ask it--anythin' ye'd a mind t'!

Abbie: (interrupting) Would ye will the farm t' me then--t' me an' it...?

Cabot: (vehemently) I'd do anythin' ye axed, I tell ye! I swar it! (235)

Although Yagna herself is not calculating shrewdly to take over the farm, her mother is aware of the opportunity. She reminds Boryna before the wedding, "You promised to make her a settlement," and explains why it is essential: "In order that she may look her stepchildren in the face and laugh at their curses.... My good friend, consider, like the intelligent man you are, and you will see that the settlement is only a protection for my daughter" (A, 161-162), whom she later urges: "Look, Yagna: if you have a child, then, in the case of your husband's death (which heaven forfend!), it would have an equal part with the other children as his heir; and possibly, all the land might come to it in the end" (W, 77).

The parallels multiply rapidly: husband dotes on wife; wife repulses husband; stepmother sleeps with stepson, whose feelings subsequently turn from love to revulsion, largely because the underlying issue of the struggle for land divides the lovers and brings them misfortune.

Antek: "If I have fallen so low as this. it is through you! I have borne all ... all.... Nor did I take revenge when he--that father of mine--gave into your hands so much of the land that's my own! ... Aye, turn and writhe and twist it as you will, you lie! ... What you want is another man; nay, ye would have them all at your heels ... like dogs in the springtime--you!" (W. 264-265)

Eben: "I do hate ye! Ye're a whore--a damn trickin' whore! ... Ye're nothin' but a stinkin' passel o' lies! Ye've been lyin' t' me every word ye spoke, day an' night, since we fust--done it." (256)


In addition to the pervasive similarities of setting, characterization and plot, there are several sub-themes and motifs which link The Peasants and Desire Under the Elms. One of these is the personification of trees, discussed above. Another coincidence, if it is that, is that both patriarchs are strongly attached to cows, even to the extent of conversing with them. This dramatizes the close connection between the people and nature, and in Reymont's novel a religious connection is also implied:

Vitek, light the lantern; we are going to the kine. In this Yule-tide night, all the animals understand what men say because our Lord was born in their midst. And whosoever shall, being without sin, speak unto them then, him will they answer with a human voice; this day they are the equals of man, and they are our fellows. And therefore we shall go and share the altar bread with them. (W, 83)

When Boryna first appears. he finds out that a cow is dying. He later has to kill it, and for a long time he cannot get over the loss (A, 17-19). And the association continues: in the next volume, Boryna, "as customary with him--went round to give a last look at the cows ... before going to bed" (W. 130).

Cabot's concern and affection for his kine--indeed, his kinship with them--is remarkably similar. It forms a leitmotif throughout the drama, from his first scene, when, noting the wildness of Simeon and Peter and fearing that "mebbe they've pizened the stock," he "runs off down toward the barn" (225), all the way to the last scene, when he exits "t' round up the stock" (269). In between, the kinship, which does seem to extend beyond the "natural," is often emphasized:

Cows is queer [231]. I kin talk t' the cows. They know the farm an' me. They'll give me peace [238]. I rested. I slept good--down with the cows. They know how t' sleep. They're teachin' me [246].

And when he contemplates burning the farm to the ground, in a passage cited earlier, he makes one exception: "'Ceptin' the cows. Them I'd turn free" (232).

Another theme shared by both works concerns hidden money--Boryna's, which he reveals to Antek's wife before his death; and Cabot's, which Eben had learned of from his mother, and with which he buys off his half-brothers.


The Peasants and Desire Under the Elms. then, are much more than simply two modern versions of the "lustful stepmother" tale. In addition to their similar plots, they share an agrarian ambience which is central to the definition of the characters and the unfolding of the stories. The principal protagonists are remarkably similar and speak in a comparably archaic, rural diction. Add the personified trees, the comforting cows, the hidden money and the scenes in which the patriarchs display their dancing prowess, and the similarities seem too close for coincidence.

The crucial question, of course, is whether O'Neill was familiar with The Peasants when writing Desire Under the Elms. In order to answer this, it is necessary to review briefly the publication history of The Peasants, especially its reception abroad, in both Europe and America.

Autumn, the first volume of The Peasants, appeared in Polish in 1902, Winter in 1904, Spring in 1906, and Summer in 1909. They were soon translated into many languages. In 1904, the first volume was translated into Russian. In 1911, Marie-Anne de Bouvet published in Revue de Paris a 60-page adaptation of the first two volumes, entitled "La terre et la femme." In Germany, Eugene Diedrichs published a translation by Jean-Paul d'Arderschah in 1912. A French scholar and admirer of Polish literature, Franck Louis Schoell, translated The Peasants, in two volumes, in 1919, although his full translation was not published by Payot until 1925. In Sweden, the first volume appeared in 1920, translated by Wester, and the remaining three in 1924. The Czech translation of Volume I by Rypacek appeared in 1920, and the Spanish one in 1920.

Reymont attracted the attention of literary critics in France and Sweden. Theodore de Wyzewa wrote an article about him in Revue des deux mondes (September 15, 1910) entitled "Un romancier polonais." Schoen, before translating The Peasants, attracted literary circles (and the publisher Payot) to Reymont's work with his article, "Les paysans polonais vus par un de leurs," in Revue de Paris (September 15, 1918). Fredrik Bk, an official consultant to the Nobel Prize Committee, had compared The Peasants with the Iliad in "Essayer och kritiker" (IV, 1918), and was later instrumental in convincing the Swedish Academy to select Reymont for the Nobel Prize in literature, which he was awarded on November 13, 1924.

Nor was Reymont unknown to American readers.3 His first short story in English, "The Trial," translated by Else Benecke and Marie Busch, had appeared in New York in 1916. In the same year, an anonymous translation of his story "Twilight" appeared in The Pagan, a magazine for Eudaemonists. A fragment of his novel The Promised Land, entitled "In the Old Town at Lodz," translated by Selver, was published in 1919, in Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse. The Comedienne, a novel translated by Edmund Obecny, was published by Putnam in 1920. And a short story, "A Polish Scene," was translated in 1921 by Solomon and included, together with "Death," in Selected Polish Tales.

In October of 1919, in Warsaw, G. B. Putnam signed a contract with Reymont that gave him exclusive rights to publish the author's books in America and England. In 1920, Putnam selected MichaI Dziewicki, from Krakow, as translator of The Peasants. At the beginning of 1922, Dziewicki sent Putnam two volumes of the novel translated into English. Reymont, in a letter of February 18, 1922 to Wojciech Morawski, his friend and literary agent in New York, wrote, "Mr. Dziewicki wrote to me a week ago that he had finished the translation of The Peasants. The first two volumes are reportedly already at Putnam's, but the last two he is sending by courier as he is afraid to trust them to the postal service" (Orłowski 110).

Putnam, however, not ready to risk the publication of four volumes, was delaying. Meanwhile, a Polish scholar, Roman Dyboski, translated "The Polish Peasants," two fragments of the novel, and published them in The Slavonic Review (the first fragment in December 1922, the second in March 1923). The first fragment was reprinted in The Living Age (February 1923), the second in Poland (June 1923). Another fragment from The Peasants, translated by Źłtowska, was published in The Slavonic Review of June 1923 and reprinted in Poland (October 1924).

In 1923, Putnam gave up the idea of publishing The Peasants, and Dziewicki's translation was taken by Alfred A. Knopf, who employed Morawski as editor. On December 7, 1923, Reymont sent the signed contract with Knopf to New York, and Morawski gave a lecture on Reymont at Columbia University at about the same time.

On March 14, 1924, Morawski wrote to Reymont that Volume I of The Peasants was "doing well." According to figures supplied by Knopf, the first volume sold 30,000 copies, the second 23,000, the third 20,000, and the fourth 20,000 (Orłowski 47). What is more important, the first volume was available in bookstores and already selling well in the middle of March 1924.

Reymont himself spent the summers of 1919 and 1920 in the United States. Leon Orłowski describes the first of those visits: "In New York, Morawski would take Reymont to breakfast at Lotos, a literary club he belonged to, where he introduced him to American journalists and writers. At night he would take him home to dinner or they would go out, usually with someone who could be helpful in their publishing plans, already in embryo" (Orłowski 15).

During Reymont's stay in New York, he met Rupert Hughes, who wrote several articles about him for American periodicals. Hughes was the first to introduce the Polish writer to American readers with his article in The New York Times Magazine (July 13, 1919), entitled "Poland's Peasant Novelist." Another critic, Joseph Wood Krutch, praised the "literary architecture" of The Peasants in his review of the first two volumes, "Earth's Diurnal Course," in The Nation on January 21, 1925.

Thus, although there is no proof that Eugene O'Neill ever met Reymont or read The Peasants, it is clear that both the author and his work were known inside the New York literary circles of which O'Neill was a member.

Interestingly, little is known about the creative process that brought forth Desire Under the Elms. In January 1924, O'Neill was in Ridgefield, Connecticut, at work on the play. He wrote it rapidly and talked little about it while it was being written (Bogard 200). In contrast to his usual practice, he scarcely mentioned the play as a work-in-progress in his letters to Kenneth Macgowan (Bogard 200). O'Neill later told Walter Huston, who played Ephraim Cabot, that he had dreamed the whole play one night (Gelb 539), although a note in his Work Diary says that the "idea" for the play occurred to him in the fall of 1923 (Bogard 200).

O'Neill worked on the play during the winter and spring of 1924 (Bogard 199). In March, April and May he was in New York, co-producing Welded and All God's Chillun Got Wings. Toward the end of May, he returned to Ridgefield to make the final revisions of Desire Under the Elms. In June, Bernard Simon came to Ridgefield to type the revised manuscript (Gelb 557). The play was produced by the Provincetown Players at the Greenwich Village Theatre on November 11, 1924.

Because O'Neill was reticent about discussing Desire and wrote it rapidly, critics have searched for various sources for the play. Arthur and Barbara Gelb discuss O'Neill's habit of "artistic plagiarism" (549) and the influence of Greek tragedy on the play. Travis Bogard reviews O'Neill's indebtedness to the legends of Oedipus, Phaedra and Medea, along with Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, and then points out "the possibility of another, closer 'source' than any of these--one whose proximity is so close as to raise a question of plagiarism. That work is Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted" (201). After analyzing both plays, Bogard concludes, "In the end, proof fails, yet the possibility remains suggestive and the dubious story of the dream, together with O'Neill's uncharacteristic silence about the play as he wrote it, breeds the suspicion that O'Neill was aware that his planet and Howard's were momentarily in uncomfortably close conjunction" (203).

O'Neill's "demonstrable habit of building his plays on the works of others" (Bogard 201) has led critics to look for still other sources for Desire. It has been suggested that Synge's Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea and T. C. Murray's Birthright might have served as other general sources (Sheaffer 206, Bogard 203). O'Neill had seen all the New York performances of the Irish Players in 1911 and acknowledged his indebtedness to the Players in his letter to Edward Sheldon, saying that "Your Salvation Nell, along with the work of the Irish Players on their first trip over here, was what first opened my eyes to the existence of a real theatre" (Bogard 119). Their plays may have inspired Beyond the Horizon, Desire Under the Elms and A Touch of the Poet, especially the theme of farming and struggling for farm land by a farmer's sons (Sheaffer 206).

Undoubtedly, some of the literary sources mentioned above could have influenced O'Neill's use of myths, and others might have served him as material for his rustic ambience and his description of peasants and life on the farm. But it is only The Peasants that could have provided O'Neill in one text with the setting, characters and plot combining the themes of ancient myths with descriptions of village life, and of incestuous love with the struggle for land in a remote rural community.

--Michael Mikoś and David Mulroy


Bogard Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972.
Erman Erman, Adolf. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians. Oxford, 1927. Reissue: Benjamin Blom, 1971.
Gelb Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
O'Neill O'Neill, Eugene. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1955. All parenthetical citations are to the text of Desire Under the Elms in Volume I.
Orłowski Orłowski, Leon, ed. Reymont w Ameryce: List do Wojciecha Morawskiego. Warsaw: PIW, 1970. (Translations by the authors.)
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, Inc., 1957), pp. 57-61.
Reymont Reymont, Władysław Stanislaw. The Peasants, transl. Michal Dziewicki, 4 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924-1925. The abbreviations in parenthetical citations: A-Autumn (Vol. I), W-Winter (Vol. II), S-Spring (Vol. III), Su-Summer (Vol. IV).
Sheaffer Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
Yohannan Yohannan, John D., ed. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in World Literature. New York: New Directions, 1968.

1 The phrase "lustful stepmother" is somewhat misleading. In the stories belonging to the group, the lustful lady is variously stepmother, mother-in-law, sister-in law, teacher's wife, master's wife or simply queen. What is constant is that she is a mother surrogate vis--vis the hero. Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski emphasizes the motif of incest in his analysis of The Peasants in Władysław Stanisław Reymont (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972). p. 78. Though slightly inaccurate, the "tale of the lustful stepmother" has a certain euphony that the "tale of the lustful mother surrogate" lacks and so we have retained the usage throughout.

2 In a still later episode, Bata is even transformed into a Persea tree. It's a long story!

3 For the reception of Reymont's works in the United States, see Jerzy R. Kryzanowski, "Amerykanskie poglosy 'Chlopw' Reymonta" (Kongres Wspolczesnej Nauki i Kultury Polskiej na Obczyznie, London, 1970, I, 285-289); and Barbara Kocwna, Reymont. Z dziejw recepcji twrczości (Warszawa: PWN, 1975), especially "Recepcja w Ameryce," pp. 360-364.



Copyright 1999-2007