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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1987



In the famous stage directions for the first act of Desire Grader the Elms, O'Neill describes the trees of the title:

"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).

Travis Bogard praises O'Neill's restraint in imposing these elms as symbols on an essentially realistic play: "the novelistic rhetoric that links the elms with Eben's dead mother and with an exhausted life force holds no meaning beyond the printed page" (205). While this prelude may have its theatrical limitations, however, it does, as Normand Berlin suggests, have its resonance in the play (55). The description of the elms, which O'Neill referred to as "characters, almost" (Chothia 40), initiates a metaphoric pattern that O'Neill works with throughout. In linking the maternal--here "a sinister maternity" compounded of opposites--to the natural world, to the landscape, he prepares us for the projection of the intensities of the Freudian "family romance" onto the terrain of the Cabot farm.

O'Neill claimed to have dreamed Desire Under the Elms in its entirety. As Louis Sheaffer has pointed out, O'Neill did some borrowing--particularly from Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted--as well as dreaming (126). However, O'Neill certainly drew on collective dream, on an enduring tradition of mythic and psychological fantasy, when he identified woman, and particularly the mother, with the land. Theorists who have recently focused on such imagery provide us with a context in which to consider its centrality to the play. In a celebrated essay entitled "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" Sherry Ortner suggests that for a variety of reasons, biological, social, and psychological, "women are ... identified or symbolically associated with nature, ... [while] men ... are identified with culture" (73). Women, that is, are seen as co-extensive with, or at least much closer to, the natural world. Men, on the other hand, have traditionally felt compelled to master and transcend nature in order to create and maintain culture. This division, Ortner argues, gives rise to a seemingly universal hierarchical structure that places culture and man over nature and woman. Ortner is concerned with the ways in which this analogy derives from and influences our experience. As Annette Kolodny points out in her study of the imagery that links woman and the land in American writing about the new world, "language ... contains verbal cues to underlying psychological patterns" and can therefore "be examined as a repository of internal experience and external expression" (73). Kolodny discusses the tension, fraught with suggestions of oedipal ambivalence, "between the initial urge to ... join passively with ... a maternal landscape and the consequent impulse to master and act upon that same femininity" (270). The conceptual fusion of woman and nature tends to put both in jeopardy. Kolodny's work, like that of Ortner, is a vivid reminder of the risk of metaphor.

The power of Desire Under the Elms is, in large measure, contingent on such imagery as these theorists hold up to scrutiny. O'Neill could be said to have collaborated in the imaginative tradition whose problematic implications they identify. However, while Desire tends to illustrate the conjunction of landscape and gender that Ortner and Kolodny describe, the play also has a distinct affinity with their critique. In 1925, O'Neill called Desire "a tragedy of the possessive--the pitiful longing of man to build his own heaven here on earth by glutting his sense of power with ownership of land, people, money" (Sheaffer 441). While O'Neill maps out his dramatic territory using the quintessential equation "woman equals nature," he also illuminates the overweening desire to possess and to dominate that is its corollary.

Striking congruities emerge in the play as it becomes apparent that land and woman are at the heart of the struggle between Eben Cabot and his father. Blaming Ephraim for having exhausted, and thereby killed, his mother, Eben is determined to wrest from him the farm she claimed as her own. He believes that only then will her soul finally be at peace. Eben resents his father for the hardness Cabot is so proud of, and insists, "I'm Maw--every drop o' blood" (207). He claims to have learned from doing the arduous domestic tasks she used to do, to "know her, suffer he sufferin'" (209). He is in revolt against the way of life on the Cabot farm, "makin' walls--stone atop o' stone--makin' walls till yer heart's a stone...." (208-9).

Eben's brothers, Simeon and Peter, the older sons of Cabot's first marriage, are somewhat removed from the primary intensities of the play. They had felt kindly toward Eben's mother, but refuse to blame their father for her death. "No one never kills nobody," Simeon says. "It's allus somethin'. That's the murderer...." Peter agrees: "He's slaved himself t'death. He's slaved Sim 'n' me 'n' yew t' death--on'y none o' us hain't died--yit" (207). They decide to leave rather than fight over the farm when they learn that their father has married and they are likely to lose their inheritance. Likened in O'Neill's description to "friendly oxen" and "beasts of the field" (206), Simeon and Peter say of the farm animals that they "know us like brothers--an' like us" (218). Eben's brothers are not linked with the mother; nor do they aspire to the drive for mastery of the father. It seems appropriate, then, that they do not figure significantly in the highly polarized world of Desire.

It is Eben, seeing himself as his mother's heir, who engages most fully in the struggle with the father for power and possession. He has his first sexual experience with Min after he learns that both his father and his brothers had been with her. In a simile characteristic of the drama, Eben says that Min "smells like a wa'm plowed field, she's purty" (211) and later declares to his brothers: "Yes, siree! I tuk her. She may've been his'n--an' your'n, too--but she's mine now!" (214). He uses the money his mother told him Cabot had hidden, to buy their shares of the farm from his brothers. After the transaction is completed, Eben talks with "queer excitement": "It's my farm! Them's my cows!" Simeon and Peter see their father in him: "Dead spit 'n' image!" O'Neill tells us that Eben "stares around him with glowing, possessive eyes. He takes in the whole farm with his embracing glance of desire" and says, "It's purty! It's damned purty! It's mine!" (217). The restricted vocabulary (Chothia 79), appropriate to the "inexpressiveness" (O'Neill quoted in Shaeffer 159) that was a focus for O'Neill in this work, reveals all the more transparently the overlap of landscape and gender that is crucial to its realization.

That there will be a contest between Eben and his father over Abbie, Cabot's new wife, is anticipated even by Simeon, who is slow and plodding. Before we meet Abbie or know what her own intentions are, we sense that her principal role will be to mediate the relationship between father and son. Shortly after Abbie arrives at the farm, Simeon and Peter take off for California to search for gold, choosing, in Cabot's terms, an easy life, which at times tempts even the harsh, scripture-quoting patriarch himself. They leave Cabot, Abbie and Eben on the farm, which itself figures so significantly in the intensely oedipal configuration.

Abbie is a compelling character. O'Neill describes her as thirty-five, and "full of vitality." She has "about her whole personality the same unsettled, untamed, desperate quality which is so apparent in Eben" (221). Like Eben, she wants the farm. An orphan who has already endured a difficult marriage, and whose child and first husband have died, she married the 75-year old Ephraim Cabot in order to have a home. Without exonerating her, O'Neill represents her desire for the farm as different in kind from that of the men. As she says to Eben defiantly, "Waal--what If I did need a hum?" (226). Her relation to nature as a generative force is also different from theirs. She speaks of "Nature--makin' thin's grow--bigger 'n' bigger--burnin' Inside ye--makin' ye want t' grow--into somethin' else--till ye're fined with it--and it's your'n but it owns ye, too--and makes ye grow bigger--like a tree--like them elums--" (229). She envisions a mutuality of possession which is conspicuously absent on the Cabot farm. And she taunts Cabot when he talks of the sky as "purty" and like a "wa'm field up thar," asking him, "Air yew aimin' t' buy up over the farm too?" (231).

Jealous when Eben goes off to see Min, Abbie tells Cabot that her stepson tried to make love to her. Here she becomes linked with Phaedra, as she has been with Iocasta. In spite of the dramatic stature the mythic dimension adds to her role, however, she remains, like the land, essentially an object of contention between father and son. Ephraim wouldn't consider letting her inherit the farm even though all his sons have disappointed him. "Ye're on'y a woman" (234). When she reminds him that she is his wife, he says, "That hain't me. A son is me--my blood--mine. Mine ought t' get mine. An' then it's still--mine--even though I be six foot under" (234).

Abbie decides to conceive a child who could inherit the farm for her. Cabot, not knowing that she has Eben in mind as the father, is ecstatic at the possibility of a new son. His reflections at this point provide the clearest indication of the kind of symbol system that O'Neill employs with consistency throughout Desire Under the Elms. Cabot says to Abbie, "Sometimes ye air the farm an' sometimes the farm be yew. That's why I clove t' ye in my lonesomeness.... Me an' the farm has got t' beget a son!" Abbie, hearing what appears to be a barely conscious admission, tells him he's "gittin' thin's all mixed." Cabot insists, "No, I hain't. My mind's clear's a well. Ye don't know me, that's it" (236). Cabot envisions having Abbie as the farm produce a son who would guarantee him an eternity of ownership. As Abbie says, he is getting things "all mixed." The confusion he articulates, however, is a primal one.

As Cabot goes on to explain himself to his wife, whose thoughts are actually with Eben, he reveals more fully what Simeon had referred to as the "somethin'--drivin' him--t'drive us!" (207). Cabot describes himself in his youth as having been "the strongest an' hardest ye ever seen--ten times as strong an' fifty times as hard as Eben." Boasting of his achievement in making "corn sprout out o' stones" (236), he speaks of the God he worships, insisting: "God's hard, not easy! God's in the stones!" (237). He projects, as Frederick Wilkins has said, "his own hardness onto his conception of the deity" (243).

Ephraim's battle with the stony soil and his disdain for the softness of the mother of Simeon and Peter, and the mother of Eben, suggest the hierarchy that Sherry Ortner discerns. His pride derives from his mastery of the land and his sense of superiority over the women. However, his satisfaction with his way of being in the world is flawed. He suffers from a persistent unease and loneliness.

In the book, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, Susan Griffin suggests that man's efforts to distance himself from the feminine and from the natural world contribute to his sense of exile and homelessness. Her prologue is a meditation on man: "He says that woman speaks with nature.... But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature" (1). This passage seems to echo the revelation of Cabot's "lonesomeness," which is prefaced by his conflation of Abbie and the farm. The sequence of his reflections seems to suggest, as the theorists do, a profound connection between man's conception of landscape and gender, and the experience of alienation.

Cabot is uncomfortable in the house, the sphere of the feminine: "It's oneasy. They's thin's pokin' about in the dark--in the corners" (238). At home, he is troubled by "somethin'," which he feels "droppin' off the elums" (253)--the symbols of a "sinister," but violated maternity. His grueling work on the land, bound up as It is with assertion and control, affords him no comfort either. He would try to console himself by remembering what he possessed: "It was all mine! When I thought of that I didn't feel lonesome" (237). But neither his periodic efforts to conjure up the exaltation of ownership, nor his attempts to seek temporary refuge in the barn with the cows, alleviate his essential isolation.

The attraction of Abbie and Eben thwarts Cabot's hope for a new heir. With thoughts of a child, and with increasing love for Eben, Abbie re-opens the parlor of Eben's mother and insists that he court her there. When with trepidation they sit together in the parlor, both Eben and Abbie sense the approval of the maternal spirit, and the easing of her cares. Eben decides that his mother accepts his union with Abbie, who insists on her similarity to the mother, because it would serve as revenge against Cabot.

After Abbie bears the child he believes is his own, Cabot arranges a celebration. His neighbors easily guess who the child's father really is. But Cabot outdoes everyone there with his age--defying dance, performing one of what John Henry Raleigh calls his "legendary feats" (55). O'Neill once said, "I have always loved Epraim so much! He is so autobiographical" (Sheaffer 130). But while Ephraim Cabot is permitted a dazzling display of endurance, it is Eben who is granted a release from what O'Neill, in another reference to the play, called "old man Cabotism" (Sheaffer 250).

Eben, finding it difficult to respond to his newborn son, tells Abbie, "I don't like this. I don't like lettin' on what's mine's his'n. I been doin' that all my life. I'm gittin' t' the end of b'arin' it!" (253). He is ready for the ultimate confrontation with the father, which is precipitated by Cabot's disclosure that Abbie wanted a son in order to get the farm for herself. When Abbie fears that she will lose Eben, she makes a desperate effort to prove her love for him above all else, by murdering their baby. It is through the appalling act of infanticide that O'Neill resolves the violent tensions of the Cabot household. The death of the baby interrupts a bitter cycle of succession that threatens to stretch into a future where the sins of the fathers--and brother--are visited upon the children. It also shocks Eben into a transformation.

After he reports Abbie to the sheriff, Eben acknowledges his own unwitting complicity in her crime. He says, "I want t' share with ye, Abbie--prison 'r death 'r hell 'r anythin'!... If I'm sharin' with ye, I won't feel lonesome, leastways" (267). Eben's lines suggest that he is no longer in the throes of an oedipal obsession with Abbie, or with the farm. Newly able to love Abbie, he has moved beyond his father's relation to woman and the land, and the loneliness it engendered. By having the son break free from its influence, O'Neill seems to subvert the imagery that has informed the play. The son is rewarded for his renunciation of the paradigm his father had glorified. Having made it possible for his mother's spirit to rest, Eben now manages, through his determination to stand by Abbie, to earn the father's "grudging admiration," a reconciliation of sorts. When the sheriff looks around the farm "enviously," and says, "It's a jim-dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it!" (269), we are able to gauge the distance Eben has travelled from the imperatives that shape the "tragedy of the possessive."

--Bette Mandl


Berlin, Normand. The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972.

Chothia, Jean. Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979.

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. New York: Harper and Row. 1978.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1975.

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.

Ortner, Sherry B. "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" in Woman, Culture and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1974.

Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1965.

Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Wilkins, Frederick. "The Pressure of Puritanism in Eugene O'Neill's New England Plays," in Eugene O'Neill: A World View, ed. Virginia Floyd. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.

*A paper delivered at the Northeast Modern Language Association Convention in Boston on April 3, 1987.



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