Desire Under The Elms


By Eugene O'Neil
The land is the most essential asset to any farmer. In the
play Desire Under the Elms, this is also the case. The land
in the play is the central theme, it holds all of the
elements of the play together. It was the object of greed
as well. The farm was the source of greed for three of the
characters in the play, Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, and
his new wife Abbie. Peter and Simon focused their greed on
the fields of gold in the West, primarily in California.
One of the ways in which Eugene O'Neill made the land
symbolic in the play was through the use of stones.
Throughout the play stones, and the walls they created, are
mentioned by both Ephraim Cabot and others. The land on
this farm was very poor from the descriptions Ephraim Cabot
gives us. The land, from his account, was covered with
stones. In order for him to farm his land, he had to remove
all the stones and decided to make walls with them. This
was hard work, but Ephraim Cabot did not mind the
back-breaking work because he felt that God was hard, and
this was part of His plan.
To Peter and Simon, the stone walls were symbolic in their
own way. They represented a sense of confinement and
imprisonment. Ephraim Cabot was a man of little or no real
emotion. He was very hard on his children and his first
wife. As a result Eben, Simon, and Peter hated their
father. They felt trapped into doing his wishes, and they
saw no real way out. To Peter and Simon, the stone walls
built around the farm by their father symbolized their
imprisonment for life. This point is clearly shown when
Peter and Simon leave to go find gold in California. In
their jubilation upon leaving they say, "The halter's
broke-the harness is busted-the fence bars is down-the
stone walls air crumblin' an' tumblin'!" (O'Neill 1076).
Eben makes an interesting reference to the stone walls as
well. He believes that the stone walls caused the lack of
caring and emotion towards their mother by Peter and Simon.
He states, "An' makin' walls-stone atop o' stone-makin'
walls till yer heart's a stone ye heft up out o' the way o'
growth onto a stone wall t' wall in yer heart!"(O'Neill
1069). What he is really saying is the fact that the many
years of hard work on the farm have made Simon, Peter, and
of course their father Ephraim, immune to emotion or
caring. All they knew was work, and it was work that had
made them and their father not care about their first
The land also is symbolic in other ways as well. Peter,
Ephraim, and Simon, as most farmers, see the land as a
thing of beauty. This can be seen in several places in the
play. O'Neill uses the beauty of the land to describe
things completely unrelated to the land. When Abbie tries
to seduce Eben she uses nature to prove her point by
saying, "H'aint the sun strong an' hot? Ye kin feel it
burnin' into the earth-Nature-makin' thin's grow-bigger Ôn'
bigger-burnin' inside ye-making' ye want t' grow-into
somethin' else-till ye're jined with it-an' it's your'n-but
it owns ye, too-an' makes ye grow bigger-like a tree-like
them elums-"(O'Neill 1081). Eben uses the beauty of the
land to describe Minnie, his girlfriend in the beginning of
the play. He says, "her mouth's wa'm, her arms're wa'm, she
smells like a wa'm plowed field, she's purty..."(O'Neill
Ephraim also uses the land as a symbol to describe heaven.
He describes it by stating, "The sky. Feels like a wa'm
field up thar."(O'Neill 1082). Here Ephraim is describing
his old age and what he feels heaven would be like. Peter
and Simon even imagine California as being not unlike their
farm in New England. In the early part of the play they
imagine California as "fields o' gold!" and "Fortunes
layin' just atop o' the ground waitin' t' be
picked!"(O'Neill 1067). What is ironic here is that they
imagine gold in California being just like the stones in
the fields of their father's farm. In California they would
be picking up stones just as they had done in New England.
Another part of the landscape of the farm, and one of the
most important, are the two elm trees on each side of the
house. The elms represent the spirit of Eben's mother.
Ephraim gives a clue to this when he leaves his party and
in the yard says, "Ye kin feel it droppin' off the elums,
climbin' up the roof, sneakin' down the chimney, pokin' in
the corners! They's no peace in houses, they's no rest
livin' with folks. Somethin's always livin' with ye. I'll
go t' the barn an' rest a spell."(O'Neill 1094). This
statement has two very important aspects. First, it shows
that the spirit of his former wife is still in the house.
Moreover, it shows Ephraim's close ties to the land, and
illuminates the fact that he can not share his life with
other people. He feels that the animals in the barn can
understand him better than any human since both the animals
and Ephraim are close to the land, and fail to show emotion.
The most important aspect of the land throughout the play
deals with greed. Ephraim Cabot is an extremely possessive
man. He even states that he would rather burn the farm to
the ground than give it away. Everyone in the play wants
the farm, despite the fact that when Ephraim first bought
it, many people considered it worthless. He removed all the
stones from the fields, planted them, and raised his
animals. It is as a result of these years of hard work that
makes the farm so attractive to everyone, and is in fact
the reason why everyone wants it. Ephraim felt that it was
God's will for him to have to go through hardships in
working the land. God wanted him to be a hard man. And
Ephraim felt that it was not right for anyone to have the
luxury of receiving a farm when he had to build it with his
own blood and sweat. This was not what God wanted. And in
the end of the play, God did in fact win.
Eben feels that he is the rightful heir to the land. Abbie,
through lies and chicanery, feels that she is the rightful
owner of the farm. Ephraim feels that the land will always
be his, and not belong to anyone else. Peter and Simon felt
that they were entitled to the land due to the years of
blood and sweat they had donated to the land and their
father's wishes. In fact, Simon, Peter and Eben hope that
Ephraim is dead when he leaves to get married in the first
scene of the play. And in the last line of the play, even
the sheriff admits that he would like to have the farm as
well. It is this greed over land that effects every major
character in the play.
The true importance of the land becomes very clear by the
end of the play . It is what drives all of the characters.
It affects their feelings, emotions, and outlook on life.
It is all that they know and care for. Being farmers, it is
their livelihood and a source of pride, at least for
Ephraim. It can also be used to show beauty, as well as
loneliness. The land is life, and the land is death. The
land understands the farmer, just as the farmer understands
the land. To the farmer the land is tangible, while
emotions and personal relationships may seem immaterial.
Throughout history, land has been a source of greed and
power in many civilizations, and it can create social
status, as it is a limited commodity. Land is more than
likely what brought Ephraim Cabot's ancestors to America.
They, as he, saw the true value of the land. But more
importantly, the farmer who lives off the land is in a
position to understand it in a way that is far deeper than
its material value, and this true of Ephraim Cabot as well.
For these reasons the land in the play has a most
significant importance as well as a symbolic value. 
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