Desire Under the Elms

By Eugene O’Neill


Welcome to the engaging and intense world of “Desire Under the Elms” 🌳, a compelling play written by the legendary Eugene O’Neill. Diving into this piece, you’re stepping into a rich tapestry of human emotions, dark desires, and the complex dynamics of family and inheritance. Written in 1924, this play stands as a testament to O’Neill’s mastery in capturing the depth of the human condition, offering us a glimpse into the struggles and passions that lie beneath the surface.

Eugene O’Neill, a giant in the realm of American theater, is known for his deep psychological insights and his ability to weave complex narratives that explore the nuances of human relationships. His work often delves into themes of love, despair, and the quest for meaning, making “Desire Under the Elms” a quintessential O’Neill masterpiece.

Set against the backdrop of a New England farm in the 1850s, the play falls within the genre of tragedy, drawing heavily on the themes and structure of ancient Greek drama while embedding itself firmly in the realities of American life. O’Neill’s genius lies in his ability to marry the universal and the particular, creating a story that resonates with audiences across time and space.

So, buckle up! You’re about to explore a world where desires clash, dark secrets unfold, and the human spirit is tested in the fires of love and betrayal. Let’s dive in! 🎭

Plot Summary

“Desire Under the Elms” is a gripping narrative that unfolds on a New England farm, embodying the themes of passion, greed, and betrayal. Here’s how the story progresses:

Exposition — The play introduces us to Ephraim Cabot, an old, harsh farmer who leaves his farm and three sons—Eben, Simeon, and Peter—to find a new wife. Eben, the youngest, has a burning desire to own the farm, which he believes rightfully belongs to him through his mother.

Rising Action — Ephraim returns with a young wife, Abbie Putnam, sparking a fierce rivalry with Eben. Both Abbie and Eben are determined to claim the farm as their own. The tension escalates as Eben buys out his brothers’ shares of the farm with money stolen from Ephraim, ensuring they leave in search of gold in California.

Climax — Abbie and Eben’s mutual hatred soon transforms into a passionate love affair. Abbie, in her desire to secure the farm for herself and to genuinely win Eben’s love, conceives a child she plans to pass off as Ephraim’s legitimate heir.

Falling Action — The birth of the child initially brings Eben and Abbie closer, solidifying their bond. However, the happiness is short-lived. Ephraim, suspecting the truth behind the child’s parentage, confronts them. In a desperate attempt to prove her love for Eben, Abbie commits an unthinkable act: she kills the child, believing this sacrifice will cement her and Eben’s bond and claim to the farm.

Resolution — Eben is torn between his horror at the murder and his love for Abbie. He decides to report the murder to the authorities, but upon realizing his deep love for Abbie, he retracts and decides to face the consequences with her. The play concludes with Ephraim losing both his wife and stepson to the law, standing alone on his farm, a tragic figure diminished by his own desires and the relentless pursuit of property and legacy.

Through this intense narrative, O’Neill explores the destructive power of desire and the tragic consequences of human greed and passion. The farm, an emblem of stability and prosperity, becomes a battleground for the soul, leaving no character unscathed in its wake.

Character Analysis

In “Desire Under the Elms,” Eugene O’Neill crafts characters of profound depth and complexity, each driven by their own desires, fears, and motivations. Let’s delve into the main characters:

Eben Cabot — Eben is the youngest son of Ephraim Cabot, deeply connected to the land which he believes is rightfully his through his mother. He is characterized by a complex mixture of hatred, love, and desire. Initially, Eben’s primary motivation is to claim ownership of the farm, but his desires shift as he falls passionately in love with Abbie. This love leads to moments of both tenderness and destructive passion, showing his capacity for both deep love and intense resentment.

Abbie Putnam — Abbie is Ephraim’s young third wife, who enters the Cabot family with her sights set on securing the farm for herself. She is ambitious, cunning, and capable of deep love. Her character arc is one of the most dramatic, shifting from a woman driven by material desire to one who commits an unspeakable act out of love for Eben. Abbie’s journey explores themes of redemption, sacrifice, and the destructive power of desire.

Ephraim Cabot — Ephraim is the elderly patriarch of the Cabot family, a man as hard and unforgiving as the land he farms. He is deeply religious, interpreting his toil and the harshness of his land as a path to salvation. Ephraim’s desires are for legacy and control, both over his land and his family. His inability to understand or connect with his sons leads to his isolation and ultimate downfall.

Simeon and Peter Cabot — The older brothers of Eben, Simeon and Peter share a desire to escape the harsh life of the farm and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Their decision to leave for California represents a broader theme of escape and the search for a better life, setting the stage for the central conflict between Eben, Abbie, and Ephraim.

Eben CabotComplex, passionateInheritance, loveShifts from selfish desires to genuine love
Abbie PutnamAmbitious, capable of loveSecurity, loveFrom materialistic ambitions to sacrificial love
Ephraim CabotHarsh, religiousLegacy, controlEnds isolated, highlighting his tragic pursuit
Simeon and Peter CabotDiscontent, seeking betterEscape, fortuneTheir departure catalyzes the central conflict

Through these characters, O’Neill explores the depths of human desire, the complexity of family bonds, and the tragic consequences of our deepest wants and fears.

Themes and Symbols

“Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill is rich with themes and symbols that explore the depths of human emotion and the complexities of family dynamics. Here, we delve into the major themes and symbols present in the play:

Land as a Symbol of Legacy and Identity — The farm represents more than just a piece of property; it’s a legacy and a source of identity for the Cabot family. The fierce desire to own and control the land underscores the play’s exploration of inheritance and the ties that bind families to their past and to each other.

Desire and Destruction — Desire is the driving force behind the characters’ actions, leading them down paths of both passion and destruction. O’Neill examines how unchecked desire can consume individuals, destroy relationships, and dismantle families. This theme is epitomized in the tragic relationship between Eben and Abbie, where love and desire lead to catastrophic decisions.

The Burden of Sin and Redemption — Throughout the play, characters grapple with their sense of sin and seek redemption, often in ways that only lead to further tragedy. Abbie’s act of killing her child as a sacrifice for her love for Eben and her desire for the farm is a stark exploration of the lengths to which individuals will go to attain redemption or forgiveness.

Isolation and Connection — O’Neill contrasts the characters’ deep sense of isolation with their yearning for connection. Ephraim’s isolation from his family, despite his desire for a legacy, and Eben and Abbie’s fleeting moments of genuine connection amidst their manipulative relationship, highlight the human need for love and understanding.

The Cycle of Nature and Life — The elm trees and the changing seasons on the farm serve as a backdrop to the human drama, symbolizing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The elms, in particular, stand as silent witnesses to the family’s turmoil, representing both the nurturing and oppressive aspects of nature.

Conflict between Modernity and Tradition — The play reflects the tension between the traditional, hardworking values of rural life and the allure of modernity and escape represented by Simeon and Peter’s departure for California. This theme speaks to the broader societal shifts happening in America at the time O’Neill was writing.

Through these themes and symbols, “Desire Under the Elms” offers a profound commentary on the human condition, exploring the depths of love, desire, and the relentless pursuit of legacy.

Writing Style and Tone

Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” is notable for its distinctive writing style and tone, which play pivotal roles in creating the mood and atmosphere of the play. Here’s a closer look:

Writing Style:

  • Symbolic and Expressive Language: O’Neill employs symbolic language, particularly in the depiction of the elm trees and the harsh New England landscape, to add depth to the narrative and to reflect the internal states of his characters.
  • Naturalistic Dialogue: The dialogue in “Desire Under the Elms” is naturalistic, capturing the dialect and speech patterns of rural New England in the 1850s. This authenticity brings the characters to life and enhances the realism of the play.
  • Greek Tragedy Influence: O’Neill’s style is heavily influenced by Greek tragedy, with a structure that mirrors classical plays—complete with a chorus-like figure in the form of the farmhands and a tragic hero in Eben. This influence is evident in the play’s exploration of fate, sin, and redemption.


  • Tragic and Foreboding: The tone of “Desire Under the Elms” is overwhelmingly tragic and foreboding, reflecting the inevitable downfall of its characters due to their desires and actions. This tone is established early on and permeates through the narrative, setting the stage for the play’s climax and resolution.
  • Intimate and Tense: There’s an intimate yet tense atmosphere that envelops the play, especially in the scenes that involve Eben and Abbie. Their complex relationship, marked by passion and conflict, is rendered through a tone that oscillates between moments of tenderness and intense despair.
  • Melancholic and Reflective: The overall mood of the play is also melancholic, reflective of the characters’ internal struggles and the harsh realities of their lives. O’Neill’s tone invites the audience to ponder deeper themes of love, legacy, and the human condition.

The combined effect of O’Neill’s writing style and tone in “Desire Under the Elms” is a powerful portrayal of human drama set against the backdrop of the American landscape. Through his masterful use of language and atmospheric tone, O’Neill crafts a narrative that is both deeply personal and universally resonant, cementing the play’s place in the canon of American theater.

Literary Devices used in Desire Under the Elms

Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” utilizes a range of literary devices to deepen the narrative and enhance the emotional impact of the play. Let’s explore the top 10 devices used:

  1. Symbolism — The elm trees and the farm itself are powerful symbols. The elms represent both the nurturing and oppressive nature of the family legacy, while the farm symbolizes the root of the family’s desires and conflicts.
  2. Foreshadowing — O’Neill skillfully uses dialogue and action to hint at future events, particularly the tragic outcomes of the characters’ desires. The tense atmosphere from the beginning suggests that the characters’ obsessions and actions will lead to disastrous consequences.
  3. Irony — There’s a pervasive use of irony, especially situational irony, where the characters’ actions to secure their desires result in the opposite of what they intend, highlighting the futility and destructiveness of their pursuits.
  4. Metaphor — The play is replete with metaphors, with the most prominent being the comparison of the Cabot family to the barren and harsh land they live on, suggesting their emotional and spiritual barrenness.
  5. Simile — O’Neill uses similes to draw comparisons that highlight the characters’ internal states, such as likening Eben’s and Abbie’s initial feelings for each other to a smoldering fire, indicating their hidden passions.
  6. Personification — The elm trees are personified throughout the play, with descriptions that give them human qualities, reflecting the characters’ emotions and the oppressive nature of the family legacy.
  7. Allusion — The play contains allusions to Biblical stories and Greek tragedy, enriching the narrative with deeper meanings and connections to themes of fate, sin, and redemption.
  8. Pathetic Fallacy — The weather and the farm’s condition often mirror the emotional landscape of the characters, with stormy weather reflecting inner turmoil and the farm’s barrenness symbolizing the family’s dysfunction.
  9. Repetition — Key phrases and motifs are repeated throughout the play, such as references to the farm and the elms, reinforcing the themes of legacy and desire.
  10. Contrast — O’Neill uses contrast effectively, especially in characterizing the differences between Eben, Ephraim, and Abbie, to highlight the complexities of their desires and motivations.

These literary devices are instrumental in weaving the intricate tapestry of “Desire Under the Elms,” allowing O’Neill to explore profound themes and emotions with depth and nuance.

Literary Device Examples

Here are examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in “Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill:


The elm treesRepresent the maternal presence in the Cabot household, symbolizing both comfort and oppression. They overshadow the house, much like the legacy and memories of the past dominate the characters’ lives.
The farmServes as a symbol of inheritance and desire, being the object of contention among the characters. It represents the American dream turned nightmare through greed and obsession.


Ephraim’s insistence on the farm’s importanceSuggests the upcoming conflict over its ownership and the lengths to which characters will go to claim it, hinting at the tragic events that unfold.


Abbie’s act of killing her child to prove her love for EbenIs ironic because it destroys their chance at happiness and leads to their downfall, contrary to her intentions.


Comparing the Cabot family to the landImplies that they are as hard and unforgiving as the farm they till, highlighting their emotional barrenness.


Eben and Abbie’s relationship likened to a smoldering fireIndicates the hidden, potentially destructive passion between them, which eventually consumes them both.


The elm trees standing like mournful guardiansGives the trees a human quality, suggesting they are silent witnesses to the family’s tragedy.


References to Greek tragedy and Biblical storiesEnrich the narrative with themes of fate, sin, and redemption, drawing parallels between the Cabot family’s saga and classical tales of human folly and divine retribution.

Pathetic Fallacy

Stormy weather reflecting the characters’ turmoilUses the weather to mirror the internal chaos and conflict within the Cabot household, especially during key moments of tension.


Repeated references to the desire for the farmReinforces the central conflict and the destructive nature of the characters’ obsessions.


The differences between Eben, Ephraim, and Abbie’s motivationsHighlights the complex web of desires that drive the narrative forward, showing how each character’s unique motivations contribute to the tragic conclusion.

These examples demonstrate how O’Neill’s masterful use of literary devices enriches “Desire Under the Elms,” deepening the audience’s understanding of the characters and themes.

Desire Under the Elms – FAQs

What is the main theme of “Desire Under the Elms”?
The main theme revolves around the destructive nature of human desire, particularly how personal obsessions and the pursuit of property and legacy can lead to tragic outcomes. Themes of love, betrayal, and redemption are also explored against the backdrop of a New England farm.

Who are the main characters in “Desire Under the Elms”?
The main characters include Ephraim Cabot, an aging patriarch; Eben Cabot, his youngest son who is determined to claim the farm as his own; and Abbie Putnam, Ephraim’s young third wife, whose desire to secure her place on the farm leads to tragic consequences.

How does “Desire Under the Elms” reflect Eugene O’Neill’s writing style?
The play showcases O’Neill’s use of naturalistic dialogue, symbolic elements, and a tragic narrative structure influenced by Greek tragedy. His writing in this play is marked by deep psychological insight into his characters and a stark portrayal of their inner lives and desires.

What is the significance of the elm trees in the play?
The elm trees symbolize the maternal presence and protection but also overshadow the Cabot farmhouse with a sense of oppression and entrapment. They reflect the themes of legacy and the burdensome nature of family ties and expectations.

How does the setting influence the plot of “Desire Under the Elms”?
The setting on a New England farm in the 1850s is crucial to the plot, highlighting the harshness of the characters’ lives and their deep connection to the land. The farm serves as both the prize and battleground for the characters’ desires, shaping their actions and the play’s outcome.

Can “Desire Under the Elms” be considered a tragedy?
Yes, it can be considered a tragedy in the classical sense. The play follows the tragic hero (Eben) who is flawed by his intense desires. The narrative structure, including a downfall caused by a combination of fate and personal choice, aligns with traditional elements of tragedy.

What literary devices are used in “Desire Under the Elms”?
O’Neill employs a variety of literary devices, including symbolism (the elm trees and the farm), foreshadowing (hints of future tragedies), irony (contrasts between characters’ intentions and outcomes), and personification (giving human qualities to the elm trees), among others.

How does “Desire Under the Elms” explore the concept of family?
The play delves into the complexities of family dynamics, including the conflict between fathers and sons, the longing for maternal love, and the destructive impact of inheritance disputes. It portrays family as both a source of deep connection and profound discord.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
Who is the author of “Desire Under the Elms”?Arthur MillerTennessee WilliamsEugene O’NeillEdward AlbeeC
What is the primary setting of the play?A New York apartmentA Southern plantationA New England farmA Midwestern townC
Who does Eben Cabot inherit the farm from?His motherHis fatherHis brothersHis uncleA
What motivates Abbie Putnam to marry Ephraim Cabot?LoveMoney and securityRevengePolitical powerB
What tragic action does Abbie take to prove her love to Eben?Leaves the farmSteals moneyKills their childBetrays EphraimC
How does Ephraim Cabot react to the farm’s inheritance dispute?With indifferenceBy disowning his sonsBy selling the farmBy seeking revengeB
What symbolizes the maternal presence in the Cabot household?The farmhouseThe elm treesThe nearby riverThe gardenB
Which theme is NOT explored in “Desire Under the Elms”?The pursuit of the American DreamThe nature of sin and redemptionThe impact of technology on societyThe destructive nature of desireC
How does the play end?With a weddingWith a reconciliationWith an arrestWith a deathC
What literary device is predominantly used to represent the farm?MetaphorOnomatopoeiaHyperboleAlliterationA

This quiz is designed to test your comprehension and understanding of “Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill, focusing on key plot points, themes, and literary elements.


Spot the Literary Devices

Read the following paragraph from “Desire Under the Elms” and identify the literary devices used:

“The elm trees, standing tall and solemn, seemed to guard the old Cabot farmhouse like ancient sentinels, their branches whispering secrets of the past. The sun, a fiery orb sinking below the horizon, bathed the scene in a blood-red glow, as if the very sky bore witness to the desires and sins harbored within. Here, amidst the rugged beauty of the New England landscape, human passions and the relentless pursuit of inheritance would soon unfold, weaving a tale of love, betrayal, and tragedy.”


  1. Personification: “The elm trees, standing tall and solemn, seemed to guard the old Cabot farmhouse like ancient sentinels.” The elm trees are given human qualities, described as guarding the farmhouse.
  2. Symbolism: “The sun, a fiery orb sinking below the horizon, bathed the scene in a blood-red glow.” The setting sun symbolizes the end of a day but also forebodes the bloodshed and the intense emotions that will unfold.
  3. Foreshadowing: “Here, amidst the rugged beauty of the New England landscape, human passions and the relentless pursuit of inheritance would soon unfold, weaving a tale of love, betrayal, and tragedy.” This sets the stage for the events that are to come, hinting at the story’s direction.
  4. Imagery: The entire paragraph is rich with imagery, vividly describing the setting and creating a visual picture of the elm trees, the farmhouse, and the sunset, which enhances the mood and sets the tone for the play.

This exercise helps in understanding how O’Neill uses literary devices to add depth to his narrative, creating a vivid and emotionally resonant setting in “Desire Under the Elms.”