What are the Desires in “Desire Under the Elms?”
Desire Under the Elms is a highly realistic drama of O’Neill, the action of which takes place in the Cabot-farm-house in the New England. The main theme of the play is the variations of the word ‘Desire’. Every character in the play desires something. In the broader sense ‘desire’ signifies possessive instinct or passion. As the play opens, we are introduced to the three sons of Ephraim Cabot, the owner of the Cabot-farm and farm-house. The two elder sons of Cabot, Simeon, and Peter, are fed up with their own life on the stony-farm. Their father has made them over-work and now they desire freedom from drudgery or their father’s farm. They yearn for the west, for California where they would be able to earn enough money. Their ‘desire’ is for money and freedom.
Eben, the youngest son of Cabot, passionately ‘desire’ to possess the farm. Because he believed that the farm belongs to his dead mother. Eben believed that his mother was starved and killed by the apathetic father; hence he could not forgive Cabot. It is to get the farm that he steals his father’s money and buys the shares of his two brothers as they go off to California. Once when Eben was sure that his new step-mother has come there to grab his farm and take the place of his own mother, he did not spare her and started hating her that is why twice and thrice, he repulses the advances of Abbie towards him. When Cabot informed him that Abbie’s new-born baby alone would get the farm he lost his temper and ran fast to “murder” him.
Besides his “desire” to possess the farm, Eben also desires to have revenge on his father for the wrongs he has done to his dead mother. Eben considers that the farm rightfully belongs to him by inheritance from his mother. He becomes vindictive because he knows that his father overworked his mother like a slave and thus sent her to death. He would, therefore, like to avenge her wrongs. He therefore seduces and makes love to Abbie Putnam, his step-mother. He feels that his acceptance of the love of Abbie has pleased his mother and her soul would henceforth rest in peace in her grave. After their first night of love in the parlor sacred to his dead mother, Eben meets his father just outside the house and makes fun of him.
Abbie Putnam, the young wife of Ephraim Cabot also possesses some “desires.” She desires a home and security. In her early life, her first husband had died, leaving her in the lurch. She was almost a destitute when Cabot picked her up for his wife and brought her home. Here she felt secure and comfortable. She married Cabot, not out of any love for him, but because she “desired” the home and the security which could be provided by marriage only. She covets the farm and “desires” that it should be her farm.
Besides, her desire for a home and security, Abbie also desires the love of Eben. She is really in love with, Eben and “desires” him passionately. Gradually, her “desire” for Eben far outweighs her “desire” for the farm. In order to possess him, she kills her own baby and does not hesitate to go to the gallows with him.
For Old Cabot, the farm-house is a symbol of security and financial stability. For the sake of this farm, he overworked his sons, his wives and himself. He “desires” the farm so much that he would like to take it with himself to the other world. Since he could not do so, Cabot desires to leave it to one of his own blood. Therefore, he desires to a son who may inherit the farm after his death.
Besides the “desire” to possess the farm, Old Cabot desires the warmth of human company. He feels lonesome and seeks company. So the word ‘desire’ also signifies having so many women as wives for Ephraim Cabot. It is this that had driven him to marry at least thrice in life. It is this ‘desire’ that takes him to the village prostitute “Min.” But still, he feels lonely. He desires warmth but feels chilly, and intuitively knows that something is wrong with the house. This “desire” for warmth prompts him to leave his bedroom for the barn, where he finds warmth in the company of the cows.
To conclude, we may say that the “desire” in the Cabot house situated under the elms in beautifully depicted through the subtle touches of a consummate artist. Their desires for possession of the land, the home, and the body go along with a profound desire for companionable warmth which for a time Abbie and Eben find in each other, which Ephraim has known only with his cows. There are also some anxious moments in the play and they speak a lot about the appealing art of O’Neill.