Desire Under the Elms

by

Eugene O’Neill

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Desire Under the Elms can help.
The protagonist of the play, Eben is Maw and Ephraim Cabot’s son, Simeon and Peter’s younger half-brother, and Abbie’s love interest. Eben is young and handsome, though he always wears a bitter and resentful expression on his face. He firmly believes that Cabot stole the family’s farmhouse from his Maw, who died some years ago. (In truth, the farmhouse is actually Cabot’s, but Eben is stubborn in his conviction.) Maw died when Eben was a teenager, after a gruelling life of relentless farm labor. Eben thus believes that Cabot worked Maw to death, and he’s obsessed with the idea of avenging her death and taking the farm back for himself. Eben senses that Maw’s oppressive, maternal energy haunts the farmhouse, as symbolized the elm trees that loom over the home. Eben’s desire to let Maw’s spirit rest in peace drives all of his actions in the play, but he is so overwhelmed by his feelings of bitterness and resentment that he often acts impulsively and makes bad decisions. He also allows himself to be seduced by Cabot’s new (and much younger) wife, Abbie. They fall in love and secretly have a baby boy (whom Cabot believes is his own son), and Eben’s guilt over this consumes him. Despite being in love with Abbie, Eben still suspects that Abbie is scheming to take the farm for herself, and when he confronts her about this, he sets off a catastrophic chain of events that leads to both his and Abbie’s downfalls, as well as their baby’s death. Eben’s character arc reflects the play’s key idea that desire—like Eben’s lust for Abbie and desire to avenge his mother’s death—can lead to rash behavior if left unchecked, and that this kind of behavior can lead to tragedy.

Eben Quotes in Desire Under the Elms

The Desire Under the Elms quotes below are all either spoken by Eben or refer to Eben. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Desire Under the Elms published in 1995.
Part 1: Scene 1 Quotes

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 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.

Related Characters: Maw , Eben, Ephraim Cabot
Related Symbols: Elm Trees
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Here—it’s stones atop o’ the ground—stones atop o’ stones—makin’ stone walls—year atop o’ year—him ’n’ yew ’n’ me ’n’ then Eben—makin’ stone walls fur him to fence us in!

Related Characters: Peter (speaker), Simeon, Eben, Ephraim Cabot
Related Symbols: Stones
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

‘T would be hard fur me, too, to give up what we’ve ‘arned here by our sweat.

Related Characters: Peter (speaker), Simeon, Eben, Ephraim Cabot, Maw , Abbie Putnam
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Scene 2 Quotes

They was chores t’ do, wa’n’t they?

Related Characters: Eben (speaker), Maw , Peter, Simeon
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Scene 3 Quotes

Waal—when I seen her, I didn’t hit her—nor I didn’t kiss her nuther—I begun t’ beller like a calf an’ cuss at the same time, I was so durn mad—an’ she got scared—an’ I jest grabbed holt an’ tuk her! (Proudly) Yes, siree! I tuk her. She may’ve been his ’n—an’ your ’n, too—but she’s mine now! […] What do I care fur her—‘ceptin she’s round an’ wa’m?

Related Characters: Eben (speaker), Minnie, Peter, Simeon, Ephraim Cabot, Abbie Putnam
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Mebbe it’s all a lie ‘bout Paw marryin’. We’d best wait an’ see the bride.

Related Characters: Simeon (speaker), Peter, Ephraim Cabot, Abbie Putnam, Eben
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Scene 1 Quotes

(enraged beyond endurance—wildly vindictive) An’ his lust fur me! Kin ye find excuses fur that?

Related Characters: Abbie Putnam (speaker), Eben, Ephraim Cabot, Minnie
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

(frightened now for Eben) No! Don’t ye!

Related Characters: Abbie Putnam (speaker), Eben, Ephraim Cabot
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Scene 2 Quotes

I lived with the boys. They hated me ‘cause I was hard. I hated them ‘cause they was soft. They coveted the farm without knowin’ what it meant. It made me bitter ‘n wormwood. 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! […] I sought ye an’ I found ye! Yew air my Rose o’ Sharon!

Related Characters: Ephraim Cabot (speaker), Abbie Putnam, Simeon, Peter, Eben
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

But her eyes are fixed on his so burningly that his will seems to wither before hers. He stands swaying toward her helplessly.

Related Characters: Abbie Putnam, Eben, Ephraim Cabot, Minnie
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Scene 3 Quotes

(In spite of her overwhelming desire for him, there is a sincere maternal love in her manner and voice—a horribly frank mix of lust and mother love). Don’t cry Eben! I'll take yer Maw’s place! I'll be everythin’ she was t’ ye! Let me kiss ye, Eben! […] Can’t ye see it hain’t enuf—lovin’ ye like a Maw—can’t ye see it’s got t’ be that an’ more—much more—a hundred times more—fur me t’ be happy—fur yew t’ be happy?

Related Characters: Abbie Putnam (speaker), Eben, Maw , Ephraim Cabot
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Scene 1 Quotes

Let's celebrate the old skunk gittin’ fooled! We kin have some fun now he’s went.

Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Scene 2 Quotes

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. At the same moment, Abby comes out on the porch. With a stifled cry she runs toward them.

Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

I wish he never was born! I wish he’d die this minit! I wish I’d never set eyes on him! It’s him—yew havin’ him-a-purpose t’ steal—that’s changed everythin’!

Related Characters: Eben (speaker), Abbie Putnam, The Baby (Abbie and Eben’s Son)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

If I could make it—‘s if he’d never come up between us—if I could prove t’ ye I wa’n’t schemin’ t’ steal from ye—so’s everythin’ could be jest the same with us, lovin’ each other jest the same, kissin’ an’ happy the same’s we’ve been happy afore he come—if I could do it—ye’d love me agen, wouldn’t ye? Ye’d kiss me agen? Ye wouldn’t never leave me, would ye?

Related Characters: Abbie Putnam (speaker), Eben, The Baby (Abbie and Eben’s Son)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Scene 3 Quotes

But I’ll take vengeance now! I’ll git the Sheriff! I’ll tell him everythin’!

Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

I kin hear His voice warnin’ me agen t’ be hard an’ stay on my farm. […] It’s agoin’ t’ be lonesomer now than ever it war afore-an’ I’m gittin’ old […] Waal—what d’ ye want? God’s lonesome, hain’t He? God’s hard an’ lonesome!

Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

It’s a jim-dandy farm, no denyin’. Wished I owned it!

Related Characters: Sheriff (speaker), Eben, Abbie Putnam, The Baby (Abbie and Eben’s Son)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Desire Under the Elms LitChart as a printable PDF.
Desire Under the Elms PDF

Eben Character Timeline in Desire Under the Elms

The timeline below shows where the character Eben appears in Desire Under the Elms. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Scene 1
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...oppressive, looming Elm trees. The window shades are always closed. The sun is setting, and Eben comes out onto the porch, ringing a large bell. He looks at the sky, which... (full context)
Part 1: Scene 2
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
It’s twilight, Eben, Simeon, and Peter are in the sparse, bare kitchen. There’s a poster on the wall... (full context)
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
Eben thinks that Simeon and Peter should have stopped Cabot from working Maw to death. Simeon... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Eben angrily scolds Simeon and Peter for being scared of Cabot, and he gets up to... (full context)
Part 1: Scene 3
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Just before dawn, Eben returns, cursing loudly that Cabot’s the devil. He just found out that Cabot got married... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Eben heard the news about Cabot’s marriage as soon as he got to the village, and... (full context)
Part 1: Scene 4
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Simeon and Peter are finishing breakfast in the kitchen at dawn. Eben hasn’t touched his food—he feels it in his gut that Cabot is getting close. When... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
...make stone walls before finding freedom and gold in California. They even decide to help Eben milk the cows, as the animals aren’t used to Eben tending to them. As the... (full context)
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Simeon and Peter hand over the signed deed, collect Eben’s money, and promise to send Eben a lump of California gold for Christmas. Awkwardly, they... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
...their new mother. Abbie goes inside, cooing about her house. Simeon and Peter know that Eben will be unhappy to hear Abbie calling the house hers. Cabot commands Simeon and Peter... (full context)
Gender Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
...is. Cabot says it’s their bedroom. She grimaces involuntarily. Abbie enters the kitchen and sees Eben. Noticing how good looking he is, Abbie introduces herself seductively, claiming that she wants to... (full context)
Part 2: Scene 1
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Two months later, Abbie sits on the porch. Eben furtively leans out of a window. Eagerly, Abbie waits for him to come downstairs. Their... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...sky and talks wistfully about getting old. He thinks he’s perhaps been too hard on Eben, who’s the only one left on the farm now. This angers Abbie, who reminds Cabot... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
In a moment of vengeful bitterness, Abbie says that Eben tried to seduce her. With sudden rage, Cabot vows to shoot Eben. Frightened, Abbie says... (full context)
Part 2: Scene 2
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
That night, Eben is in his bedroom, looking at the wall. On the other side of the wall,... (full context)
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
...wife and had Simeon and Peter. After she died, he married Maw, and they had Eben. Maw’s parents contested Cabot’s ownership of the farm, which is why Eben thinks it belongs... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...doesn’t have the ominous cold feeling that permeates the house. After Cabot leaves, Abbie and Eben sigh simultaneously from their respective bedrooms. Suddenly, Abbie gets up and goes into Eben’s room.... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Eben says he was thinking about Minnie. With a tortured expression, Abbie calls Eben a dog.... (full context)
Part 2: Scene 3
Gender Theme Icon
Eben walks into the parlor a few minutes later, looking obsessive but confused. The parlor is... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Suddenly, Eben pushes Abbie away in a sudden fit of terror. He doesn’t know what Maw wants... (full context)
Part 2: Scene 4
Gender Theme Icon
Eben wakes at dawn with a broad grin on his face. Abbie kisses him passionately, and... (full context)
Part 3: Scene 1
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
It’s a year later, on a warm spring night. Eben is in his bedroom, wrestling with his conflicting emotion. There’s a baby in a cradle... (full context)
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
...dance. He starts dancing grotesquely while boasting about how strong and tough he is. Upstairs, Eben walks to the cradle and looks at the baby. At the same time, Abbie gets... (full context)
Gender Theme Icon
Upstairs, Abbie and Eben kiss, before looking lovingly at the baby. It bothers Eben that Cabot’s taking the baby... (full context)
Part 3: Scene 2
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Half an hour later, Eben is outside, staring up into the sky with a pained expression. Cabot walks up, looking... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Eben isn’t listening. He’s angrily planning to leave for California in the morning, as he curses... (full context)
Part 3: Scene 3
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
...she backs away from the cradle with horror, and runs to the kitchen, passionately kissing Eben, who ignores her. Hysterically, Abbie says she’s proved her love for him. Noticing Abbie’s hysterical... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Eben falls to his knees, trembling, as Abbie explains that she suffocated the baby with a... (full context)
Part 3: Scene 4
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
...Cabot asks why. Abbie furiously bursts out that the baby wasn’t even his, it was Eben’s. Dully, Cabot wipes a tear from his eye and Abbie starts sobbing. Cabot’s expression hardens,... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Eben runs in, crazed with guilt, begging Abbie to forgive him for telling the Sheriff. Abbie... (full context)
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
...to a floorboard to dig out his life savings, before realizing they’re not there. Blankly, Eben admits that he gave the money to Peter and Simeon in exchange for their share... (full context)
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Sheriff bursts in to arrest Abbie. Eben turns himself in as well, as Abbie brokenly screams that it was her doing alone.... (full context)