Desire Under the Elms

by

Eugene O’Neill

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Desire Under the Elms: Part 1: Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s the beginning of summer 1850 in New England, at a country farmhouse covered with 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 is ablaze with color, and he says it’s pretty. Eben is handsome, but he has defiant eyes and a repressed demeanor. He spits on the ground as his brothers Simeon (39 years old) and Peter (37 years old) emerge from the fields, stomping around in their boots. They stare dumbly at the sky and grudgingly say it’s pretty. 
The stage directions emphasize the Elm trees’ overpowering presence—they represent a suffocating, maternal energy, which unsettles and subtly controls all the characters who dwell in the house. This suggests from the outset that women, much like the Elm trees, are powerful influences on the characters’ lives. Simeon and Peter’s bodies stoop from years of back-breaking farm labor, exposing the physically exhausting nature of pre-industrialized farm life.
Themes
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
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Simeon, speaking in a country drawl, remembers that Jenn, his “woman,” died 18 years ago. He remembers her long, golden hair. Peter thinks about the gold sky and gold in California’s mines. Peter reflects bitterly about how many years they’ve worked plowing stones when they could be plowing gold, though he thinks it would be hard to leave for California after all the years and work they’ve put into the farm. They think bitterly about their father, Ephraim Cabot, (known to all as “Cabot”) who owns the farm. He left for California two months ago. They wonder if he’ll die soon—Eben jokes that he hopes so. Peter and Simeon smell Eben’s bacon cooking and clumsily head inside.
Although Simeon is recalling Jenn with love, it’s notable that he only recalls her physical attributes—he doesn’t speak to her personality, intellect, or anything about the nature of their bond as partners. Simeon’s attitude suggests he tends to objectify women, and referring to her as his “woman” underscores this as well. The stones in the unforgiving terrain represent the relentless, often unfruitful nature of 19th-century farm work: no matter how hard the farmers work, they must perpetually dig out worthless stones to make the land farmable, showing that farm life is fraught with obstacles to success. It’s clear that Simeon and Peter dislike their father for forcing them into lives of labor. Although they feel like they’ve invested a lot of labor in the farm, and they’re clearly very attached to it, they’re still able to envision themselves living different (and likely more lucrative) lives. This passage also reveals that the California Gold Rush is going on in the play’s present. Gold symbolizes easy success—the opposite of the valueless stones that the farmers perpetually dig up on the farm for years on end.
Themes
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Related Quotes