Desire Under the Elms

by

Eugene O’Neill

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Desire Under the Elms: Part 1: Scene 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s twilight, Eben, Simeon, and Peter are in the sparse, bare kitchen. There’s a poster on the wall of a ship and the word “California.” As Eben serves boiled potatoes, Simeon scolds him for wishing that Cabot was dead. Eben angrily retorts that Cabot isn’t his father—he’s his Maw’s (mother’s) child through and through. Peter thinks that Maw was a good stepmother. Eben’s bitter about Cabot working Maw to death. Peter and Simeon joke about walking to California to mine for gold, but Eben knows they won’t go—they’re waiting for Cabot to die to claim their share of the farm. Angrily, Eben shouts that the farm is his—it was Maw’s, and she was his mother, not theirs. Simeon laughs scornfully.
At this point in the play, it becomes apparent that Cabot married twice. He had Peter and Simeon with his first wife, and Eben with his second wife (known to all as “Maw”). Maw’s death shows that farm labor is so taxing that it can drive people into an early death. According to Eben, it was Cabot who pushed Maw too hard, and Eben harbors vengeful feelings towards Cabot for this. He’s obsessed with seizing the farm for himself to avenge his mother’s death, and this drives all his actions in the play. The fact that Maw’s memory motivates his actions suggests that despite being a woman (who were typically undervalued in 19-century American society), Maw has a powerful hold over him, even in death.
Themes
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Eben thinks that Simeon and Peter should have stopped Cabot from working Maw to death. Simeon and Peter think about Maw’s chores—like plowing, building walls, weeding, and milking—and argue that they didn’t want to interfere. It angers Eben to think about Maw slaving in the fields and then in the kitchen, though she never complained. Eben vengefully vows to shame Cabot. Indifferently, Simeon and Peter wonder where Cabot went. They recall how, when he left, Cabot hitched up his buggy, grinned madly, and talked about doing God’s will—though he warned the boys not to get any funny ideas and told them to get back to plowing.
The characters continue discussing Maw’s hard life, emphasizing the relentless, exhausting nature of pre-industrialized farm work. Although Maw’s life was laborious, her chores were typical for farmers—stressing that farm life is exhausting, as there’s constant work to be done. As before, Eben emphasizes that he’s consumed by a desire to seek revenge on Cabot, once again exposing the powerful influence that his memories of Maw have on him. And through Simeon and Peter’s memories of Cabot’s departure, the reader learns that Cabot is a religious man who lets his faith in God drive his actions.
Themes
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Eben angrily scolds Simeon and Peter for being scared of Cabot, and he gets up to visit a woman named Minnie. Peter and Simeon joke that Minnie, who is 40, is old. They recall that Cabot had her, and then Simeon and Peter did, long before Eben did. Growing angry, Eben decides to smash Minnie’s face in. Simeon and Peter mockingly joke that Eben’s more likely to kiss Minnie than punch her. They imagine being in California next year, and they go to bed. Outside, Eben looks up at the sky. He reasons that Minnie is pretty, soft, and warm, and he doesn’t mind what she did in the past. He strides off, deciding he’s going to kiss her.
Eben, Simeon, and Peter expose their dismissive attitudes about women through the way they talk about Minnie as an object to be passed around between them. Eben also has no qualms about being violent towards Minnie—despite also clearly being fond of her—suggesting that women were often treated with disrespect in this society. Despite having just talked about the years of labor they’ve invested in the farm, Simeon and Peter are able to think about practical alternatives to earning a living, and they imagine themselves living more happily as gold miners in California.
Themes
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon