In the play, stones have two layers of symbolic significance. On the surface, they represent the hardships of farm labor in 19th-century America. The Cabot family’s New England farmland is unforgivingly rocky, and they spend years digging stones out of the ground to make the earth farmable. Despite their relentless efforts to work the land, the family remains poor, revealing that a lot of their labor is unfruitful. The family’s eldest two sons, Simeon and Peter, even compare the relentless drudgery of farm work—and the perpetual need to dig stones out of the ground—to imprisonment. It feels to them like they labor endlessly with no rewards. In fact, the only time Simeon and Peter feel free and hopeful is when they abandon the farm to seek their fortunes in California as gold miners. Their father, Cabot, also bitterly describes his tough life of farm labor as a life of digging stones: “I got weak—despairful—they was so many stones.” The farm itself is very beautiful, and several characters admire the peaceful pastoral setting, but the reality for those who work on the farm is far from idyllic: it’s an unrewarding life of perpetual drudgery that yields little wealth or happiness. The play thus uses stones to represent the difficult—and often unfruitful—reality of farm-based labor to highlight the endless work, few rewards, and ongoing poverty of 19th-century American farmers.
However, that Cabot could have chosen to farm more fertile land elsewhere but instead tenaciously continued to farm such rocky land—thereby choosing this hard life for himself and his family—symbolizes his firm belief that God doesn’t value easy success. Recounting his younger years on the farm to Abbie, Cabot declares proudly, “When ye kin make corn sprout out o’ stones, God’s livin’ in yew!” The idea of corn sprouting up out of stones feels reminiscent of biblical miracles like Jesus turning water into wine or turning five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed five thousand people. This underscores that Cabot believes that suffering on his rocky land is the righteous thing to do, and that he’ll be rewarded—in this life or the next—for his extreme efforts.
Cabot even considers stones to be symbolic of God himself. He proclaims to Abbie, “God’s hard, not easy! God’s in the stones! Build my church on a rock—out o’ stones an’ I’ll be in them! That’s what He meant t’ Peter. […] Stones. I picked ‘em up an’ piled ‘em into walls.” Here, Cabot references Matthew 16:18, when Jesus says to the Apostle Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Scholars believe that Jesus was speaking metaphorically—the name Peter means “rock,” so Jesus was likely suggesting that the Church would be built on Peter’s strong faith in Christ just like a physical building rests on a stone foundation. But Cabot takes the verse literally, believing that God himself is suffused in the rocks, which is in part why Cabot sees the rocky farmland as practically sacred and saves the rocks to use for stone walls. Once again, from Cabot’s perspective, a life of constant toil is an honorable, godly life.
Stones Quotes in Desire Under the Elms
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!
I got weak—despairful—they was so many stones. They was a party leavin’, givin’ up, goin’ West. I jined ‘em. We tracked on ‘n’ on. We come t’ broad medders, plains, whar the soil was black an’ rich as gold. Nary a stone. Easy. Ye’d on’y to plow an’ sow an’ then set an’ smoke yer pipe an’ watch thin’s grow. I could o’ been a rich man—but somethin’ in me fit me an’ fit me—the voice o’ God sayin’: “This hain’t wuth nothin’ t’ Me. Git ye back t’ hum!” I got afeerd o’ that voice an’ I lit out back t’ hum here, leavin’ my claim an’ crops t’ whoever’d a mind t’ take ‘em. Ay-eh. I actooly give up what was rightful mine! God’s hard, not easy!