As its title suggests, Desire Under the Elms centers on characters who are consumed by their personal desires. Domineering patriarch Ephraim Cabot (who goes by Cabot); his hardworking sons Simeon, Peter, and Eben; and his manipulative new wife, Abbie, all live on a farm in New England in the 1850s. Peter and Simeon take their time to think carefully about their desires, ultimately prompting them to let go of their longstanding wish to inherit the farm that they’ve toiled on for years. In letting go of this desire, they’re able to pursue freer, happier lives in California. In contrast, Abbie and Eben (who also each want to inherit the farm) frequently bend to their momentary desires, causing them to act impulsively, especially when they feel vengeful. As a result of impulsivity and vengefulness, Abbie and Eben end up having an illicit relationship behind Cabot’s back, having a baby (whom Abbie kills), and turning against each other, causing their combined downfall. The juxtaposition between these two pairs of characters suggests that desire—if left unchecked—can prompt rash behavior that ultimately ends in tragedy.
Peter and Simeon prioritize their long-term wishes and don’t let their immediate desires consume them and drive their behavior, which allows the pair to attain freedom and the promise of future happiness. From the beginning of the play, Simeon and Peter feel that they’re entitled to inherit their family farm, because Cabot forced them to labor on it for years. Simeon feels that “we’ve wuked. Give our strength. Give our years,” and Peter thinks they’ve earned the farm “by our sweat.” In other words, they believe that they should be given the land that they dedicated years of hard work to. But despite having longed to own the farm for years, Simeon and Peter often mull over the pros and cons of pursuing gold-mining in California instead (the play takes place around the time of the 19th-century California Gold Rush). These mixed aspirations suggest that the brothers aren’t so single-mindedly consumed by their desire for the farm that they can’t consider practical alternatives to earning a living. When their half-brother brother, Eben, hears that Cabot has remarried (meaning that Cabot’s new wife, Abbie, will inherit the farm instead of the three sons), Simeon and Peter decide to wait and see if the rumor is true before giving up on the farm. Their reaction shows that they prioritize patience and deliberation over hasty action, ensuring that they don’t end up making a decision they’ll regret. Having weighed up their options, Simeon and Peter ultimately decide to leave the farm and pursue gold in California—and they depart feeling free, unburdened, and hopeful. Their ability to carefully consider their options enables them to act in their own best interest in the long term, rather than being embittered and consumed by their desire to own the farm.
In contrast, Abbie and Eben end up destroying their lives because they’re blinded and controlled by their desires (especially the desire for revenge), which cause them to act impulsively and make regrettable decisions. Despite being his new stepmother, Abbie is attracted to Eben as soon as she arrives on the farm. When Eben rebuffs her flirtatious advances to visit his lover, Minnie, Abbie is suddenly overcome by a desire for revenge. She impulsively tells Cabot that Eben tried to seduce her, but she immediately regrets her actions when Cabot threatens to kill Eben. Abbie’s instantaneous regret shows that she tends to act rashly without thinking—and in this case, her actions threaten the safety of someone she cares about.
Later in the story, Abbie and Eben are overcome by their desire for each other, begin an illicit relationship, and have a son. But in a moment of suspicion, Eben momentarily worries that Abbie bore a son to inherit and steal the farm from him. Overcome with a vengeful desire to hurt Abbie, Eben threatens to leave her, saying that he wishes their son would “die this minute.” Consumed by her desire to prove her loyalty to Eben, Abbie smothers their son to death. Neither Abbie nor Eben can see beyond their feelings in the moment, and they both act rashly to satisfy their immediate desires without thinking about the consequences—ultimately causing their son’s death. Then, when Eben finds out that Abbie has killed their son, he’s fueled by a momentary desire for revenge, and he goes to turn Abbie in to the Sheriff. But as soon as Eben tells the Sheriff about the murder, he’s overcome with remorse, because he truly loves Abbie. He regrets letting his desire for revenge take over in the moment, and he turns himself in out of guilt. Eben’s immediate remorse shows that he acted without thinking, and his actions end up leaving both himself and Abbie in ruin.
Ultimately, the sharp contrast between Simeon and Peter’s happy ending and Eben and Abbie’s tragic outcome suggests that people who take time to think things over fare better in life than those who are blindly controlled by their immediate desires. In this way, the play warns against acting impulsively to satisfy momentary passions, urges, or desires—especially for revenge.
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy ThemeTracker
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Quotes in Desire Under the Elms
(enraged beyond endurance—wildly vindictive) An’ his lust fur me! Kin ye find excuses fur that?
(frightened now for Eben) No! Don’t ye!
(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?
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.
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’!
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?
But I’ll take vengeance now! I’ll git the Sheriff! I’ll tell him everythin’!