Desire Under the Elms, set in 1850 on a farm in New England, captures the profound hardships that 19th-century farm laborers often endured. The farm is built on land comprised mostly of stones, and the whole family—including patriarch Ephraim Cabot; his late second wife, Maw; and his three sons Simeon, Peter, and Eben—spend years relentlessly digging up stones to plough the unforgiving land. Maw dies from the physical toll that farm labor takes on her body, and Cabot works his sons so hard that they end up hating him. Despite the family’s years of grueling labor, the farm struggles, and the family remains poor. Simeon and Peter eventually leave their years of hard labor on the farm behind them in pursuit of gold-mining in California, and Cabot resigns himself to working himself to death on the farm, thinking it’s his destiny. Through the years-long hardships that the family endures, the play highlights the laborious, taxing, and often unfruitful nature of farm life in the 19th-century United States.
While the characters clearly love their farm, their daily lives are laborious and exhausting. Cabot recollects that when he first bought the farm, it was “nothin’ but fields o’ stones.” He’s spent years digging up stones and piling them into walls to make the land farmable, frequently noting how hard his life of farm work has been. Simeon and Peter, too, note that they’ve spent years digging “stones atop o’ stones […] year atop o’ year,” showing that the physical labor needed to make the land farmable is never-ending. The stage directions note that Peter and Simeon’s bodies “stoop a bit from years of farm work,” underscoring the physical toll that hard labor takes on farmers’ bodies. Cabot’s second wife, Maw, even worked herself to death on the farm. Her son Eben thinks that Cabot “was slavin’ her to the grave,” and his half-brother Peter agrees that the whole family will need to slave away until they die to keep the farm running. This emphasizes how farm life can be relentlessly difficult—years of grueling labor can even kill farm workers. At the same time, Simeon and Peter seem to simply accept that farming involves a lot of work, suggesting that their almost unbearable workload, while taxing, is typical for farmers.
The tiring nature of farm labor also makes the family members bitter and resentful, suggesting that this lifestyle is emotionally taxing as well as physically exhausting—even to the point that it can strain relationships. In a vulnerable moment, Cabot admits to his third wife, Abbie, that he grew demoralized shortly after taking on the farm, saying that “I got weak—despairful—they was so many stones.” He had to change into a tough-minded person to keep up with the work, noting that “It was hard and [God] made me hard fur it,” before admitting that his family “hated me ‘cause I was hard.” Cabot’s comments expose how farm life can make people feel hopeless and bitter, force them to become emotionally hardened, and even damage important relationships. Similarly, Eben, Simeon, and Peter actively hate Cabot for the labor he’s forced on them over the years. All three sons long for vengeance against their father, and they want Cabot to die so that they can be rid of him. The years of work that Cabot has burdened his sons with has made them hateful toward him and damaged their family bonds beyond repair. This suggests that the hard work of an agrarian lifestyle can be emotionally and interpersonally taxing as well as physically demanding.
The characters struggle financially as well, suggesting that farm labor is often unfruitful, leaving farmers in poverty despite their backbreaking work. Simeon and Peter note that they’ve spent years slaving away on the farm, whereas if they were in California, “they’d be lumps o’ gold in the furrow.” The play takes place around the time of the 19th-century California Gold Rush, when people across the United States flocked to the West Coast to mine gold. The brothers’ observation hints that late-19th-century society is becoming less agrarian as new opportunities arise—and that it’s now possible to have a much wealthier life than farming typically allows. When Simeon and Peter eventually decide to abandon the farm, they plan to walk across the country to California. That they have no means of transportation besides their own feet—and that they’re desperate enough for a new life to walk thousands of miles—suggests that farming doesn’t necessarily yield a payout that’s equal to farmers’ efforts. Farm workers like Simeon and Peter are still poor, regardless of how hard they’ve worked over the years. Likewise, at the play’s conclusion, Cabot resigns himself to working laboriously on the farm until he dies, though he expects no “easy gold” from it. This suggests that he’ll be able to keep the farm afloat but not achieve too much more, despite having invested a lifetime of labor. Cabot’s plight suggests that farm life is often far from lucrative, underscoring the ongoing poverty that many farmers experienced in the 19th-century U.S. Overall, the play exposes the very real struggles of pre-industrialized American farmers—as people who had to grapple with perpetual back-breaking labor, stress, and poverty, causing them to suffer difficult (rather than idyllic) lives.
Farming, Labor, and Poverty ThemeTracker
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Quotes in Desire Under the Elms
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.
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!
Lust fur gold—fur the sinful, easy gold o’ California! It’s made ye mad!
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!
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!
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!