Desire Under the Elms takes place in the 19th-century United States, when women were commonly seen as inferior to men and consequently had fewer rights and opportunities. The play’s male characters—Cabot and his sons Simeon, Peter, and Eben—hold sexist attitudes, and they continuously mistreat and objectify the women in their lives. Cabot, for instance, works his second wife, Maw, literally to death on the family farm, treating her more as a laborer than a romantic partner. Maw’s spirit, however, is a foreboding presence that haunts and controls the men (symbolized throughout the play by the elm trees), suggesting that they underestimated her when she was alive. Moreover, Eben’s half-brothers Simeon and Peter openly joke about raping Cabot’s new wife, Abbie—yet Abbie reveals herself to be shrewd and capable, easily manipulating the aging Cabot to pursue her own aims. The way the play’s female characters are able to outsmart and exert power over the men in their lives suggests that the dismissive attitudes toward women that prevailed in 19th-century society were misguided, and that women are just as strong and capable as men.
The play’s male characters all objectify and use women, embodying sexist attitudes that were common in 19th-century society. Early in the play, when Eben leaves to visit his lover, Minnie, his brothers Simeon and Peter joke about how they’ve all had sex with Minnie. The way they casually disrespect Minnie suggests that in the world of the novel, it’s socially acceptable to treat women as sexual objects. Similarly, when Simeon mourns his dead wife, Jenn, he focuses on her physical attributes (like her long golden hair) rather than her personality or their love. This further reinforces the idea that men in this society tend to objectify women, placing importance on their beauty and sexual attractiveness rather than their intellect or character. Later on, Eben openly refers to Abbie as “any old other whore” when he suspects that she wants to take over the family farm—and his brothers Simeon and Peter go so far as to joke about raping Abbie as soon as she arrives at the farm. Their willingness to insult Abbie so openly again suggests that they think it’s socially acceptable to disrespect women—and their sexualized insults underscore their objectifying, sexist attitudes. Moreover, Cabot refers to his second wife, Maw, as a “dumb fool.” He worked her to death several years ago by forcing her to weed and plow in the fields while she was also shouldering all the family’s domestic chores. Cabot’s attitude toward Maw implies that he undervalued her and thought little of her intelligence, as he treated her more like a servant and laborer than a life partner.
Despite the men’s dismissive attitudes toward women, the play’s central female characters, Abbie and Maw, have tremendous power over the men. In this way, the male characters’ dismissive attitudes towards women—as mere sexual objects or mindless servants—are unjustified. Abbie is cunning and “shrewd,” and she quickly gains emotional control over her domineering husband (whom all the other characters are afraid of). Eben notes that Abbie’s made a “damned idjit [idiot]” out of Cabot, and Cabot indeed acts “softened” and “dreamy” around Abbie. Abbie easily manipulates Cabot into promising the farm to her if she bears a son, showing that she can effortlessly outwit Cabot. From this, it’s clear that Cabot and his sons gravely underestimate Abbie simply because she’s a woman—their view of her as a “whore” whom they can dominate and control doesn’t line up with the powerful manipulator Abbie proves herself to be.
Meanwhile, although Maw dies before the play begins, her presence lingers ominously on the farm. Eben is consumed by a desire to appease Maw’s spirit, showing that despite Cabot’s dismissive comments about her, Maw has a powerful matriarchal hold on the family even after death (symbolized by the foreboding Elm trees that enshroud the farmhouse). The Elm trees keep the house in constant, suffocating shadow. Similarly, Maw’s overwhelming presence is felt by all who live in the farmhouse as a chilling, unsettling energy that manipulates them. It frequently drives Cabot to sleep in the barn and makes the others feel fearful of going into Maw’s formal parlor. Like the trees that overpower the house, Maw’s ominous energy pervades the characters’ lives, exposing Maw as a strong, imposing force on the family that controls their behavior.
These depictions of women as formidable forces to be reckoned with challenge the male characters’ dismissive attitudes toward women. Female characters like Abbie and Maw are able to use manipulate and intimidate (respectively) the men around them, wielding their power subtly in spite of how they’re objectified and mistreated. This more broadly suggests that men in 19th-century U.S. society tended to unfairly underestimate women—and that, in fact, women can be just as intelligent, powerful, and strong as men.
Gender 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.
Waal—when I seen her, I didn’t hit her—nor I didn’t kiss her nuther—I begun t’ beller like a calf an’ cuss at the same time, I was so durn mad—an’ she got scared—an’ I jest grabbed holt an’ tuk her! (Proudly) Yes, siree! I tuk her. She may’ve been his ’n—an’ your ’n, too—but she’s mine now! […] What do I care fur her—‘ceptin she’s round an’ wa’m?
It’s cold in this house. It’s uneasy. They’s thin’s pokin’ about in the dark—in the corners.