Desire Under the Elms


Eugene O’Neill

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Desire Under the Elms Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Eugene O’Neill's Desire Under the Elms. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Eugene O’Neill

O’Neill was born in the Barrett Hotel in New York City, to Irish immigrant parents. His father was an alcoholic theater actor, and his mother was addicted to morphine. O’Neill’s parents sent him to boarding school at a young age, and he reunited with them occasionally at a cottage in Connecticut. His parents and elder brother all died from alcohol-related illness within a few years of each other, and O’Neill himself struggled with alcoholism and depression throughout his life. After attending Princeton University for one year, O’Neill left under ambiguous circumstances. Several rumors circulated about his departure, the wildest being that he was suspended after throwing a beer bottle at a professor. O’Neill later attended Harvard University for a year, before dropping out. In the 1900s, he frequented literary circles in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. And after recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitorium in 1913, he decided to devote his life to writing. O’Neill wrote over 50 plays in his lifetime, earning his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1920 for his play Beyond the Horizon. He won three subsequent Pulitzer Prizes in 1922, 1928, and 1957, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. O’Neill married twice and had two children, Shane and Oona. He disowned Oona after she married 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin at the age of 18, and he never saw his daughter again. His son, Shane, battled a Heroin addiction, and soon after O’Neill disowned him, Shane committed suicide by jumping out a window at the age of 40. Many of O’Neill’s plays center on dysfunctional family relationships, likely influenced by his own upbringing and subsequent family life. O’Neill spent his later years in the Loire Valley in France, and continued to write until he developed tremors in his hand that restricted his ability to write. O’Neill died in a hotel room in Boston from declining health related to alcoholism. Considered a great American playwright, O’Neill is particularly celebrated for his dark explorations of American culture, the family unit, and his revival of Ancient Greek tragic theater, transposed into modern American settings. 
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Historical Context of Desire Under the Elms

O’Neill’s play is set in New England in 1850, just before industrialized farm labor takes hold in the United States. In Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill explores the hardships of farm labor and the impoverished status of pre-industrialized American farmers. The play also takes place during the California Gold Rush (1848–1855). After a sawmill operator named James W. Marshall discovered gold in California in 1848, countless people from across the United States flocked to California in search of gold, hoping to get rich quickly. The play’s characters often compare their hard life on the farm to the prospect of an easier life mining gold in California. Two of the play’s character, (Simeon and Peter, leave the farm and head to California in the midst of the Gold Rush, while the central characters remain on the farm to continue their laborious, hard lives.

Other Books Related to Desire Under the Elms

O’Neill has written over 50 plays, many of which address similar themes. Both Desire Under the Elms and Beyond the Horizon (1918) are tragedies that take place in a rural American setting. Strange Interlude (1928), like Desire Under the Elms, explores dysfunctional relationships and sordid love affairs. O’Neill’s play Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) similarly draws on Ancient Greek tragic theater. When writing Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill was inspired by Euripides’s Hippolytus, in which a stepmother falls in love with her stepson, much like his protagonist Eben and his stepmother, Abbie. O’Neill also pays homage to Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, which centers around a deadly rivalry between father and son their love for a woman who turns out to be Oedipus’s mother. In Desire Under the Elms, protagonist Eben similarly enters a rivalry with his father over the love of his stepmother Abbie. O’Neill was also influenced by August Strinberg’s The Son of a Servant (published in four parts between 1886 and 1909). In Strinberg’s play, a son grieves his mother’s death and grapples with dysfunctional relationships with his father and stepmother, just as O’Neill’s protagonist Eben does.
Key Facts about Desire Under the Elms
  • Full Title: Desire Under the Elms
  • When Written: 1924
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1924
  • Literary Period: Modern
  • Genre: Drama, Tragedy
  • Setting: A farm in New England in 1850. 
  • Climax: Abbie and Eben turn themselves in for murdering their baby, and they declare their love for each other.
  • Antagonist: Ephraim Cabot
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Desire Under the Elms

Ancient Love Triangles. Desire Under the Elms is heavily influenced by Ancient Greek tragedies involving dysfunctional family relationships and illegitimate love affairs. It most closely mirrors Euripides’s Hippolytus, which also features an incestuous love triangle. In O’Neill’s play, the characters Eben, his stepmother Abbie, and his father Cabot roughly correspond with Hippolytus, his stepmother Phaedra, and his father Theseus.