July 26, 2013


Nobel Laureate Eugene O’Neill’s plays are influenced by psychoanalytical theories of the 19th century and they boldly disrobe people’s civilized appearance and probe their inner psyches. His well-admired play Desire Under the Elms (1925) alludes to the ancient Greek legends about Oedipus and Phaedra and the modern Freudian theory known as the Oedipus complex and adopts mid-nineteenth century New England farm life as the setting for a tragic tale about adultery, incest, and infanticide. The play penetrates deep inside the inner states of its dramatis personae to dissect the motives and nature of human beings.

Desire Under the Elms as a Psychological Play

From a careful reading we can comprehend that the inner workings of all the major characters such as, Cabot, Eben and Abbie reveal different sorts of human nature. A great sequence of psychological realism pervades the play through some instances like the fierce hatred of Cabot and Eben, Eben’s desire for revenge upon Cabot, Eben’s Oedipal instincts, Abbie’s motives in marrying old Cabot and having a son, etc. Let us see in detail how aptly the playwright portrays various psychological implications in this play:

Simeon’s and Peter’s Revulsion for Their Father

At the onset we can observe the distant relationship Cabot had with his two sons from his first marriage, namely Simeon and Peter. Here we can certainly trace a mental conflict between the father and his sons. Both the sons had a notion that their father lacked any filial or human emotions and thus hated them. They were so obsessed with this thought that they wished his death. Both the brothers were annoyed with their father as he constantly imposed heavy farm tasks on them. In the backdrop of this desire they had a plan to escape from the farm and go to California where they think they can get rich in a relatively short time.

Eben’s Hatred for Cabot and his Step-brothers

Eben blindly believed that Cabot gradually killed his mother by overworking her for the farm. This view made him sternly vindictive towards his father. Again, he also held his step-brothers responsible for his mother’s death as they did nothing to save her from the clutches of Cabot’s torture. Eben also believed that the farm actually belonged to his mother and Cabot dishonestly grabbed it from her. Eben maintained that in this way Cabot not only deceived his mother but also deprived him of the lawful clamant of the farm. When his father returned home with his third wife, Eben became more revengeful to his father as he thought that she might eventually make a claim to the farm.

Eben’s Mother Fixation

Eben’s excessive mother fixation is revealed in a number of times. This is, because, even after his mother’s death Eben believed that he could feel her presence beside the stove, which he told to his step-brothers. He told that she cannot rest peacefully in her grave as she feels sorry to see that her son has to perform the same hard duties which had been performed by her previously. Eben tried to reinforce the idea of his dead mother’s spirit when Abbie told him that she felt some invisible presence in the parlour. In this way Eben blindly thought that his dead mother is spurring him to accept amorous advances of Abbie to take revenge upon his father.

Eben’s Oedipal Instincts

In many ways, Eben possesses the Freudian instinct of Oedipus Complex. This is first revealed when Eben formed a sexual relationship with a prostitute named Minnie, who was once a mistress to his father. Afterwards we see that he forms an incestuous relationship with his step-mother only to have a revenge on his father.

Subconscious Yearning of Eben and Abbie

The subconscious mind of the pair of lovers - Abbie and Eben was painstakingly analyzed in Act-II, Scene-II. In this scene we see that the couple had so strong yearning for each other that they could feel that urge even though they were in separate rooms. They seem to see each other through the wall. Ultimately, Abbie gets up and listens to the wall; Eben believed that he could see every move she is making.

Abbie’s Inner Desires

Abbies desires play an important role in the development of plot construction of the play. Abbie decided to marry Cabot since she was looking for a home for herself and for security. Her motive was to secure the sole ownership of the farm. When she found Eben as a possible heir of the farm, she decided to have a son for herself. She conspired to have a child by Eben and make it look like that Cabot is the father. During materialization of her plot, she truly falls in love with Eben and abandons her plan to grab the farm. But when Eben misunderstood her motive, she decided to murder her child to prove the fact that nothing can come in between their love.

Cabot’s Inner Workings

Cabot is an essentially religious man with an unusual obsession with work. He was a hard-worker so he engaged his wives and sons in heavy farm jobs. Unfortunately, they never understood him and as such he felt lonely even when they were around him. From a sense of dissatisfaction, he longed to be a parent in his old age. Cabot used to feel that some mysterious things were happening in the corners of his house. The fear from his subconscious mind signifies that in reality something unnatural is happening in the house.


Desire Under the Elms is an extensive exploration of motives underlying human behaviour. Although it adopts Greek mythical background for its plot construction, the play becomes a modern piece of art for its psychological side. Here, the playwright deals with the psychological part incredibly well by analyzing each characters mind acutely.

Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


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