a story by Eugene O'Neil
The land is the most essential asset to any farmer. In the play Desire Under the Elms, this is also the case. The land in the play is the central theme, it holds all of the elements of the play together. It was the object of greed as well. The farm was the source of greed for three of the characters in the play, Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, and his new wife Abbie. Peter and Simon focused their greed on the fields of gold in the West, primarily in California.
One of the ways in which Eugene O'Neill made the land symbolic in the play was through the use of stones. Throughout the play stones, and the walls they created, are mentioned by both Ephraim Cabot and others. The land on this farm was very poor from the descriptions Ephraim Cabot gives us. The land, from his account, was covered with stones. In order for him to farm his land, he had to remove all the stones and decided to make walls with them. This was hard work, but Ephraim Cabot did not mind the back-breaking work because he felt that God was hard, and this was part of His plan.
To Peter and Simon, the stone walls were symbolic in their own way. They represented a sense of confinement and imprisonment. Ephraim Cabot was a man of little or no real
emotion. He was very hard on his children and his first wife. As a result Eben, Simon, and Peter hated their father. They felt trapped into doing his wishes, and they saw no real way out. To Peter and Simon, the stone walls built around the farm by their father symbolized their imprisonment for life. This point is clearly shown when Peter and Simon leave to go find gold in California. In their jubilation upon leaving they say, "The halter's broke-the harness is busted-the fence bars is down-the stone walls air crumblin' an' tumblin'!" (O'Neill 1076).
Eben makes an interesting reference to the stone walls as well. He believes that the stone walls caused the lack of caring and emotion towards their mother by Peter and Simon. He states, "An' makin' walls-stone atop o' stone-makin' walls till yer heart's a stone ye heft up out o' the way o' growth onto a stone wall t' wall in yer heart!"(O'Neill 1069). What he is really saying is the fact that the many years of hard work on the farm have made Simon, Peter, and of course their father Ephraim, immune to emotion or caring. All they knew was work, and it was work that had made them and their father not care about their first mother.
The land also is symbolic in other ways as well. Peter, Ephraim, and Simon, as most farmers, see the land as a thing of beauty. This can be seen in several places in the
play. O'Neill uses the beauty of the land to describe things completely unrelated to the land. When Abbie tries to seduce Eben she uses nature to prove her point by saying, "H'aint the sun strong an' hot? Ye kin feel it burnin' into the earth-Nature-makin' thin's grow-bigger Ôn' bigger-burnin' inside ye-making' ye want t' grow-into somethin' else-till ye're jined with it-an' it's your'n-but it owns ye, too-an' makes ye grow bigger-like a tree-like them elums-"(O'Neill 1081). Eben uses the beauty of the land to describe Minnie, his girlfriend in the beginning of the play. He says, "her mouth's wa'm, her arms're wa'm, she smells like a wa'm plowed field, she's purty..."(O'Neill
Ephraim also uses the land as a symbol to describe heaven. He describes it by stating, "The sky. Feels like a wa'm field up thar."(O'Neill 1082). Here Ephraim is describing his old age and what he feels heaven would be like. Peter and Simon even imagine California as being not unlike their farm in New England. In the early part of the play they imagine California as "fields o' gold!" and "Fortunes layin' just atop o' the ground waitin' t' be picked!"(O'Neill 1067). What is ironic here is that they imagine gold in California being just like the stones in the fields of their father's farm. In California they would be picking up stones just as they had done in New England.
Another part of the landscape of the farm, and one of the most important, are the two elm trees on each side of the house. The elms represent the spirit of Eben's mother.
Ephraim gives a clue to this when he leaves his party and in the yard says, "Ye kin feel it droppin' off the elums, climbin' up the roof, sneakin' down the chimney, pokin' in the corners! They's no peace in houses, they's no rest livin' with folks. Somethin's always livin' with ye. I'll go t' the barn an' rest a spell."(O'Neill 1094). This statement has two very important aspects. First, it shows that the spirit of his former wife is still in the house. Moreover, it shows Ephraim's close ties to the land, and illuminates the fact that he can not share his life with other people. He feels that the animals in the barn can understand him better than any human since both the animals and Ephraim are close to the land, and fail to show emotion.
The most important aspect of the land throughout the play deals with greed. Ephraim Cabot is an extremely possessive man. He even states that he would rather burn the farm to the ground than give it away. Everyone in the play wants the farm, despite the fact that when Ephraim first bought it, many people considered it worthless. He removed all the stones from the fields, planted them, and raised his animals. It is as a result of these years of hard work that makes the farm so attractive to everyone, and is in fact the reason why everyone wants it. Ephraim felt that it was
God's will for him to have to go through hardships in working the land. God wanted him to be a hard man. And Ephraim felt that it was not right for anyone to have the
luxury of receiving a farm when he had to build it with his own blood and sweat. This was not what God wanted. And in the end of the play, God did in fact win.
Eben feels that he is the rightful heir to the land. Abbie, through lies and chicanery, feels that she is the rightful owner of the farm. Ephraim feels that the land will always be his, and not belong to anyone else. Peter and Simon felt that they were entitled to the land due to the years of blood and sweat they had donated to the land and their father's wishes. In fact, Simon, Peter and Eben hope that
Ephraim is dead when he leaves to get married in the first scene of the play. And in the last line of the play, even the sheriff admits that he would like to have the farm as well. It is this greed over land that effects every major character in the play.
The true importance of the land becomes very clear by the end of the play . It is what drives all of the characters. It affects their feelings, emotions, and outlook on life. It is all that they know and care for. Being farmers, it is their livelihood and a source of pride, at least for Ephraim. It can also be used to show beauty, as well as loneliness. The land is life, and the land is death. The land understands the farmer, just as the farmer understands the land. To the farmer the land is tangible, while emotions and personal relationships may seem immaterial. Throughout history, land has been a source of greed and power in many civilizations, and it can create social status, as it is a limited commodity. Land is more than likely what brought Ephraim Cabot's ancestors to America. They, as he, saw the true value of the land. But more importantly, the farmer who lives off the land is in a position to understand it in a way that is far deeper than its material value, and this true of Ephraim Cabot as well. For these reasons the land in the play has a most significant importance as well as a symbolic value.