Eugene O’Neill has a great insight into the workings of the human psyche. In fact, the psychological aspect of his work supersedes all other considerations like sociological or political questions. O’Neill is a dramatist of the human psychology. His plays are, in a sense, close analysis of the psychological problems of various characters. All the main currents of the 20th century in the psycho-analysis including Freudian and Jungian theories about human conduct are exemplified in the behavior of O’Neill’s characters, so much so that sometimes they seem to be rather symbols of psyche process than flesh and blood human beings. Desire Under the Elms is a study of the Oedipus conflict between father and son centering on a woman. But behind the surface, there are other eternal drives like lust, greed, avarice, jealousy, and subterfuge. Desire Under the Elms signifies the covert psychological passions that motivate the actions of the central characters; Eben, Abbie and Old Ephraim Cabot.
Psychological realism is the keynote of this play. We are made fully aware as we go through the play, of the reasons for the mutual hatred of Eben and Old Cabot, Eben’s desire for revenge upon the old man, Abbie’s motive in marrying old Cabot, and her motive in having a son whom she afterward kills. We are led into each of the characters innermost mind.
Eben’s hatred for his father is mixed up with his mother-fixation. Eben’s mother who was Cabot’s second wife is dead. Eben has a distinct recollection of his mother’s love and he has a deep-rooted conviction that his father is responsible for his mother’s death. He believes that his mother was put into inhuman drudgery by old Cabot. Eben’s hatred for his father is compounded by Eben’s notion that his father had obtained the farm unjustly from his mother to whom it rightfully belonged. A third psychological reason for his father hatred is that Cabot has brought a new wife home who will definitely put a claim on the ownership of the farm.
Eben’s psychological problem is thus a conglomerate of a variety of impulse. On the one hand is his mother-fixation. On the other is the more worldly and practical motive of gaining control over the farm which he thinks rightfully belongs only to him. As his father treated his mother of the farm, become weary of the possibilities of the second cheating when Abbie comes to the farm as Cabot’s new-wife. Eben’s possession of Abbie as a mistress is partly a revenge against the father, and partly a symbolic laying of claims on the farmland. By taking father’s wife as his mistress, he declares his supremacy over his father.
Eben’s excessive love for his dead mother is also a psychological problem for him. He gets the feeling that, when he is working in the kitchen, the spirit of his dead mother comes and stands by the stoves watching him at work. Later on, when Abbie is in the house, Eben gets the feeling that the spirit of his dead mother is prompting him to respond to Abbie’s amorous advances. After having made love to Abbie, during the night, when Eben meets his father next morning, he tells the latter that the spirit of his dead mother can now sleep peacefully in her grave.
Eben’s incestuous relationship with Abbie can be explained by Freud’s theory of Oedipus-complex. Eben’s falling in love is a kind of fulfillment of an oedipal love. But the whole thing is not just a psychological fulfillment. Abbie, being a lascivious and voluptuous woman, she attracted Eben-physically and with a deliberate purpose. On her side, her purpose was to strengthen her position on the farm by producing an heir, a baby. And for a son by Eben, she genuinely falls in love with Eben.
The psychological complexity of Abbie’s character is more astounding. She is an extraordinary passionate woman. Her action of murdering a baby is certainly abnormal but she does this in order to prove her genuine love for Eben. Desire Under the Elms thus takes us into the labyrinth of human passions and desires.