Theme of Passion in Desire Under the Elms

O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms has the qualities of an ancient classical tragedy. Although the characters of the play belong to an ordinary stratum of life, their circumstances are fully tragic as all of them are propelled by their passion to their inevitable doom. Although O’Neill’s character refers a sad fate, their sufferings are caused by their own characters, the motivating force of passion behind their actions. There is no ‘President of the Immortals’ to manipulate their ruin. O’Neill’s conception of tragedy is partly Greek, party Shakespearian. His characters are moved by preternatural passions like anger, jealousy or revenge as we find in Oedipus, Agamemnon, Medea or Hippolytus of Greek drama. Similarly, there is an overpowering sense of gloom and darkness prevailing in O’Neill’s plays reminds us of the atmosphere of Macbeth or King Lear.

As in any great tragedy, we are given a close analysis of human nature and human motives. In the case of the three central characters- Cabot, Eben and Abbie, their entire psychological makeup is laid bare before us. The play has been described as a tragedy of passion. Sexual passion predominates in the play, but there are two other important themes: possessive attitude towards land and the father-son conflict. The theme of sexual passion is so closely interwoven with the two other themes that the play produces a unified impression. In the Saga of the Cabot’s farm, the ancient passion of greed and jealousy seem to rise out of the soil itself to mingle with the blood of hungry and thwarted people and then to sink back into the soil with their total destruction. Old tyrannical father Cabot marries a third wife Abbie who is a lustful, voluptuous and sensitive woman. Eben, the son of Cabot, is engaged in Oedipus conflict with her; and the young step-mother Abbie who married Cabot because she sought security and coveted his farm, becomes tragically involved with her step-son when her suppressed hunger for love turns into a reckless passion. Towards the end of the play, Abbie strangles her child (begotten by Eben) to convince Eben that she had given herself to her out of love rather than out of a desire to deprive him of his heritage by producing a new heir to his father’s farm.

According to Aristotle, a tragic play should arouse in us the twin emotions of pity and fear. By arousing these feelings, a tragedy is aimed at catharsis or purgation of these emotions. Eben’s account of his perceiving the presence of the spirit of his dead mother by the stove in the kitchen is one such situation. The climax of fear is reached in the scene where Abbie declares to Eben that she had killed her son. We receive a big shock when she tells Eben how she has done it:

“I left the pillow over his little face”

We experience this feeling of pity for all the three characters, at various times. Eben, for instance, arouses our sympathy is the very beginning when he talks about his dead mother Eben again wins our sympathy when he learns that his baby has been murdered by Abbie and when he almost becomes crazy with grief. Our pity for him reaches its climax at the end when he performs a supreme act of self-sacrifice and declares himself to be an accomplice in the baby’s murder.

Is O’Neill pessimistic in his tragic conception of life? There is plenty of suffering and torment in the plays of O’Neill to justify a reader in thinking that O’Neill is a pessimist. Like Hardy, O’Neill believes that happiness is only an accessional episode in a general drama of pain. A tragedy should rouse a reader or a spectator to a deeper understanding of life. The plays of O’Neill certainly have the effect. If O’Neill is a pessimist with a difference O’Neill’s characters are courageous and defiant. They may go down defeat and death but they never ask to be forgiven. The heroic courage, with which Eben shares Abbie’s unfortunate lot, has a positive effect. His self-sacrifice helps the play to achieve its cathartic effect on the readers.

All the main characters of Desire Under the Elms rise to the tragic height by their ability to face their fate with courage, dignity, and fortitude. The play is a genuine tragedy; it can be compared with the great Greek tragedies or those by Shakespeare.

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