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Drama: “Desire under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill Term Paper

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Updated: Mar 16th, 2020


Literature is regarded by many people as a mirror of society. It reflects what is happening in a given community within a particular period. The best mechanism of representing phenomena in a society is through narrations and other words of art.

Plays, novels, songs, and poems are examples of how literature can be used to illustrate various themes that are relevant at a given time. The author of a particular text brings out themes in their words with the help of characters. The characters may be real or imaginary. In any case, they represent reality in the community.

The current paper is a critical analysis of themes in “Desire Under the Elms,” a play by O’Neill Eugene. The theme of revenge will be analyzed from the perspective of one character in the play. The aim is to illustrate how O’Neill represents revenge as a theme in society.

O’Neill (1) makes use of one of his characters in the play to depict this element. In light of this, the author of this paper provides psychoanalysis of Eben as illustrated by O’Neill (1) in the play “Desire Under the Elms.” A review of the traits of this character will help to illustrate the various aspects of revenge in a real-life situation.

The psychoanalysis presented in this paper examines the various causes of revenge. Also, the agents of vengeance and retribution are discussed. Freud (7) argues that revenge takes the mechanism of a cause – reaction system. As such, the details of the persons who appear to be vengeful are explained from the perspective of the characters presented by O’Neill in the play.

Also, the current paper examines the reasons behind retribution. To this end, the motivating factors behind the revenge that occurs in the play are examined. Finally, the author of this paper concludes by affirming the existence of revenge in society and how Eben exposes this attribute in the play.

“Desire under the Elms”: The Play

The play is an attempt by O’Neill to illustrate the most common elements of love in society. O’Neill (1) explores, among others, the illicit nature of love and romance. Freud (23) argues that in most cases, romance is regarded as the motivating factor behind revenge. In general, revenge is cultivated (or emanates) from conflict. O’Neill (3) makes use of various themes, such as romance and conflict, to illustrate revenge.

What this means is that the major ideas in the play are linked to each other. The conflict in reference is the one exhibited by Eben. The character is part of a polygamous family. O’Neill (3) uses the differences between Eben and his father to highlight the root causes of revenge in the family.

Causes of Revenge


There is no denying the fact that revenge is associated with strong emotional connotations. Freud (8) defines this phenomenon as an intuitive urge to get even in response to an alleged offense. It is seen as a form of retaliation to situations that bring about loss or humiliation to an individual.

Arindam (31) looks at revenge from the perspective of an individual who is intent on transforming shameful circumstances into situations that improve their self- esteem and pride. From the different descriptions provided by these scholars, it is clear that revenge must have a causative agent behind it. A critical analysis of the plot of the play by O’Neill (2) highlights some of these causes.

Family Feuds

It is important to note that the family is the basic unit of society. The society is made up of different families of varying sizes. The social unit is made up of different individuals who are related through blood or other forms of affiliations. The differences between the individuals making up a family bring about competition for resources, which leads to various forms of conflicts.

O’Neill (4) highlights this fact by introducing a polygamous family set up in the play. According to Freud (17), polygamous families have a higher potential of degenerating into an all-out conflict compared to other forms of units, such as nuclear.

To support this assertion, Freud argues that polygamous families have competing interests, especially when it comes to matters touching on inheritance. O’Neill (6) aptly illustrates the same by exposing the events that lead to the death of Eben’s mother.

The major conflict in the play is the one that exists between Eben and his father. As already mentioned, the death of his mother is suspected to be caused by his father. The actual cause of the resentment that Eben develops towards his father is brought about by the trauma associated with the death (O’Neill 17).

The conflict presents the emotional angle of revenge that was outlined in the definition. According to O’Neill, Eben loved his mother very much. She was one of the persons that were very close to him. The trauma of her death leaves him with some form of neurotic fantasy.

Family feuds are brought about by circumstances that rob the members of something valuable to them. O’Neill (13) presents this situation in a bold (but subtle) manner. As a result of the death of his mother, Eben is robbed of something priceless.

The realization that death is brought about by another family member causes the protagonist to seek vengeance. Arindam (32) argues that death causes psychological distress that makes an individual feel as if they were robbed. Going by the definition provided by Arindam, Eben is ‘justified’ to seek revenge for the death of his mother.

Love and Romance as Causes of Revenge

People invest a significant part of their emotions when it comes to love. Freud (43) argues that the feelings of love are formed in an individual’s mind. The value of this feeling is realized when the same is ripped out of an individual’s life. An example of such a situation is explained by Arindam (32), who suggests that siblings can squabble over a romantic partner.

The family set up presented by O’Neill (3) presents a situation that illustrates the robbery of Eben’s love. Freud (131) suggests that love is an emotional investment, and robbery of the same gives rise to conflicts. Perhaps this could be one of the reasons why Eben seeks to avenge his mother’s death.

The emotional connection between two people, due to love, is largely imaginary. Freud (130) emphasizes on the value of love by pointing out regardless of the imaginary connection and individually tends to get physically attached. Relationship between Eben and his mother is evidently, priceless.

O’Neill (17) supports this view by ensuring that love is the main theme of the play. The flip side of love is the hate that Eben develops for his father. According to Arindam (33), hate is a fertile ground for revenge. Thus, the play affirms that revenge is brought about by the loss of love or any romantic undertones.

The Person who Takes Revenge


As mentioned earlier, revenge is brought about when an individual feels offended y a person or a situation. Freud (206) argues that revenge is carried out by an individual who is directly offended. However, there are certain circumstances when an individual avenges on behalf of another.

Such an extreme case of revenge is attributed to emotional attachments that might exist between individuals. O’Neill (13) exposes this rare kind of revenge courtesy of the conflict between Eben and his father. It is also possible to argue that that death is a motivator for revenge.


The love that Eben had for his mother has already been mentioned. However, it is important to appreciate the fact that the death of his mother brings him great pain. O’Neill (2) uses the first act of the play to suggest that Eben blames his father for the death of the mother.

When Eben first appears, it is evident that his face is overcome with intense hatred. Freud (209) argues that hatred derives its properties from a state of mind. The scholar suggests that a negative emotional state of mind drives an individual to actively dislike another. The consequence of dislike is usually an act of aggression.

While defining revenge, it was described as an act meant to seek retribution for offenses. Therefore, Eben fits the profile of an individual who is likely to carry out revenge (O’Neill 2). Though out the entire play, Ebon is seen scheming for possible revenge against his father.

There are certain instances when the hatred for his father causes Eben to issue threats to his father. Towards the end of the play, it becomes apparent that indeed Eben is the avenger having brought his father’s new relationship to a halt by stealing the new wife.

Anyone who seeks revenge has a psychological profile, which can be explained through several characteristics. Eben satisfies several of those characteristics.

For instance, Freud (187) mentions hatred as a motivating factor behind revenge. Throughout the entire play, Eben is seen as exhibiting hate towards his father. Another characteristic of a vengeful profile is a loss. In several sections of this paper, it has been illustrated that the death of Eben’s mother has left him at a huge loss.

The profile illustrated, above, is supported by the actual revenge that Eben commits against his father. According to O’Neill (34), Eben uses his father’s newly-wed wife as the center for his revenge. He achieves this by courting the new wife and eventually kicks his father out of the farm.

These actions are quite evident towards the end of the play and are sufficient proof that revenge was exacted by Eben. Once the revenge had been carried out, there is little to say about the father who is crippled.

Whenever an individual commits vengeful acts against another, there is an element of satisfaction to their action. Arindam (32) supports this view from a psychological perspective. The scholar argues that revenge gives an individual some sense of self – preservation.

Therefore, while seeking to determine who takes revenge, the element of self-preservation should not be forgotten. In the play, Eben carries out a vengeful act that robs his father of a lover. The revenge is depicted as a solution which Freud (188) views as a solution to the grievances he had with his father.


There are certain cases when revenge is not carried out by an individual. Freud (233) suggests that there are circumstances which can be termed as vengeful. The play presents a suitable circumstance for revenge. Initially, Eben’s father mistreated his wife to the point of death.

That wicked action was a breeding ground for circumstances which demanded justice. Arindam (33) argues that actions of injustice are often rectified by nature to ensure justice. Courtesy of the death of his wife, Eben’s father had prompted nature to carry out revenge. Therefore when he sought to find happiness in his second marriage, he could not find the same owing to the circumstance which had presented itself.

Reasons for Eben’s Revenge

As mentioned earlier, revenge is an action which is brought about by a series of grievances. From the discussion made so far, it is evident that Eben is the aggrieved party. Freud (200) suggests that people seek revenge whenever they feel an extreme violation.

The scholar adds that such actions are caused by the need for justice. Therefore it can be said that Eben avenges his mother’s death in a bid to seek justice. The same is illustrated in the manner with which his acts give himself assuredness towards the end of the play.

Another reason to support his actions is the need to fill the gap of a loss. Arindam (32) supports this opinion and suggests that people are driven into revenge to fill what may appear to be a loss. Upon the death of his mother, there was a gap in Eben’s life.

The same explains why he spent a huge portion of his time scheming for ways in which he could carry out his revenge. O’Neill (56) depicts Eben as an individual in need of emotional attachment. Thus, when the moment is right, he seeks emotional attachment in his father’s new wife.

In the previous section, it was suggested that revenge could be carried out by the circumstance. In such situations, Freud (211) alludes to the opinion that the individual deserves it. O’Neill (15) can allude to a similar notion in the manner through which love and romance form the basis of the entire plot.

By pointing out to how Ebon’s beloved mother was snatched from her, O’Neill (15) paints the picture of a villain in the person of Ebon’s father. Thus, Arindam (31) justifies revenge by insisting that it is the medicine of villains. Therefore the other reason for which Eben carries out revenge on his father is that he deserved it.

The play is fictional. Therefore there are certain fundamental plot sequences which required being satisfied. O’Neill (1) creates Ebon as the protagonist. On the other hand, his father is depicted as the antagonist. Under normal circumstances, the protagonist prevails against the antagonist to emerge as a hero.

Thus, it can be argued that Ebon carries out revenge on his father to satisfy the plot. However, it is important to realize that the vengeance is viewed as the author’s creation to illustrate how heroes triumph in a narrative.

As mentioned earlier, revenge is brought about by several factors. One such factor is love. From the play, there is no hiding the fact that Ebon had loved his mother immensely (O’Neill 4). Further, it was illustrated that the emotional attachment due to love is quite strong on a person’s emotions (Freud 311).

Under such conditions, Arindam (32) suggests that individuals tend to lose control of their mental faculties. Thus, it can be argued that this revenge was committed due to psychological duress. O’Neill (12) suggests that Eben is mentally disturbed as depicted by his dreams. Therefore the revenge can be argued as being caused by mental instability.

Psychological Opinion about Eben’s Character

The discussions made, so far, depict Eben as an individual whose mental aspects are considered the motivating factor behind his vengeful acts. It is, therefore, important to examine his character traits from a psychological perspective.

In the first instance, Eben is presented as an individual who desires emotional attachment. According to Fred (112), individuals who have attachment issues often have shortcomings in their esteem. Such persons are not capable of living without being attached to another person. Eben exhibits this tendency by finding the urge to cohabit with his step-mother.

Eben is unforgiving. Courtesy of the revenge he plotted for a long time, O’Neill depicts the character as a ruthless individual. Freud (118) argues that an attribute, such as the inability to forgive is a motivating factor behind the acts committed by psychopaths.

Arindam (34) thinks that an unforgiving nature is a symptom of an individual who is mentally disturbed. Going by such an argument, it can be true to argue that Eben had degenerated into a psychopath.

The vengeful act discussed in this paper was a scheme that went into the works for a long time. O’Neill (8) illustrates the planning that was involved in ensuring that Eben’s father felt the same amount of pain as his son. Thus, Eben can be regarded as a meticulous planner.

However, Arindam (33) argues that traumatic experiences can lead one down the path of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The condition is often characterized by individuals whose organizational capabilities are improved. The same was evident in the scheming witnessed by Eben.


There is a common adage that says “revenge is a dish that is best served cold”. It cannot be lost to the thought that the actions committed by Eben are nothing short of cruel. However, it is important to appreciate that the said revenge would not have been necessary had his father not killed his mother. Freud (151) argues that revenge cannot be committed if one has not been aggrieved.

Courtesy of the vengeful acts committed by Eben, O’Neill (13) suggests that revenge is common within family set ups. How Eben avenges his mother’s death is indeed cruel and creates the opinion of whether it is justified. From the play, it is clear that the trauma due to a loss can drive one to seek justice for their loss. The same aptly explains why Eben had to seek revenge.

Works Cited

Arindam, Chakrabarti. “The Moral Psychology of Revenge.” Journal of Human Values 11.1 (2005): 31-36.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, London: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. Print.

O’Neill, Eugene. Desire under the Elms (Provincetown-Greenwich Plays), New Jersey: Boni & Liveright, 1925. Print.

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