Buried Child | Study Guide

Sam Shepard

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Course Hero. "Buried Child Study Guide." August 16, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Buried-Child/.


Course Hero, "Buried Child Study Guide," August 16, 2019, accessed October 17, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Buried-Child/.

Buried Child | Themes


Family Conflict

Family conflict and the replacement of one generation with another are at the heart of Buried Child. The characters are openly in conflict and lying to one another throughout the play. Halie lies to her husband, Dodge, saying that Bradley won't cut his hair. Bradley immediately does, given the opportunity. She also lies about coming home that day. Instead, she comes home the next day. Dodge seems unsurprised about this. Moreover, it seems like she has always been disappointed with their lifestyle. Even in the photographs Shelly finds, taken sometime in the 1930s, she looks disappointed. Dodge says he told her they wouldn't be living in the city. She openly cheats on her husband and makes cruel comments about what a disappointment her sons are to her. Of course, Halie has every reason to be angry at Dodge, who drowned her baby. That she can go on and talk about the weather, as if nothing is wrong, is perhaps more surprising.

When Bradley cuts Dodge's hair at the end of Act 1, it is an act of power. He wants to replace Dodge as head of the household, and it seems like he is the only candidate. Tilden is simple-minded or maybe mentally ill. Dodge is burned out and unsuccessful and dying.

However, in the end Dodge has his revenge. He gives his house to Vince, keeping Bradley from getting it. He does so to spite his family and perhaps in an attempt to bring them back to where they should have been, before the incest and infanticide.

While Tilden is not openly in conflict with his family during the play, his troubled past causes the main conflict of the play. It is strongly implied that Tilden had sexual intercourse with Halie, his mother, and fathered her baby. This is implied by Tilden's attachment to the baby and Dodge's anger at that attachment. Tilden's relationship with Halie is an example of an Oedipus complex, named for the tragedy Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE) by Greek dramatist Sophocles (496–06 BCE). Oedipus was a tragic hero who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. An Oedipus complex is, thus, a desire for sexual involvement with the opposite-sex parent and a sense of rivalry with the same-sex parent. Thus, boys feel a desire for their mothers and rivalry with their fathers. While this ordinarily occurs in little boys, having it occur in mature sons is the ultimate father-son rivalry.

Vince is put off by the family, enough that he considers running away. Yet he also feels drawn to them, which is what brought him there in the first place. When he leaves, he feels a family bond, which coaxes him to come back. He is antagonistic to them upon his return, breaking bottles and threatening them. However, he also says he saw in his reflection his father's face, his grandfather's, and other faces. He knew he was meant to be part of the family and was drawn back to do so.

None of this, however, keeps him from antagonizing Bradley. Vince takes his leg and plays keep-away with it until Bradley is out of the house. Then, he takes Dodge's place on the sofa, the younger generation having replaced the older.

Disillusionment with the American Dream

Sam Shepard has said that the American dream doesn't work. More than that, "the myth of the American Dream ... is going to be our demise." Shepard went on to say that the idea that people (meaning, presumably, white Americans) were given land by God and can do with it whatever they want has created problems for everyone else.

The American dream has different meanings to different people. Shepard himself said that there are many definitions of what he called the myth of the American dream. Some people might believe that it has to do with wealth, owning a home, or doing better than one's parents. Other people have stated that it means having freedom and a good family life. By either measure the family in Buried Child have failed to achieve it. Dodge hasn't had a crop on his land in over 40 years. His house is rundown and in disrepair, and he sits on the sofa, drinking and staring at the television. His sons are antagonistic toward him. His wife is cheating on him. He's buried his grandchild in the yard. He is a failure in every possible sense, and he has made his family accomplices in his failure and his crime.

Sam Shepard has said that Americans prefer fantasy over reality. Fantasy over reality is at the heart of Dodge's justification for killing Halie's baby. He is disillusioned about his inability to provide a perfect life for his family. He says the baby "made everything [the family had] accomplished look like it was nothin'." Everything would be canceled by that one mistake. This is because the family held themselves to a standard of perfection that was unattainable—affluent family, lovely home, prosperous farm, perfect children. This is the family shown in the photographs Shelly saw upstairs. However, it is impossible for everything to be perfect all the time. Sometimes, covering the tiny cracks to keep them from showing may lead to bigger cracks, cracks like the terrible family secret that Halie and Dodge have been hiding. Shelly remarks that, even in the photograph, Halie didn't seem happy.

Dodge knows he has failed at the American dream and fears dying a failure. He tries to prevent his sons, likewise failures, from taking over the farm and his place in it. He discourages Tilden from picking the corn, which is growing, unseeded, in the fields. He tries to prevent Bradley from giving him a haircut, an act of dominance of the younger generation against the older. Finally, he gives the house to Vince, and Vince physically removes Bradley from the house. Dodge is able to die then. If he hasn't achieved an American dream of success, at least he can pass the farm on to the next generation. Vince is putting aside his own American dream, his chance of success, his music, travels, and his girlfriend, to take Dodge's place on the sofa. However, this fact escapes Dodge. Dodge is leaving his farm to a new generation, which falls into many people's definition of the American dream. That Vince will not be happy with his new life proves Shepard's point that the American dream is a myth.

Buried Secrets

Many things are buried and hidden in the course of the play. At the center of the drama, of course, is the child's corpse buried somewhere in a field. It is the buried child of the title. It will come up and be seen in the course of the drama—by Dodge, who reveals the secret, and by Tilden, who actually unearths the child at the end of the play. However, there are numerous other references to burials and secrets throughout the play.

In Act I, when Tilden enters with the corn, he immediately starts to husk it, burying his father in the husks. The corn has come from buried seeds and has now emerged. Dodge tells Tilden to put the corn back, thinking it is stolen. However, Tilden responds, "Once it's picked you can't put it back." The corn is symbolic, both of hiding things and of Dodge's eventual death. Thus, he wants Tilden to put it back to ward off death.

Finally, Dodge is symbolically buried in the rabbit fur coat at the end of Act 2. Dodge tries to cover himself in the rabbit fur coat again in Act 3 to get away from his wife.

Halie is physically hidden from the audience at many points in the play. At the beginning of the play she is only heard from upstairs for a long period. Even as she finally comes downstairs, she comes down very gradually, so that only her shoes show for a long time. At the end of the play Halie's voice is again heard from below, eventually in complete darkness.

In Act 3, when Halie enters, carrying the roses, she says that the scent will "almost cover the stench of sin in this house." She is also embarrassed by Bradley's prosthetic leg and tries to cover that up so that Father Dewis won't see it. However, it is likely that she is having an affair with Father Dewis and, also, that she had sex with her own son, Tilden. Therefore, she has as much or more to hide as anyone else in the family and arguably more than others.

Despite being deeply dysfunctional, the family attempts to present a picture of a perfect family. Halie clings to her memories of her supposedly perfect son, Ansel. As the play begins, she is planning a memorial to him, and it seems like he is very recently deceased. However, as the play progresses, it becomes clear he died many decades ago. Also, her memories of Ansel are questionable. She remembers him as very athletic, while Dodge says he didn't play a sport. She remembers him as a hero, like someone who was killed in the war. She states that there will be a memorial to him, with a gun in one hand and a basketball in the other. In fact, he died in a motel room. Similarly, Halie remembers Vince, whom she only met as an adult, as a perfect baby. She is likely remembering the baby she had who was killed. It is easy to remember the dead as perfect because they aren't around to contradict the story, unlike Halie's two living sons.

Likewise, Dodge killed the baby in order to cover up the sin it came from, to keep from causing embarrassment to the family. He says that the baby, and the spectacle of Tilden carrying it around, "made everything we'd accomplished look like it was nothin'." In order to keep up the façade of a perfect family, Dodge commits the even greater sin of murdering a baby and burying it in the yard. The cover-up is more important than the child's life.

At the beginning of Act 3 Shelly has cleaned up the house at night and says she feels more comfortable in the house, like it's her house. The symbolic act of picking up the discarded items makes the house new to her.

Likewise, the heavy rain washes away the sins of the people inside the house and allows things to grow in the newly unburied land. The crops rise from the ground, showing that the family may live again, now that Dodge has confessed his sin and died. Tilden finds the corpse of the baby, even though no one but Dodge knew where it was. Now, it is all unearthed.

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