Buried Child

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Buried Child Act 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, the rain has stopped and sun shines into the living room. Bradley sleeps on the couch, his prosthetic leg detached nearby. Dodge sits against the television, visibly weak, wearing his cap and Shelly’s coat.
The passing of the storm parallels the clarity that has begun to come from Tilden’s attempts to reveal the family’s past. Bradley sleeps in Dodge’s former position of power, but his leg leaves him vulnerable for upheaval.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Shelly enters cheerily from the kitchen with a bowl of soup. She offers it to Dodge, but he refuses it, preoccupied with Vince’s prolonged absence and his own craving for a bottle of alcohol. Dodge tries to get Shelly to give him a massage, but she declines.
Along with the improvement in weather, Shelly provides a positive point of view in the wake of the previous night’s harrowing truth-telling episode—apparently the men seem less frightening and ominous in the light of day. These tonal shifts hint at more change to come.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Shelly believes Vince will return (at least to retrieve the saxophone he’s left), and Dodge mocks her optimism. Shelly turns her attention to the change in weather, and Dodge mocks her further. Shelly tells Dodge that today feels different—that last night she was afraid, but she isn’t today. Dodge assures her that Bradley is nothing to be afraid of, and suggests that he’d be even more useless if she threw away Bradley’s prosthetic leg.
Shelly assumes that Vince will return, but it seems that he has been sucked into the life of the family already and is abandoning his life and dreams (represented by both Shelly and the saxophone). Dodge and Bradley’s mutually abusive relationship remains strong. Even in his state of weakness, Dodge looks for ways to emasculate and get back at his son.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly is shocked that Dodge would think of doing such a thing, but Dodge argues that he should not be judged in his own house. Shelly muses that the house feels familiar, like it’s empty except for her, and that Dodge and Bradley seem out of place.
Again, Shelly provides the audience a lens to view the family. Despite the grotesque dysfunction of this particular family, there is still something about it that is universally recognizable. Shelly’s observation also seems to hint at how stuck in the past the family is—everything feels out of place in the present.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
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Shelly tells Dodge that she slept in Halie’s room, where she observed the family’s history in photos, as well as crosses on the walls.
This description of the room reinforces Halie’s penchant for both nostalgia and religion.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
As Dodge tries to deflect her questions, Shelly asks him about a photograph depicting the whole family standing on a farm full of corn and wheat, with Halie holding a baby. Shelly says that Halie looks lost in the photo.
At first glance, this photo seems to depict the stereotypical, idyllic, “Norman-Rockwell-type” American family, and yet at a closer glance there are things very out of place—the mother seems estranged, and there is a baby who has now mysteriously disappeared. The photo seems to encapsulate Shepard’s skeptical view of the idea of the American Dream.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Dodge continues to defend himself and claims disinterest in the photos, until Shelly asks Dodge outright if Tilden was telling the truth about the killing of the baby. Suddenly Dodge’s demeanor changes, and Dodge asks Shelly where Tilden is. She tells Dodge that Bradley chased him out of the house. Dodge worries that Tilden will get hurt without supervision. He explains to Shelly that Tilden was once in trouble and can no longer be left alone.
In contrast to Halie’s nostalgic tendency to revise history, Dodge chooses to ignore and deny the past. Yet this forgetfulness also seems to be selective to the crime Dodge committed. When the subject turns away from himself, Dodge volunteers information (albeit vaguely) about Tilden’s return home.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly and Dodge hear the sounds of Halie and Father Dewis on the porch. Dodge begs Shelly to stay and protect him. He hides under the fur coat. Dewis wears while traditional attire of a minister, while Halie is now dressed in a bright yellow dress and holding yellow roses. The pair are slightly drunk, and do not notice Dodge and Shelly.
From the moment Father Dewis is introduced, his behavior does not reflect the uniform that he wears. His drunken and lecherous actions seem to suggest that in the world of the play, even religion is too perverse to help the family.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Father Dewis jokes that deep down, he and Halie know they are “every bit as wicked as the Catholics.” Halie and Dewis flirt as they enter the living room, but stop dead when they see Shelly and the scene in the living room.
Dewis’s joke encapsulates the play’s cynical viewpoint on religion. Although Halie broadly uses religion to justify her sense of right and wrong, she’s just as wicked as the people she condemns—and she knows it, and doesn’t feel guilty.
Themes
Religion Theme Icon
Embarrassed, Halie tries to clean up in the living room by taking the fur coat off of Dodge and covering the prosthetic leg with it. When Dodge protests, Halie whips the blanket off of Bradley, revealing his amputated leg, and throws the blanket on Dodge. Bradley wakes with a start and begs for the blanket, but Halie coldly rebukes him and he begins to cry.
This sequence of pseudo-burials symbolizes an ongoing transfer of power within the family. The dying Dodge is “buried” by the blanket, and this burial simultaneously removes Bradley from power and puts him at his most vulnerable.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Halie asks Father Dewis, who is at a loss for words, for advice on how to handle the bizarre assembly in her living room. In an attempt at seduction, Halie tries to find a bottle of whiskey, and reaches into Dewis’ pockets intimately as Dodge watches. Halie says that the roses that Father Dewis gave her wash away the smell of sin in the house.
Father Dewis, the embodiment of religion in the play, demonstrates his inability to solve problems, and worse yet, he encourages Halie’s adulterous behavior. The roses, an obviously weak fix to the dysfunction and “sin” in the house, reinforce this sense of ineptitude—similar to how Halie’s nostalgia attempts to cover up the horrifying reality of the past.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Halie finds the whiskey and drinks it in front of Dodge as she claims that a statue of Ansel, holding a basketball and rifle, will be built. Bradley interjects that Ansel never played basketball, but Halie tells him to shut up.
This fantasy gets to the heart of Halie’s revisionist delusions. Using the church to bolster false beliefs, she purposefully misremembers the past to repress the truths that have started to surface.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Not allowing anyone to get a word in, Halie continues to drink and lament the deterioration of society and its values. Dewis reminds Halie that it is important to believe in certain things, and she twists his words to rail against Dodge as an example of a person driven mad by lack of values. She throws a rose into Dodge’s lap.
Even when Dewis does offer advice, Halie willfully misinterprets it to emphasize her own points of argument. The rose on Dodge’s lap adds to the ongoing funerary symbolism.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Shelly finally interjects that she came to the house with Vince, and Halie does not seem to immediately recognize that Vince is her grandson. As Shelly continues to jog her memory, Halie suddenly becomes worried about Tilden’s whereabouts. Halie yells at Dodge for allowing Tilden to leave. Meanwhile Dodge begs for alcohol, Shelly yells at Halie to pay attention to her, and Bradley yells at Shelly for disrespecting his mother.
Halie adds to the sense that the family’s memory is selective, and that Vince, at least for the time being, has been erased. This moment also echoes Shelly’s conversation earlier in the act with Dodge, where Dodge used Tilden as way of redirecting the focus away from his own past.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
As Halie laments the state of the family, Bradley steals the blanket back from Dodge, causing a ruckus. In a rage, Shelly takes the bowl of soup that she tried to give to Dodge and smashes it against the door.
After enduring horrible treatment, Shelly finally acts out. The outsider is able to grab the attention of the other characters by stooping to their level and speaking their language of violence.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Bradley calls Shelly a prostitute, and the two begin to argue. Shelly takes the fur coat and Bradley’s prosthetic leg and taunts Bradley with it. Bradley covers himself in the blanket and whimpers. Dewis tries to get Shelly to return the leg, but proves useless.
The family’s toxicity drives Shelly to take Dodge’s suggestion from earlier in the act. In order to have a voice, her actions become more consistent with those of the family—she becomes more infantile, bullying, and grotesque in her actions the longer she stays in the house.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
Shelly tells the family to stay away from her. She says that she had come along with Vince and was excited to meet the family he had told her about, but that this family is unrecognizable as the family he described.
In this moment Shelly fully expresses the shattering of her Norman Rockwell preconceptions about the family.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
When Halie threatens to call the police, Bradley implores her not to, and Shelly chides the family for keeping their gruesome secret. Bradley, Halie, and Dewis command Shelly to stop interfering in their business, but Dodge finally relents and decides to tell Shelly the truth.
The ever-persistent undercurrent of failure, resentment, and guilt that surrounds the family, paired with Dodge’s severe illness, finally cause him to relent to Shelly’s coaxing.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Despite protestations from Halie and Bradley, Dodge recounts how Halie had a baby, and apparently the child was Tilden’s. Tilden was close with the baby, but Dodge was ashamed of it, and so he killed the child. Halie begins to claim that Ansel would have saved the child, and then there is a crash on the screen porch.
Dodge’s speech clarifies the details of the crime, illuminating Tilden’s estrangement, and expanding upon the implications of Halie’s incestuous past. Even in this climactic moment of revelation, when the truth is finally spoken aloud to an outside audience, Halie still invokes Ansel as a fantasy solution.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
The noise comes from Vince, who is tearing the door off of the screen porch in a drunken stupor. Vince takes empty liquor bottles from a paper bag and smashes them while singing. Dodge and Halie finally seem to recognize him as their grandson, but in his drunken state Vince cannot recognize anyone.
Once the whole truth has been aired, the cloud of selective memory is lifted and the grandparents seem to recognize Vince as family (or perhaps they only recognize him now that he’s drunk and aggressive—acting like a true member of their family). And yet, their earlier refusal to acknowledge him has apparently caused an identity crisis for Vince.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Vince’s drunken behavior continues on the porch, and when Halie asks Dewis for help, Dewis says that he’s outside of his parish. Dewis invites Halie upstairs. She despairs at how her sweet grandson has turned into a monster, but then follows Dewis to the bedroom.
To reinforce the play’s stance on religion, Dewis commits rather obvious adultery with a vulnerable follower of his in a time when guidance and wisdom are desperately needed.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Vince enters the house through a screen porch window while Shelly goes out onto the screen porch. Dodge then begins to deliver his last will and testament. While Dodge delivers his speech, Vince keeps the prosthetic leg away from a whimpering Bradley, and goes to smell Father Dewis’ roses.
Vince is barely recognizable in his drunken state. He immediately displays his power over the room by barging in and stealing the prosthetic leg—he is the new “alpha male.”
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
Dodge declares that the house will go to Vince, the tools will go to Tilden, and the tractor and all the rest of his belongings will be burned in the middle of the field.
With this declaration, Vince officially becomes the new patriarch of this collapsing family, Tilden is left in essentially the same position, and Bradley is punished for his abuse.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Shelly tells Vince that she will leave, but Vince wants to stay. Shelly asks Vince what happened to him the night before. Vince explains that he considered running away and drove all the way to Iowa, but then he saw his reflection and the reflection of his ancestors in the windshield of his car and he was compelled to return. Shelly leaves him.
The image of Vince seeing his ancestors in his own reflection and being compelled to return demonstrates the intense power of the family bond and the power of the past. In this case, these forces prove insidious as they destroy Vince’s relationship and his career goals. Sally has learned the truth, and now she escapes the family’s grotesque world.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
As Vince continues to taunt Bradley with the leg, Father Dewis comes down the stairs. Vince throws the leg out of the room, and Bradley crawls to retrieve it. Dewis urges Vince to go see Halie, but Vince tells Dewis that they are the only two in the house, and that he should leave. As Dewis leaves, he tells Vince that he doesn’t know how to help Halie.
Vince’s sense of power grows as he commands the space. However, this newfound power does not feel especially glorious, but rather it seems like the beginning of a new cycle of failure. Once again, religion (or at least Dewis’s shallow, hypocritical kind of religion) is portrayed as ineffectual in the face of such problems.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Vince notices that Dodge has silently died. He covers Dodge in the blanket and places the roses on his chest, then lies down on the sofa and stares at the ceiling.
Dodge’s death completes the transference of power, as he is “buried” yet again. Vince now assumes the same position on the couch that Dodge was in at the beginning of the play, setting the new cycle in motion.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
From upstairs, we hear Halie calling out for Dodge, telling him that Tilden was right, and that the field is full of vegetables. Tilden enters, covered in mud, holding the rotted corpse of a small child. He ascends the stairs towards Halie as we hear her considering aloud the rain and the sun, and how they make the plants grow.
The corpse of the murdered child is “harvested” and displayed by Tilden, as everything that was “buried”—both the truth and the child itself—is now uncovered to the light of day. At the same time as this horrifying and symbolic “harvest” takes place, the resurgence of crops on the family’s formerly barren land suggests the possibility for growth and renewal once the family has finally faced the truth. It’s unclear if they will be able to do this—especially as Vince seems to have already become the new version of Dodge, and Halie continues to avoid the truth and focus on something positive and simplistic—but at least the possibility is there, as Shepard ends his grim play on this ambiguous note.
Themes
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon