Buried Child

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Shelly Character Analysis

Vince’s girlfriend, a young woman in her early twenties. At first she looks forward to meeting Vince’s family, as she imagines them to be quaint and romantic country folk. She is then spooked by the reality of the family’s strangeness, and when she is abandoned by Vince, Shelly begins to try to uncover the family’s secret. She provides an outside perspective on the family, and becomes a proxy for the audience.

Shelly Quotes in Buried Child

The Buried Child quotes below are all either spoken by Shelly or refer to Shelly. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Buried Child published in 2006.
Act 2 Quotes

Shelly: I don’t believe it!

Vince: How come?

Shelly: It’s like a Norman Rockwell cover or something.

Vince: What’s a’matter with that? It’s American.

Related Characters: Vince (speaker), Shelly (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, which occurs after the audience has soaked in the family chaos of the first act, is profoundly ironic. Shelly, the only character unfamiliar with the family, is introduced as having high hopes for Vince's family. The appearance of the little farmhouse evokes Norman Rockwell style Americana (Rockwell was a painter famous for idyllic scenes of mid-twentieth century American life), and Shelly gently mocks Vince for having a family that she assumes to be a sweet, classic American family. This passage is meant to directly juxtapose the imagery and narrative of the American Dream with the dystopian chaos the audience has just witnessed for the duration of the first act. Importantly, Vince, who broke ties with the family six years prior for unspecified reasons, doesn't protest Shelly's overly-sunny assumptions about his family. Whether this is out of forgetfulness or denial, the audience is unsure, but it is telling that his only protest is "What's a'matter with that? It's American." This seems to reveal that Shepard believes that this cruel and dysfunctional family, not the Norman Rockwell illusion, it what truly typifies the American family. 

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…I mean Vince has this thing about his family now. I guess it’s a new thing for him. I kind of find it hard to relate to. But he feels it’s important. You know. I mean he feels he wants to get to know you all again. After all this time…

Related Characters: Shelly (speaker), Dodge, Vince
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the play, Shepard gives us the sense that the gravitational pull of this family is inescapable. Bradley can't leave because he's injured, Tilden tried to leave and failed, Ansel died when he left, and Vince, who seems to have built a nice life outside of the family, is now feeling compelled to return. While Vince is never explicit about his initial motivations for returning (though he does speak later of trying to flee the house and then returning after a vision, in which he looks at himself and sees only his ancestors, showing him that his identity is inextricable from his family), it seems like he is beginning to think about creating a family of his own and wants his girlfriend to meet his family first. This shows the weight of family and the past on the characters in the play. Their lives are all stunted by their familial relationships and by the burden of past familial dramas that none of them can forget. Vince shows this most explicitly, as when he is introduced he seems like a functional, normal person, and by the end, after just a day with his family, his behavior becomes violent, manipulative, and erratic. 

We had a baby. He did. Dodge did. Could pick it up with one hand. Put it in the other. Little baby. Dodge killed it… Dodge drowned it… Never told Halie. Never told anybody. Just drowned it… Nobody could find it. Just disappeared. Cops looked for it. Neighbors. Nobody could find it… Finally everybody just gave up. Just stopped looking. Everybody had a different answer. Kidnap. Murder. Accident. Some kind of accident.

Related Characters: Tilden (speaker), Dodge, Halie, Shelly, The Baby / Buried Child
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the first reference to the buried child that is an outright admission rather than a veiled comment intended to harm or silence another family member. Throughout the play, Tilden seems to have a need to exhume the secret (and the literal corpse) more than any other character, so it makes sense that he would be the one to first confess the secret to Shelly. 

The opening of this passage shows how the family secret has warped everyone's sense of the past and of truth. Tilden, who is the biological father of the child, seems confused about to whom the child belongs. Tilden is capable of identifying that an awful thing has occurred, and he provides some specifics, but he balks at admitting that his own incestuous involvement with Halie produced the child. Tilden also, in his claim that nobody could find the body and nobody had an answer for why it was gone, speaks to the swirl of misinformation and trauma surrounding the family having kept this a secret for so long. What is missing for them is both a literal body and also a truth; without both of these, the family cannot move on.

Yeah, he used to be a big deal. Wore lettermen’s sweaters. Had medals hanging all around his neck. Real purty. Big deal. This one too. You’d never think it to look at him would ya? All bony and wasted away.

Related Characters: Bradley (speaker), Dodge, Tilden, Shelly
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Bradley (who, in a typical confusion of identities between family members, believes Shelly is with Tilden instead of Vince) is in this passage insulting Tilden in front of both Shelly and Tilden, in an effort to shame Tilden and assert Bradley's own power. This insult plays on the expectations of the American Dream, that the football star should turn out to be a successful adult. Bradley mockingly plays up Tilden's past in order to make it seem even more shameful that he has failed to live up to his youthful promise as an adult. This is an example of the ways in which family members in the play use distorted versions of the past to manipulate and hurt each other, and it also shows the dysfunctional dynamic between brothers. Instead of helping one another find the strength to care for their parents, the brothers are consumed by a bitter competition to assert themselves as the more powerful member of the family. Ironically, this competition seems to drain both of them of their ability to behave normally, making them seem weaker and more erratic rather than dominant. 

Hey! Missus. Don’t talk to me like that. Don’t talk to me in that tone a’ voice. There was a time when I had to take that tone a’ voice from pretty near everyone. Him, for one! Him and that half brain that just ran outa’ here. They don’t talk to me like that now. Not any more. Everything’s turned around now. Full circle. Isn’t that funny?

Related Characters: Bradley (speaker), Dodge, Tilden, Shelly
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

More than any other character, Bradley is obsessed with having power over his family members. We see this, for example, in his treatment of Tilden, and in his penchant for violently shaving Dodge's head while he is sleeping. In this passage we get a glimpse of what might have bred Bradley's violence; it seems that Bradley, as the weakest brother (due to his disability), was pushed around as a child, particularly by his brother and father. For Bradley, then, avenging the wrongs of the past is a primary motivation for his character. This is not unlike his other family members, though which past each one is avenging varies.

Through Bradley's character, Shepard is pointing the audience towards an understanding that cruelty begets cruelty, and that family dysfunction propagates itself through generations if issues are not resolved in the open and people are not held accountable for their behavior. Shepard seems to be saying (via Bradley) that a family is a structure that can easily descend into chaos once its members feel divided from one another by something like cruelty or a family secret.

Act 3 Quotes

Dodge: You forgot? Whose did you think this house was?

Shelly: Mine. I know it’s not mine but I had this feeling.

Dodge: What feeling?

Shelly: The feeling that nobody lives here but me. I mean everybody’s gone. You’re here, but it doesn’t seem like you’re supposed to be. Doesn’t seem like he’s supposed to be either. I don’t know what it is. It’s the house or something. Something familiar. Like I know my way around here. Did you ever get that feeling?

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Shelly (speaker), Bradley
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

It's in this passage that the readers get a sense that Shelly is being sucked into the family's logic. She is experiencing the same eerie inability to recognize what is around her, mistaking the family's house for her own. This passage, and the conversation that surrounds it, is another indictment of the American dream in which Shelly seems to have trouble reconciling the idyllic farmhouse with the haunted and bitter family that resides there. Her statement that the house feels familiar to her, though nobody seems to belong there except for her, can be read as a statement about the betrayal of the American Dream. She cannot imagine that a family this dysfunctional can be keeping up appearances, maintaining their classic American house, putting photographs and crosses up on the walls, while ripping each other apart behind closed doors. If the farmhouse represents the American Dream, then Shepard is telling us that it is hollow, that it is all surfaces, and that those surfaces conceal a dark interior.

Don’t come near me! Don’t anyone come near me. I don’t need any words from you. I’m not threatening anybody. I don’t even know what I’m doing here. You all say you don’t remember Vince, okay, maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s Vince that’s crazy. Maybe he’s made this whole family thing up. I don’t even care anymore. I was just coming along for the ride. I thought it’d be a nice gesture. Besides, I was curious. He made all of you sound familiar to me. Every one of you. For every name, I had an image. Every time he’d tell me a name, I’d see the person. In fact, each of you was so clear in my mind that I actually believed it was you. I really believed that when I walked through that door that the people who lived here would turn out to be the same people in my imagination. Real people. People with faces. But I don’t recognize any of you. Not one. Not even the slightest resemblance.

Related Characters: Shelly (speaker), Dodge, Halie, Bradley, Vince
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Shelly makes this speech at a point in the play when her behavior has dramatically shifted. While she came to the house as a playful and rather timid person, after spending a day with the family she has become assertive, aggressive, and even violent. In the scene leading up to this she has shouted, hurled a cup against the wall to attract attention, and kidnapped Bradley's false leg. Though her behavior has begun to mirror the chaos of the family, she is the one character that doesn't drift towards its illusions. Shelly knows that something is deeply wrong, and she begins to call them out on it here, which will lead to her extracting the full story of the buried child.

Shelly has been, throughout the play, an embodiment of disillusionment with the American Dream, and in this speech she explains to the family that they are nothing like the people she thought they would be. This is an extrapolation of the theme that American expectations about family life are unrealistic and even toxic. The theme of the American Dream is inextricable from the family's chaos; the family dynamic Shepard portrays is an example of the brew of disappointment and delusion (from Halie in particular) the myth of the American Dream can produce.

…Halie had this kid. This baby boy. She had it. I let her have it on her own. All the other boys I had had the best doctors, best nurses, everything. This one I let her have by herself. This one hurt real bad. Almost killed her, but she had it anyway. It lived, see. It lived. It wanted to grow up in this family. It wanted to be just like us. It wanted to be part of us. It wanted to pretend that I was its father. She wanted me to believe in it. Even when everyone around us knew. Everyone. All our boys knew. Tilden knew… I killed it. I drowned it. Just like the runt of a litter. Just drowned it.

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Halie, Tilden, Shelly, The Baby / Buried Child
Page Number: 109-110
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the climax of the play, in which Dodge tells Shelly the story of the buried child. Dodge seems to do this in part because Shelly has goaded him into it, and in part because he wants to shock Shelly. He seems to relish it when she tells him she isn't sure if she wants to know, and the thought of scaring her seems to push him ultimately into revealing the secret. In Dodge's recounting he does not omit his own cruelty--he dwells on it, in fact, talking about how he allowed Halie to almost die having her incestuous child without doctors. This shows the ways in which Dodge has partly brought about the family's downfall by being so vengeful and possessive. He goes on to blame Tilden's love for the child for Dodge's decision to kill it, stating that "it made everything we'd accomplished look like nothing." This is another instance of Shepard revealing the toxicity of the American Dream, in which the ideal of the perfect nuclear family of successful parents and children leads to more dysfunction than if people had honest expectations about family life. Dodge implies that he killed the child because it was the one thing he felt didn't fit in with their perfect life (which seems to be an idealized memory in itself). Ironically, this murder, more than anything else (like the birth of the child itself), is what actually throws the family into chaos.

I was gonna run last night. I was gonna run and keep right on running. Clear to the Iowa border. I drove all night with the windows open. The old man’s two bucks flapping right on the seat beside me. It never stopped raining the whole time. Never stopped once. I could see myself in the windshield. My face. My eyes. I studied my face. Studied everything about it as though I was looking at another man. As though I could see his whole race behind him. Like a mummy’s face. I saw him dead and alive at the same time. In the same breath. In the windshield I watched him breathe as though he was frozen in time and every breath marked him. Marked him forever without him knowing. And then his face changed. His face became his father’s face. Same bones. Same eyes. Same nose. Same breath. And his father’s face changed to his grandfather’s face. And it went on like that. Changing. Clear on back to faces I’d never seen before but still recognized. Still recognized the bones underneath. The eyes. The mouth. The breath. I followed my family clear into Iowa. Every last one. Straight into the corn belt and further. Straight back as far as they’d take me. Then it all dissolved. Everything dissolved. Just like that.

Related Characters: Vince (speaker), Shelly
Page Number: 117-118
Explanation and Analysis:

In Act Two, Vince takes Dodge's money and goes to the store to get him whiskey, but fails to return until the next morning. This Act Three speech is then his explanation for why he ran away and why he returned. The audience understands that Vince fled the house after seeing the family chaos (which reminds us of Vince's six-year separation from the family that this visit has interrupted). It seemed like Vince felt that fleeing could save him from the fate of his family members, but he describes seeing his face in the windshield and having a vision in which his face morphed into the faces of his family members and ancestors. Even as he was running, his family was there with him in his own face, telling him he could not escape. This speech points to Vince's identity as being intertwined with the family, and it is somewhat fatalistic in its conclusion that Vince, as long as he is himself, will not be free of his family. It also points to Shepard's dark ideas about the chaotic power of family and the inability to escape past traumas.

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Shelly Character Timeline in Buried Child

The timeline below shows where the character Shelly appears in Buried Child. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 2
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...the sofa, his scalp bleeding from the aggressively short haircut. Vince, Tilden’s twenty-two-year-old son, and Shelly, Vince’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend, appear on the screen porch. Shelly is extremely amused by the pastoral... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
The young couple enters, and Vince goes upstairs to see if anyone is home. Shelly notices Dodge on the couch, and he wakes up and startles her. While Vince is... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...Tilden is here at the farmhouse, rather than in New Mexico like Vince thought. Spooked, Shelly asks Vince that they leave. (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Dodge starts to comment on Shelly’s physical appearance and she grows more frightened, begging Vince to leave, but he forces her... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Tilden does not seem to recognize Vince, and when Shelly presses him, Tilden tells her that his son is dead and buried in the back... (full context)
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
As Vince grows even more confused by the situation, Shelly offers to take the carrots from Tilden and begins to help peel them. Dodge asks... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...Dodge and Tilden of who he is, Dodge begs for alcohol and lasciviously comments on Shelly’s beauty. Vince finally gives up and agrees to get Dodge his bottle. (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly does not want Vince to leave her alone in the house, and she asks to... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Once Vince is gone, Shelly asks Tilden if he is really unable to remember Vince. Tilden says he finds something... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Tilden admires Shelly’s rabbit-fur coat, and Shelly allows him to feel it. She gives it to him, and... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
An agitated Dodge tries to get Tilden to stop telling Shelly this story, and he tries to stand and walk toward Tilden, but he falls. Tilden... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
The squeaking of a wooden leg is heard and Bradley enters. He sees Shelly and begins to interrogate her, asking who she is and what she’s doing in the... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Bradley accuses Shelly of being with Tilden, mocking her by saying that women like men who are “important.”... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
When Shelly offers to help Dodge, Bradley mocks her by saying that they should drown Dodge instead.... (full context)
Act 3
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
...prosthetic leg detached nearby. Dodge sits against the television, visibly weak, wearing his cap and Shelly’s coat. (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Shelly enters cheerily from the kitchen with a bowl of soup. She offers it to Dodge,... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly believes Vince will return (at least to retrieve the saxophone he’s left), and Dodge mocks... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Shelly is shocked that Dodge would think of doing such a thing, but Dodge argues that... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Shelly tells Dodge that she slept in Halie’s room, where she observed the family’s history in... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past 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... (full context)
Family and Its Demise 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.... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Shelly and Dodge hear the sounds of Halie and Father Dewis on the porch. Dodge begs... (full context)
Religion Theme Icon
...and Dewis flirt as they enter the living room, but stop dead when they see Shelly and the scene in the living room. (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly finally interjects that she came to the house with Vince, and Halie does not seem... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
Bradley calls Shelly a prostitute, and the two begin to argue. Shelly takes the fur coat and Bradley’s... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly tells the family to stay away from her. She says that she had come along... (full context)
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... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream 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... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Shelly tells Vince that she will leave, but Vince wants to stay. Shelly asks Vince what... (full context)