Buried Child

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Tilden Character Analysis

A man in his forties, Tilden is the eldest son of Dodge and Halie. He was a former all-American football player, but is now “burned out,” “profoundly displaced,” and seems to be mentally ill in some way. He is living at the family home after running into some sort of mysterious trouble in New Mexico, where he had gone to seek a life away from his family. It’s also revealed that Tilden had sex with his mother Halie, and the child they had together was killed by Dodge (resulting in the “buried child”). Tilden’s promise as a young man and failure to achieve greatness is perhaps the most palpable example of the failure of the American Dream. Throughout the play he harvests vegetables from the fields that Dodge and Halie assume to be barren, and at the end of the play he unearths the corpse of the buried child. Tilden is also Vince’s father, though he doesn’t seem to recognize his son.

Tilden Quotes in Buried Child

The Buried Child quotes below are all either spoken by Tilden or refer to Tilden. 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 1 Quotes

Halie’s Voice: Tilden’s the oldest. He’ll protect you.

Dodge: Tilden can’t even protect himself.

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Halie (speaker), Tilden, Bradley
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Dodge, the ailing patriarch, is threatened by his son Bradley, who is violent and aggressive with him. In this exchange Dodge is worried that Bradley will shave his head while he is sleeping again, and Halie insists that their other son Tilden will protect him. This is another example of Halie's delusions, in which she imagines her family to be much more functional than it is. Tilden is clearly mentally disturbed and vulnerable, but Halie still insists (when not confronted by the actual presence of Tilden) that he is the beloved football star who can fulfill his role as oldest son. This is an example of Shepard casting doubt on the reality of the American Dream; Halie relies on the traditional idea that the oldest son would protect his father, but this has never been the reality of their family, which readers understand more and more as the family secrets come out. For his part, Dodge recognizes that Bradley is dangerous and Tilden is incapable, but the family has degenerated so much that nobody will listen to Dodge and provide the care he desires. Dodge's violence and cruelty to others makes this negligence seem understandable, but the unavoidable conclusion is that the family has descended into chaos.

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Tilden: I never had any trouble.

Dodge: Tilden, your mother told me all about it.

Tilden: What’d she tell you?

Dodge: I don’t have to repeat what she told me! She told me all about it!

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Tilden (speaker), Halie
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this exchange Tilden and Dodge are discussing Tilden's mysterious time in New Mexico, which Shepard obliquely indicates was marred by trouble, though all the reader knows is that Tilden was forced to come home because he could not look after himself anymore. However, this exchange becomes more meaningful in light of the play's later revelation that Halie conceived an incestuous child with Tilden. The double significance of this passage shows how the past weighs on this family, particularly the parts of the past that everyone knows but nobody is willing to speak about. Because these parts of the past have not been acknowledged and dealt with, the family members can continue to use shameful parts of the past as leverage over one another.

This passage is also an example of the ways in which the family members taunt each other and strive for power and dominance. In this scene Tilden wants to be treated like an adult, but Dodge continues to assert himself by prodding at Tilden about New Mexico. This is another case in which Shepard is poking a hole in the American dream. While the American dream indicates that a son should strike out on his own and succeed as his father had done, not only did Tilden fail to succeed on his own, but the home he returns to is a barren farm that is practically abandoned by his cruel and inept family. 

Tilden: I didn’t do anything.

Dodge: Then why should I have worried about you.

Tilden: Because I was by myself.

Dodge: By myself?

Tilden: Yeah. I was by myself more than I’ve ever been before.

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Tilden (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this exchange, Tilden reframes his time in New Mexico. While Dodge leads us to believe that Tilden got into trouble in New Mexico, Tilden insists that trouble wasn't the reason he came home. "I was lonely," he says, and doesn't elaborate further. The passage leads the audience to believe that this is an important statement, but at this moment in the play, the audience does not yet understand what he is referencing. Later, it becomes clear that Tilden fled home for New Mexico after Dodge drowned Tilden and Halie's child (which Tilden was particularly bonded with), and the loneliness that Tilden is referencing is darker than anyone could have imagined at this point in the play. Throughout the play, the family interacts with each other through veiled barbs like this one that almost always reference the past--it's as though their entire dynamic in the present is governed by horrible things that happened years earlier. 

You’ve gotta watch out for him. It’s our responsibility. He can’t look after himself anymore, so we have to do it. Nobody else will do it. We can’t just send him away somewhere. If we had lots of money we could send him away. But we don’t. We never will. That’s why we have to stay healthy. You and me. Nobody’s going to look after us. Bradley can’t look after us. Bradley can hardly look after himself… I had no idea in the world that Tilden would be so much trouble. Who would have dreamed? Tilden was an All-American, don’t forget. Don’t forget that. Fullback. Or quarterback. I forget which.

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Dodge, Tilden, Bradley
Page Number: 25-26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Halie moves between her nostalgic fantasies and her recognition of the decaying state of their family life. While she recognizes that her two sons are unable to take care of her and Dodge, it is absurd for her to insist that she and Dodge "have to stay healthy" and take care of Tilden, as Dodge is clearly near death and is incapable of taking care of his son. 

This also provides a classic example of Halie's nostalgia for a time in which she seems to believe her family embodied the American Dream, and her confusion over why the family has not turned out the way the American Dream promised. Halie can't understand why Tilden, since he used to be a star fullback, is now helpless and "so much trouble." This seems steeped in denial, since she and Tilden had an incestuous relationship that produced a child that Dodge murdered; any one of those factors could have deeply affected Tilden's adult life. In addition, the fact that Halie gives this speech in full earshot of Tilden shows the bizarre cruelty of the family, as Halie does not even attempt to spare Tilden his dignity by giving such a negative assessment of his potential in private. 

Dodge: You’re a grown man. You shouldn’t be needing your parents at your age. It’s unnatural. Couldn’t make a living down there? Couldn’t find some way to make a living? Support yourself? What’d’ya come back here for? You expect us to feed you forever?

Tilden: I didn’t know where else to go.

Dodge: I never went back to my parents. Never. Never even had the urge. I was always independent. Always found a way.

Tilden: I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t figure anything out.

Dodge: There’s nothing to figure out. You just forge ahead. What’s there to figure out?

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Tilden (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most clear illustrations of Shepard's cynicism about the feasibility of the American Dream. While Dodge is clearly beholden to the American Dream logic that his son, as an adult, should strike out on his own and be able to succeed without help from his family, Tilden has failed at this task. The fact that each of the family's sons has been unable to be independent (Bradley is disabled, Ansel is dead, and Tilden is mentally ill) shows the power of the family in always bringing the children back to their house and their chaos, and it also shows the gap between American expectations and the reality of American lives. In addition, this exchange shows the cruelty and delusion of the family. That Dodge can ridicule Tilden for failing in his adult life without feeling guilt or remorse for Dodge's own role in ruining Tilden's life (murdering his baby and causing him to flee home) shows the deep dysfunction of the family.  

Act 2 Quotes

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

…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.

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Tilden Character Timeline in Buried Child

The timeline below shows where the character Tilden appears in Buried Child. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
...cut Dodge’s hair. Dodge adamantly refuses to let Bradley cut his hair. Halie says that Tilden, their eldest son, is in the kitchen, and suggests that he might protect Dodge—an idea... (full context)
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Tilden, a “profoundly burned out and displaced” man in his forties, enters, wet with rain 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
Dodge commands Tilden to return the corn to where he found out, but instead Tilden dumps the ears... (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 returns with a chair and pail and begins to husk the corn. Dodge asks Tilden... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
From upstairs, Halie calls out to Dodge that Tilden should not be drinking anything. Unaware that Tilden can hear, Halie enters into a long... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Halie goes on to admit that once Tilden and Bradley exposed themselves as failures, she placed her hopes in her youngest son, Ansel.... (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
...reverie, and angrily notices the husks on the floor of the living room. Halie asks Tilden where the corn has come from, claiming that she can see fields from her bedroom... (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
Dodge reprimands Halie for upsetting Tilden, but Halie warns the men that they’d better clean up the mess before Bradley comes... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Tilden scolds Dodge for his comments about the back yard, but Dodge refuses to apologize or... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
As Tilden begins to head out back again—against Halie and Dodge’s wishes—Dodge has another violent coughing fit.... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
Dodge falls asleep. Tilden steals Dodge’s hidden whiskey, and then covers the sleeping Dodge with the corn husks and... (full context)
Act 2
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...Dodge is asleep on 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... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...Dodge responds by saying that she won’t be back for days. Dodge also reveals that Tilden is here at the farmhouse, rather than in New Mexico like Vince thought. Spooked, Shelly... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
...more frightened, begging Vince to leave, but he forces her to stay. Dodge calls for Tilden, who then enters with an armful of carrots, apparently from out back. (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... (full context)
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
Rituals Theme Icon
...Vince grows even more confused by the situation, Shelly offers to take the carrots from Tilden and begins to help peel them. Dodge asks Vince to get him a new bottle... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
While Vince makes various attempts to remind Dodge and Tilden of who he is, Dodge begs for alcohol and lasciviously comments on Shelly’s beauty. Vince... (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 familiar about... (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... (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,... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...who she is and what she’s doing in the house. Bradley takes the coat from Tilden and tells Shelly that she should take Tilden away with her. He says that Tilden... (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.” Intimidated, Tilden bolts off. (full context)
Act 3
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family and Its Demise Theme Icon
Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon
...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,... (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
...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... (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
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... (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
Religion 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,... (full context)