Buried Child

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Failure and the American Dream Theme Analysis

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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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Failure and the American Dream Theme Icon

Each of the members of the family in Buried Child is in some way a representation of a failed attempt at achieving different parts of the “American Dream”—prosperity, freedom, family, and happiness, usually represented by owning one’s home and raising a family. Dodge was once a prosperous farmer but his farm is now in utter disrepair, and according to him has not produced anything in years. Now basically immobile from illness, alcoholism, and old age, he lives in bitterness, entirely subject to the whims of others. Further, his act of murdering the incestuous baby of Tilden and Halie is what led to the failure of his family: his morality as father figure did not support his family, and instead it was so harsh that it destroyed it.

Halie sought the American dream in her family and its continuation, yet an intense admiration for her football-playing son, Tilden, led to a sexually inappropriate relationship with him. Now, the repercussions of that act have resulted in her family falling apart: two of her children are alive but burned out, and at least one more is dead. She experiences extreme discontentment in her marriage, and to escape uses a mixture of hypocritical religiousness and promiscuity, as well as a nostalgia so great it might be better described as fantasy.

Tilden had at one time left the farm for New Mexico, presumably in search of some kind of autonomy after the murder of his incestuous child, but has returned under hazy but nefarious circumstances. He is seemingly mentally disturbed and is treated like a child. Tilden’s choice to leave the farm and his mandated return to it represent a failure to go out and secure his own prosperity and freedom. Likewise Bradley, the middle son, would perhaps have been capable of taking over and operating the farm, but he lost a leg, and because of this, is unable to assume the leadership role he desires. His physical impairment makes it difficult for him to live autonomously and happily, and he takes his bitterness out on his family.

At the outset, Vince seems to be the character most likely to break out of the pattern of failure and stagnation in his family. Vince is an artist with a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend, and he has left rural Illinois to pursue a music career. The story of his escape from Illinois to the city to pursue his dream of playing saxophone in many ways embodies the modern American dream. Yet he returns to visit his family and tries to connect to his past—and though what he finds is horrific, he cannot escape its pull. At the end of the play, even though Vince will presumably assume the leadership role at the farm—another embodiment of the American Dream—he has also given up his relationship with his girlfriend Shelly, his own personal dreams, and perhaps even his sanity.

Though the play focuses directly on this single family and makes no wider claims, there is a sense that through the play Shepard may be portraying these failures to warn his audience against buying into the cultural ideal of the American Dream at all. The play seems to suggest that it’s not simply that these characters failed to achieve the American Dream, but rather that the dream itself is false and unobtainable—or at least it’s never as ideal as it seems from the outside.

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Failure and the American Dream ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Failure and the American Dream appears in each act of Buried Child. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Failure and the American Dream Quotes in Buried Child

Below you will find the important quotes in Buried Child related to the theme of Failure and the American Dream.
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. 

I put all my hopes in Ansel… Course then when Ansel died and left us all alone. Same as being alone. No different. Same as if they’d all died… He was a hero. Don’t forget that. Brave. Strong…

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Ansel
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes during a bizarre monologue of Halie's in which she progressively inflates her opinion of her dead son Ansel, showing the audience her delusions in action. She begins the monologue seemingly uncertain as to Ansel's place in her estimation ("Ansel wasn't as handsome, but he was smart. He was the smartest probably. I think he probably was."), but by the end of the monologue she has convinced herself that Ansel was the greatest person in the family, and deserves to be commemorated with a full statue in town. 

This is a clear example of Halie's unwillingness to be honest with herself about the family's problems, constantly blaming others for her own difficulties. Here, she blames Ansel's death for the demise of the family, suggesting that her other sons meant nothing to her after Ansel was gone, a deeply cruel statement coming from their mother. This monologue also shows how the past in this play acts as both scapegoat and irritant. Because the bad events from the family's past are never openly spoken about, nobody is held accountable to the truth of the past. Halie is free to revise her family's history as she sees fit, allowing her to evade responsibility for her faults. This slippery presence of the past also allows family members to cruelly torment each other by referencing events without conscientiously diving into them.

Things keep happening while you’re upstairs, ya know. The world doesn’t stop just because you’re upstairs. Corn keeps growing. Rain keeps raining.

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Halie
Related Symbols: Rain, Vegetables
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

This complex statement, which comes in a conversation about whether or not there is corn growing in the backyard, gives the audience a sense of the contested reality the family is living in. Tilden, the family member most haunted by their secret, has always been able to see the corn growing in the back yard, and he continues to bring it inside throughout the play. Dodge has previously said to Tilden that there is no corn outside, but here, speaking to Halie, he claims that there is. Halie claims that she can see the backyard from upstairs and there is no corn. Symbolically, this has to do with each family member's willingness to admit to the existence of the murdered child. Halie is in complete denial, while Dodge is willing to reference the child at times when it is convenient for him (in other words, in order to taunt or gain power over other family members) but not at other times, so it makes sense that his statements about the corn are contradictory. Tilden, who makes the family aware of the corn in the first place, is the character for whom it seems most crucial to bring the secret out in the open, and he is the one who, at the end, literally exhumes the body. The imagery of the corn growing and the rain coming down also relates to the process of bringing forward the family secret. The rain and the corn give a sense of possibility for the family, of potential cleansing and renewal if everyone can acknowledge the truth of what happened.

Halie: I don’t know what’s come over you, Dodge. I don’t know what in the world’s come over you. You’ve become an evil man. You used to be a good man.

Dodge: Six of one, half a dozen of another.

Halie: You sit here day and night, festering away! Decomposing! Smelling up the house with your putrid body! Hacking your head off till all hours of the morning! Thinking up mean, evil, stupid things to say about your own flesh and blood!

Dodge: He’s not my flesh and blood! My flesh and blood’s buried in the back yard!

The Baby

Related Characters: Dodge (speaker), Halie (speaker), Bradley
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

If it isn't clear to the audience yet that something very bad has happened in this family, it should be now. This revelation comes at the end of an argument in which Dodge insulted Bradley, and instead of defending Bradley's worth or character, Halie resorts to berating Dodge for his willingness to insult their son. This argument is another example of the family's cruelty to one another and their constant leveraging of the past in order to gain power. Though it is not entirely clear why Dodge brings up the buried child, it seems that he understands that bringing it up would abruptly end the argument, since Halie, who lives in a nostalgic world of denial and fantasy, cannot address the reality of the dead child. This clearly shows how Dodge only acknowledges the child out of convenience, while Halie cannot acknowledge it at all. 

Dodge's statement about the child is complex, as it seems to imply that the child was his, though we learn later that it was Tilden's. Since Dodge's statement about the child comes after his disavowal of the familial tie between himself and Bradley, the statement can be read more broadly as an admission that the family ("flesh and blood") was ruined as a result of the murder of the child. 

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

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. 

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.

Halie: Ansel’s getting a statue, Dodge. Did you know that? Not a plaque but a real live statue. A full bronze. Tip to toe. A basketball in one hand and a rifle in the other.

Bradley: He never played basketball!

Halie: You shut up, Bradley! You shut up about Ansel! Ansel played basketball better than anyone! And you know it! He was an All American! There’s no reason to take the glory away from others.

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Bradley (speaker), Dodge, Ansel
Page Number: 97-98
Explanation and Analysis:

This moment showcases the grandiosity and absurdity of Halie's delusions. She has convinced the hypocritical Father Dewis to erect a statue of her son Ansel, whom she remembers (it seems dubiously) as a sports hero. While many questions have been raised as to the quality of Halie's memory, this exchange shows, perhaps most clearly, the extent to which she feels she needs to rewrite the past. Halie is not simply satisfied with her saccharine and manipulated narratives of the family's past—she also feels the need to also have others recognize her delusions by casting them in bronze. When Bradley attempts to fact-check Halie, she lashes out at him, refusing to admit to her own falsehoods and accusing Bradley instead of trying to "take the glory away" from Ansel. This shows how heavily the past weighs on these characters, as well as the cruelties they are willing to propagate in the present in order to protect a past that is traumatic and dubiously remembered.

We can’t not believe in something. We can’t stop believing. We just end up dying if we stop. Just end up dead.

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Dodge, Father Dewis
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

This statement is, in a somewhat twisted way, Halie's attempt at justifying her consuming nostalgia and her revisionist memories. She refers to Dodge as somebody who is dead because he stopped believing in anything. Though Dodge is not wholly honest about the family's past, he is certainly more up front than Halie about his children's failures and about the existence of the buried child. In this way, Halie is indicating that Dodge, by refusing to believe her manipulated narratives about family and their past, has stopped believing in anything, and she implies that perhaps she finds her life force and happiness from her delusions. This is somewhat heartbreaking, as Halie may gain a sense of haughtiness from her bizarre sense of the family's past, but she does not seem to find happiness and compassion in it; she is clearly as petty and cruel as any other character in the play. It is also important that this statement is framed in the context of religion. In a religious context, finding something to believe in or something to give life a purpose generally comes with a practice of humility, truth-seeking, and kindness. For Halie, though, the thing she believes in actually makes her more isolated and cruel than she likely would have been if she were willing to face the truth. This shows Halie's perverse sense of religion and the kinds of rituals that give life meaning.

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.

Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest takes care of itself. You can’t force a thing to grow. You can’t interfere with it. It’s all hidden. It’s all unseen. You just gotta wait til it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to break the earth even. It’s a miracle, Dodge. I’ve never seen a crop like this in my whole life. Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the sun.

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Dodge
Related Symbols: Rain, Vegetables
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the passage that concludes the play, and, for a work of such dark and fatalistic themes, it is a surprisingly optimistic conclusion. By this point the family secret is out in the open (partially marked by each family member's sudden ability to see the vegetables growing in the backyard). As Halie speaks this monologue, Tilden comes onstage carrying the bones of the buried child, which he has apparently dug up from the yard. Though it is grotesque imagery, the return of the body to the house symbolizes a restoration of honesty for the family, and the end of a secret that has created torment and suffering for a long time. That Halie, the character most wedded to the family's illusions about itself, gives this optimistic monologue about life and rebirth suggests to the audience that the family is benefiting from having finally dealt with the trauma of their past. 

Throughout the play the vegetables growing in the yard have represented the family's secrets, and the rain has represented the relentless pressure to bring the secrets into the open. With the sun shining and the family realizing that the yard is fertile once again, the audience is left to conclude that some real progress has been made.