Buried Child

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Religion Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Buried Child, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion Theme Icon

Shepard only portrays religion in a negative light in the play, but the kind of religiosity the characters illustrate is more about hypocrisy and self-righteousness than genuine belief. This kind of shallow religion is then presented as an entirely inadequate coping strategy for dealing with the grief and shame that befalls the family. During the last day of his life, Dodge slowly begins to give up on suppressing the guilt he feels for his sinful past, but Halie, who will live on, clings tightly to the idea of religion, even if her behavior does not demonstrate its values. From the outset, Halie concerns herself with what is and isn’t “Christian” behavior (as a method of judging others), but at the same time she subtly references her own incestuous and adulterous behavior, and she obviously states her hatred of Catholics and the contempt she feels for her husband.

When we finally come face to face with Father Dewis, Halie’s religious mentor and the play’s embodiment of religion, we find an ineffectual and sinful man. He drinks and carries on an affair with Halie in front of her dying husband. After Dodge admits to the murder of the baby, Dewis joins Halie upstairs in her bedroom, but quickly returns downstairs and says that he “can’t help her.” In addition to demonstrating religion’s seductive power over the vulnerable, this moment encapsulates Shepard’s take on religion. When we pervert and manipulate the institution of religion for our own purposes, it may be useful for justifying our actions and soothing our consciences, but it is wholly inadequate to help in dealing with trauma.

Religion ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Buried Child related to the theme of Religion.
Act 1 Quotes

“You should take a pill for that! I don’t see why you just don’t take a pill! Be done with it once and for all. Put a stop to it. It’s not Christian but it works. It’s not necessarily Christian, that is. We don’t know. There’s some things the ministers can’t even answer. I, personally, can’t see anything wrong with it. Pain is pain. Pure and simple. Suffering is a different matter. That’s entirely different. A pill seems as good an answer as any.”

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Dodge
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation introduces us to the hypocritically religious side of Halie's character. While she invokes religion with reasonable frequency, muddled statements like this one ("It's not necessarily Christian, that is. We don't know. There's some things ministers can't even answer.") indicate that she calls on religion when it is convenient, abandons it when it isn't, and is generally casual about its teachings. 

This is also an interesting quotation because she distinguishes here between pain and suffering. Halie believes that it is appropriate to take a pill to cure the physical pain of Dodge's cough, but she indicates that it would not be appropriate to take a pill to cure suffering, that suffering has some kind of importance that shouldn't be erased. Indeed, throughout the play we see each family member encased in his or her own suffering, and, though they are all family, nobody seems to be trying to ease anyone else's suffering. Halie's statement proves prophetic, in a sense, because the family's suffering cannot be eased until it reaches an aggravated fever pitch and the family secret is revealed. 


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He was blind with love. Blind. I knew. Everyone knew. The wedding was more like a funeral. You remember? All those Italians. All that horrible black, greasy hair. The rancid smell of cheap cologne. I think even the priest was wearing a pistol. When he gave her the ring I knew he was a dead man. I knew it. As soon as he gave her the ring. But then it was the honeymoon that killed him. The honeymoon. I knew he'd never come back from the honeymoon.

Related Characters: Halie (speaker), Ansel
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

This statement, referring to Ansel's wedding day, is the first indication that Halie may have had an incestuous relationship with her sons. The revelation, which comes about as Halie expresses bizarre and possessive feelings towards her son and an obsessive focus on his honeymoon, shows another layer of deep dysfunction within the family, and indicates the power and violence of the family bond. This is one iteration of the theme that returns again and again in the play—the idea that no family member can ever escape the family.

This revelation is particularly disturbing, since it comes in a monologue that is full of hatred for Catholics, blaming Ansel's death on his Catholic wife, whom Halie describes as "the devil incarnate." Halie is the character in the play for whom religion is most important, but her blanket hatred of Catholics shows how dogmatic and perverse her sense of religion really is. It also shows how deep her sins are and how shallow her empathy is, as her feelings toward Ansel's marriage are only ones of violent jealousy, and never happiness for her son.

Act 3 Quotes

Well, prayerfully, God only hears what he wants to. That’s just between you and me of course. In our heart of hearts we know we’re every bit as wicked as the Catholics.

Related Characters: Father Dewis (speaker), Halie
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Father Dewis comes into the house with Halie, clearly drunk in the middle of the day after having committed adultery with her. He then proceeds to say that he is not worried about being punished because "God only hears what he wants to," a statement that undermines the very foundation of the faith that Father Dewis claims to represent. This quotation hearkens back to Halie's statement about how Dodge could take the pain pills even though they might not be Christian, because there are things that even ministers can't answer (there is little question now as to why she might think this, or why she might have such a casual attitude towards her faith). The statement also reminds us of Halie's prejudiced rant against Catholics when she blames them for Ansel's death. Father Dewis, it seems, has unintentionally pointed out Halie's hypocrisy by admitting that they are "every bit as wicked as the Catholics." There is not a single character in the story that displays genuine faith, and because of that, religion, like the American Dream, is presented as something hollow, a pretense that characters maintain because it is socially acceptable. 

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.

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.