Buried Child

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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.
Rituals Theme Icon

Shepard plays with two ancient opposing rituals in Buried Child: harvest and burial. In the play, these rituals reflect changes in power dynamics between the characters, and foreshadow the instances of death and the possibilities for rebirth. Buried Child takes place over the course of a rainy day and into the next sunny morning. As the play progresses and new information about the family comes to light, the torrential rain can be seen as an almost Biblical washing away of the family’s sinful past.

During the first and second acts, Tilden brings into the house freshly picked corn and carrots that he says are growing out back, even though Dodge insists that nothing has grown there in years. This is representative of “harvest,” which is traditionally seen as a time of renewal (plants dying in order to provide new life through seeds and food). Tilden’s harvest and the rain that seems to cause it can be seen as the undercurrent of change for the family’s bizarre renewal that becomes the play’s climactic event.

The ritual of burial is another crucial part of the play—it’s even in the title. As power shifts between the men in the house, each of them is somehow symbolically “buried” to signify the death of their control. In the first act, after Tilden husks the corn he has found, he spreads the husks over Dodge’s sleeping body. This symbolic burial demonstrates that although still alive, Dodge has no control or power in the family anymore. Later on, Bradley buries Dodge in Shelly’s coat. By doing this, he exerts his dominance over Shelly by taking her protective outer layer, and over Dodge by burying him in the coat. Then, when Bradley’s prosthetic leg is taken from him and he loses all of his power, he buries himself in this same coat.

When Dodge does finally die, this burial ritual is repeated again when Vince, who now assumes the leadership role in the family, covers him in his blanket. With Dodge’s death, more harvest occurs. Halie finally notices that the fields behind the house are full of vegetables, while at the same time Tilden unearths the corpse of the buried child and brings it upstairs to Halie. As the family’s secret is quite literally brought out into the open, the crops grow for the first time in decades, allowing for the possibility of a hopeful future.

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Rituals ThemeTracker

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

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

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.


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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. 

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.

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.

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.