Buried Child

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The Presence of the Past 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.
The Presence of the Past Theme Icon

The family’s history weighs on the present world of the play like a curse. The characters in Buried Child constantly reminisce about the past and provide differing accounts of past events, as they seemingly revise their histories in order to cope with the present bleakness that they live in.

From the outset the audience is trained to think twice before believing any of the characters’ stories. In the first moments of the play, Halie recounts a memory of going to a horse race that Dodge maintains is false. Throughout the play, Halie then tells stories about her deceased youngest son Ansel, the details of which other characters often correct. Despite the fact that these stories about Ansel may be fictional, Halie seems to believe them (or at least and want to believe them), and thus they serve as examples of how present circumstances can invite a person to revise their own personal history.

Tilden has returned home to escape his murky criminal past in New Mexico, but is confronted by the arrival of his estranged son, Vince. For the most part, Tilden chooses to ignore this part of his past, barely speaking to Vince at all. By the same token, Vince has taken this trip with his girlfriend to find his father and confront his past. What he ends up encountering is a family who has completely revised him out of their collective history. The only time that he is remembered is after he reappears towards the end of the play, drunk and unintelligible. Halie then offers a possibly revisionist memory of him as a sweet, unassuming little boy, much like her memories of her son Ansel. And when Vince himself tries to leave the family, he has a vision of his ancestors and his own self dissolving away that brings him back: he comes to believe that he can’t exist without his connection to that past.

The shadowy past of the family, always present in the play, is not proven until the final moments, when Tilden brings the corpse of the buried child inside. By this point Dodge has already admitted to the murder, but we are unsure about what to believe, because all of the characters have been somewhat unreliable thus far. The gesture of the child being brought inside then seems to lift the curse of the past (as vegetables suddenly start growing on the farm) and brings the family’s secret into the open. This moment, which ends the play, represents the past being unearthed and confronted. This offers a possibility of the family’s sins being absolved, and the only hope for renewal in an otherwise entirely grim story.

The Presence of the Past ThemeTracker

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

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

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. 


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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.

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.

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

…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.

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.

…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.