Buried Child

by

Sam Shepard

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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.

Family and Its Demise

At its core, Buried Child tells the story of the breakdown of a traditional, twentieth-century family unit. During the play, Shelly, the girlfriend of one of the characters and therefore an outsider to the family, compares the family farmhouse to a Norman Rockwell painting. Her first impression, then, is of a perfect, idyllic family living a perfect life. But Shepard’s goal in establishing such a “picture-perfect” family is to immediately and obviously subvert it…

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Failure and the American Dream

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…

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The Presence of the Past

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…

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Rituals

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…

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Religion

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…

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