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.
Failure and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Failure and the American Dream Quotes in Buried Child
Halie’s Voice: Tilden’s the oldest. He’ll protect you.
Dodge: Tilden can’t even protect himself.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
We can’t not believe in something. We can’t stop believing. We just end up dying if we stop. Just end up dead.
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.
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.