Buried Child


Sam Shepard

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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.

Related Themes from Other Texts
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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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:
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:

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:

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:

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:
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:

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:

…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:

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: