Buried Child Summary

Sam Shepard

Buried Child

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Buried Child Summary

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“Buried Child” takes place during an economic recession in 1970s America. The play is set on a farm in Illinois, and centers around Halie and Dodge, a middle-class agricultural couple enduring poverty along with their two children, Tilden and Bradley (an amputee). It practically rains through the entire play, which is symbolic of how helpless Americans felt during this murky time in American history. Likewise, as the familiar adage states, “when it rains, it pours,” suggesting problems compounded by more problems. In this sense, the rain is also symbolic of the family’s deeper issues that are soon to come to the surface of the narrative.

The couple argues with one another from their respective rooms. Halie indicates that both Tilden and Bradley will look after Dodge in her absence, as she is going to lunch with Father Dewis. Tilden then enters Dodge’s room with corn. Tilden says he has picked the corn from the field behind the house, but Dodge suspects his son of stealing the corn. From her room, Halie laments her two sons, and the reader also learns that their younger son, Ansel, has died. An odd reference is also made by Dodge to a buried child out in the yard. This takes place in defense of Tilden, after Halie sees the corn and also begins to accuse Tilden of theft. Eventually, Halie leaves in funeral clothing to see Father Dewis. Bradley arrives and shaves Dodge’s head as he sleeps.

Later, Tilden’s estranged son, Vince, arrives with his girlfriend, Sally. Tilden enters the house with carrots, and neither Tilden nor Dodge recognize Vince, angering him further. Vince eventually leaves to procure alcohol for Dodge, leaving Sally alone with the family. As Sally pesters Tilden about recognizing Vince, she learns that Tilden did have a son—the child buried out in the yard. Dodge tries to stop Tilden from speaking, but falls to the floor. Bradley then enters and interrogates Sally, even placing his hands in her mouth. Tilden flees, leaving the frightened Sally in the house.

Dodge later tells Sally that she can best Bradley by simply throwing his wooden leg away. Halie later returns with Father Dewis, whom she has been flirting with, and is now in a yellow dress with yellow flowers. Sally tells the family that she had been looking forward to meeting them, but finds them troubling, and berates them for harboring such a revolting secret. Dodge eventually confesses, despite the family’s protestations, that Tilden’s child is indeed buried in the yard. Supposedly, the child was born of incest between Halie and Tilden. Dodge drowned the child and buried it in the yard.

Vince eventually returns home drunk and, finally, both Dodge and Halie recognize their grandson. Dodge then bequeaths the house to Vince. Vince throws Bradley’s wooden leg out of the house and kicks Father Dewis out, while Sally in turn leaves Vince. Vince then notices that Dodge has died, and covers him with a blanket. Tilden then enters the house with the buried child’s body, and as he walks up the stairs to where Halie is, she can be heard commenting on a field of vegetables behind the house.

As the play takes place during an economic recession, there are a number of relevant themes addressed. Hope, sustenance, community, and family are all thematic elements in the play. Likewise, vices are thematic. The myriad themes are indicative of the issues many people faced during this troubling time. Therefore, though the two major themes of infanticide and incest plague Halie, Dodge and their family, and are viewed negatively in and of themselves, the themes are symbolic of larger societal issues.

During the 1970s recession, America feared that its moral and political standing—its place as a world leader—would be forever destroyed in the eyes of the world. Its vices, therefore, are portrayed in the themes of infanticide and incest, which are looked down upon by Sally, who represents the “outside” world. These vices also prevent the family from seeing the bounty that is right in front of their eyes the entire time, as they are too focused on vice and not virtue.

Tellingly, it is not until Tilden digs up his murdered child and brings it inside, thus acknowledging the awful truth, that a change can be seen in the play. Upstairs, Halie sees a field with vegetables in the back of the house. At the beginning of the play, this seemed impossible. Dodge actually doubts Tilden’s honesty early on when he enters the house with fresh corn from this supposed field. Halie’s vision is symbolic of America’s own vision of a brighter future after the airing of vices, after “fixing” its mistakes and moving forward. Whether the vision is real or imaginary is also important here. If imaginary, it showcases the spirit of hope and perseverance still alive amidst the muck of poverty. If a real image, the field of vegetables highlights a turning point in history, a telling image of America’s prosperity and bounty returning.