How does Sam Shepard use postmodernism in Buried Child?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A significant aspect of Postmodernism is to offer a critique of the traditional meta- narrative structures.  Shepard's play uses this in several ways.  One way in which Postmodernism is used is in the setting. The traditional landscape of the rural and pastoral condition is critiqued by showing a decaying farm where nothing grows.  The idea that the land is barren is a Postmodern critique regarding the rural setting, one that traditionally has been seen as enriching and fulfilling.

The Postmodern focus is evident within the characterizations that Shepard offers as well.  The family life that Dodge and Hallie have created is far from the generational embrace of traditional roles and reverential positions. It is the embodiment of dysfunction.  In this setting, human emotion is not restorative, but reflective of bitterness and lost opportunity.  Shepard's treatment of Dodge is Postmodern, critiquing the idea of the patriarch who guides his family with the utmost of emotional sincerity:  ‘‘You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring?...You never seen a bitch eat her puppies?’’  Dodge's characterization is a Postmodern rebuke of the family structure where the father embraces all and embodies a sense of unconditional love and hope.  

Shepard does not spare the matriarch, either, from his Postmodern critique. When Halie recalls, or fails to recall, her son's past, a Postmodern criticism is offered suggesting that a mother's love might not be transcendent:  "I had no idea in the world that Tilden would be so much trouble.  Who would’ve dreamed.  Tilden was an All American, don’t forget.  Don’t forget that.  Fullback.  Or quarterback.  I forget which."  Halie cannot recall her son's accomplishments.  They have fallen by the wayside as a result of memory, reflective of the Postmodern idea that nothing in human construction is absolute and totalizing.  The implied incestuous relationship between mother and son only adds to the Postmodern element in the drama's emotional dynamics.  Shepard uses Postmodernism as a means to accentuate the frailties of human connection and indicts the transcendent condition of the American Dream.  This metanarrative that guides what American families should be is challenged through the Postmodern lens that Shepard takes to it.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • Pastiche—Shepherd imitates and refers to a number of previous dramatic works. He take fragments of past myths and stories, plays, and elements of pop culture to create a suitably postmodern ironic pastiche. Indeed, it could be reasonably inferred that the entire play is an extended pastiche of Southern gothic, with its blurring of identities, confused chronology, and the breakdown of traditional order.
  • Fragmentation of language—In the postmodern condition, as identified by Baudrillard and others, there is no longer any shared meaning in society. Meaning, and the language by which it is conveyed, has been fragmented and radically decentered, and it now constantly shifts. To make up for the loss of meaning, we talk for the sake of talking, to have something with which to fill the gaping void of communicative possibilities in the postmodern world. Tilden, for example, cannot really give a satisfactory reason for why he has returned: "I was alone. I thought I was dead." Tilden, like the postmodern condition itself, is aimless and drifting.
  • No grand narratives—In true postmodern fashion, there is no one overarching narrative that gives meaning to the events of Buried Child. The time-honored narratives of family and religion no longer have the power or the authority to guide and compel. The characters in the play behave amorally, but it is important that Father Dewis, supposedly a man of God, is the most amoral of them all. He is a drunken, lecherous old man. The undermining of the family and its previously unchallenged authority as the transmitter of moral values has led to a situation whereby Tilden is literally at home without being at home—in the existential sense of the word. Without meta-narratives to guide, comfort and control, he is truly lost in a confusing world of numerous little narratives and their radically peripheral meanings.
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Buried Child

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