Themes and Meanings
Buried Child explores three generations of a grotesque and exaggerated, but also representative, American family. Beneath the elements of gothic horror—Dodge’s infanticide and the suggested incest between Tilden and Halie—lies an exploration of archetypal family conflicts. At the realistic level, the plot is a story about the passing of the family farm, once barren but perhaps now revitalized, from the older to the younger generation. At the mythic level, the subject is the inheritance of an emotional sterility which has crippled the younger generation but which they can recognize, unearth, and transcend. The constant bickering over small things among the family members which helps them avoid their larger fears and concerns, the failures of recognition and communication, Halie’s infidelity and Dodge’s drinking have all contributed to the disintegration of the family both as a unit and as individuals. Shepard criticizes this disintegration, but also recognizes the inevitability of conflict. Bradley symbolically dominates his father by cutting his hair, but then Vince displaces both Bradley and Dodge as he throws away Bradley’s leg and takes Dodge’s place on the couch after Dodge has willed him the house, land, and tools. Each generation can progress only through such a displacement of the preceding one, and the losses in the play are similarly inevitable. Dodge loses a son, as does Tilden, and Vince loses Shelly as he comes into his inheritance.
That there is somehow progress despite such losses is suggested by the play’s ending, which emphasizes fertility and the growth of crops even as Dodge lies dead on the stage. The language of the closing suggests, with its allusion to a miracle and the play on “sun” and “son” echoing the imagery of Christian resurrection myth, that a symbolic renewal has taken or is about to take place even as Tilden brings the buried child out of his grave. His two earlier entrances were with armloads of fresh crops, and the parallel implies that the third entrance also somehow represents fertility rather than death alone. As horrible as the past has been, the dead son it has denied and hidden has been brought to light and faced during the course of the play, and the new generation, represented by the living son, Vince, has taken the place of the old generation. The buried child may be the source of a family curse that had even begun to infect Vince, and its removal may signal the curse’s end and an expiation of the sins of the previous generation. The coming fertility, however, is only suggested, not guaranteed, and when Vince assumes the exact posture of Dodge and Shelly decides to escape, they imply that any optimism at the ending must be cautious.
In literature, as in life, the American Dream contains elements of adventure on the open road, the exploration of far frontiers, and family and financial success. These ideas permeate nearly all of Shepard's plays and are used effectively as a criticism of contemporary American society in Buried Child. In this dark vision of the American Midwest, Shepard presents the disintegration of the American family and suggests that, as a culture, Americans have an embarrassment of riches and a paucity of spirituality and morality. For most of the play, his view of America in the late-twentieth century is one of selfish, brutal, and hypocritical tyrant wannabes who care little for one another and are mainly interested in physical pleasures and power over others.
Dodge, the father and grandfather of the household, talks about things that American patriarchs are supposed to talk about—family, the farm, even baseball. But he is not the loving, nurturing father who knows best. ‘‘You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring?’’ he growls. ‘‘You never seen a bitch eat her puppies?’’ His wife, Halie, is certainly no better. Though she feigns religious piety and pines for the days of traditional...
(The entire section is 1,354 words.)