Buried Child

Buried Child Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What do the vegetables symbolize?

    Throughout the play, the eldest son, Tilden, keeps bringing in an abundance of vegetables, a surreal offering from a backyard that Dodge and Halie insist hasn't yielded a crop since 1935. The vegetables are a symbol of the faded glory of the farm, which was once a successful operation back in simpler times. All of a sudden, in the midst of an economic depression, the backyard is miraculously yielding crops again. Thus, the vegetables symbolize a sudden return to the glory of the past, an image of American agricultural abundance.

    The symbol of the vegetables also coincides with the image of the buried child. Throughout, Tilden pulls up vegetables that have come out of the ground, and at the end, he pulls up the corpse of the baby that Dodge killed. In this sense, the vegetables represent the fact that there is a dark shadow to the abundance of the farm, a dirty family secret that threatens to ruin them all.

  2. 2

    Explain the ending of the first act.

    At the end of the first act, Dodge falls asleep in his chair and Tilden covers him before exiting the stage. While Dodge is still asleep, Bradley comes in and shaves his father’s head. His haircutting is so basic that Dodge’s scalp is bleeding afterwards, but he is not woken up by the violent treatment. The scene is meant to represent the fact that Dodge has no power in his family anymore. Thus, by having his hair cut, Dodge is stripped of the power he once had as a head of the family.

  3. 3

    Why did Dodge kill the baby?

    From the beginning, Dodge talks about the dead baby in the backyard. In the first act, the circumstances under which the baby died are not divulged, but in the second act, Tilden tells Shelly that Dodge killed the baby by drowning it. In the third act, Dodge implies that the reason why he killed the baby was because it was the result of a relationship between Halie and Tilden. Despite this, he still claims the buried child is his only true child. One of the possible reasons why Dodge may claim this is because he was disappointed by his natural children, and he has been so far pushed outside the realm of reality that he imagines the baby he killed as the only child over which he could exercise any control.

  4. 4

    Is the play an example of realism? Why or why not?

    Many people point to Shepard's later work, marked by the premiere of Buried Child, as his turn towards realism. If one looks at his earlier plays, they are certainly more explicitly absurdist, incorporating surreal and outrageous elements that separate them from any kind of semblance of reality. Buried Child, on the surface, fits into the genre of realism. It takes place in real time, over the course of one afternoon into the next morning. The characters all represent real individuals, none of them explicitly being labeled as symbolic or archetypal. Additionally, the language and basic plasticity of the play—family members talking in a living room—would suggest that the play is, by all accounts, "realistic." However, there are subtle signals that suggest that the play is not a strictly realist play. For example, characters have unexplained and uncanny lapses in memory that cannot be simply accounted for through realistic justification. Dodge and Halie's disregard for Vince and Shelly could be chocked up to senility or degenerative cognition, but there seems to be something more mysterious at play, which is only confirmed when Tilden also does not recognize Vince. Furthermore, Vince and Shelly are on their way to see Tilden in New Mexico, but he just happens to be in Illinois when they drop by. Characters have strange, fluctuating familiarities and joint hallucinations that suggest that the "reality" of the stage world is not simply a representation of life as the audience knows it, but something more poetic and enigmatic.

  5. 5

    What is Shelly's trajectory in the play?

    Shelly is the only character who is not a member of the family, besides Father Dewis. She is Vince's girlfriend who enters the family home skeptically, laughing hysterically about its American folksiness and similarities to a Norman Rockwell painting. She assumes an ironic detachment as she enters the world of the family, but promptly becomes spooked by its faded interior, and the fact that neither Dodge nor Tilden can remember who Vince is. She wants desperately to leave, yet soon enough feels called to stay, chopping carrots for Tilden and even sleeping in the upstairs bedroom, when Vince doesn't return promptly from the liquor store. In many ways, she integrates more easily into the strange logic of the house, and gets the story of the buried child out of both Tilden and Dodge, much to her regret. She leaves when Vince returns home drunk, suggesting that he feels pulled to stay in the home. Having seen its dark underbelly and suffered the abuse of Bradley, Shelly is ready to leave, as quickly as she arrived.