Buried Child

Buried Child Summary and Analysis of Part 4


Shelly asks Tilden if he drives anymore, and he tells her that he stopped driving since he stopped being a kid and became an adult. She is confused by this logic, but he suggests that he cannot have adventures in the same way he used to. "If I told you something you wouldn't understand it...told you something that's true...Like a baby. Like a tiny little baby," he says to her. Shelly insists that she can handle it.

Tilden calmly tells Shelly that Dodge had a tiny baby that one could pick up with one hand, and he killed it by drowning it and buried it in the backyard. Shelly stands, but he tells her to stay seated. As Dodge stands to stop Tilden, he falls on the ground and begins coughing. Tilden tells Shelly that Dodge didn't tell anyone about the baby, not even Halie, and that everyone speculated about different things that might have happened. Tilden says that Dodge has never said where the baby is buried and will not reveal why he did it. At the end of his story, Tilden holds out the coat to Shelly, suggesting that she probably wants it back, but she doesn't take it. Bradley comes onto the porch wearing a yellow rain slicker and comes in the house.

When Bradley asks who Shelly is, Tilden tells him that "she's driving to New Mexico." Bradley takes the coat and brings it to Shelly, asking if she is going to bring Tilden with her. She shakes her head no and Bradley goes on a rant about how unhelpful Tilden is, and the fact that he used to be a football player. Bradley asks Tilden if Shelly is with him, but Tilden runs offstage.

When Shelly looks at Dodge, lying on the floor, she asks Bradley if they ought to do something for him. Bradley jokes that they could shoot or drown him, but she tells him to shut up. This upsets Bradley, who orders her to not speak so disrespectfully to him. She apologizes and he orders her to open her mouth. He puts his fingers in, then goes over to Dodge, who is still lying on the floor, and lays the coat over his head. He looks over at Shelly and smiles, marking the end of the act.

Act 3. The next morning, it is sunny, and everything in the living room has been cleared away. Bradley is asleep on the couch with his wooden leg leaning against it, Dodge is sitting on the floor covered with Shelly's fur coat, and Shelly enters, carrying a cup of broth. Shelly calls Dodge "Grandpa" and tells him the beef bouillon broth will help. Vince is still not back yet, but Shelly insists that he will come back soon. Dodge refuses to drink the broth, so Shelly goes and sits on the stairs, drinking it herself.

Dodge suggests that he needs a massage, but Shelly refuses. He tells her that Vince is never coming back and tells her, "You're all alike you hopers. If it's not God then it's a man. If it's not a man then it's a woman. If it's not a woman then it's the land or the future of some kind. Some kind of future." Shelly says she's glad the sun is out, since the rain made her frightened the previous night.

Dodge tells Shelly not to be intimidated by Bradley, suggesting that she can just throw his leg outside if she wants. "Don't sit there sippin' your bouillon and judging me! This is my house!" he yells at her, and she admits that, for a moment, she thought the house was hers. She discusses the fact that the house feels familiar somehow, and that she slept in Halie's room the night before. "Do you remember her when her hair was bright red? Standing in front of an apple tree?" she asks him. Dodge swats away her questions of the past, but she tells him there's a picture of a farm, with corn. In one picture, Halie is holding a baby, "like she doesn't know how she got there."

This annoys Dodge, who says, "She knows! I told her a hundred times it wasn't gonna' be the city! I gave her plenty a' warning." Dodge goes on a rant about the fact that parents do not always love their children, and the fact that he has many children and grandchildren. "Was Tilden telling the truth?" she asks, but Dodge does not answer.

Dodge asks where Tilden went and Shelly tells him that she waited outside for Bradley to go to sleep before she came inside. Suddenly, they are interrupted by Halie arriving back home, laughing with Father Dewis. She is wearing a bright yellow dress and carrying yellow roses, and she and the priest are a little drunk. When they come in, Dodge hides under the rabbit coat. They stop when they see Shelly, and Shelly stands, but Dodge tells her to stay seated.

Halie is distressed by the state of the house and grabs the coat from Dodge, replacing it with Bradley's blanket, waking Bradley. She then asks Shelly what she's doing with her cup and saucer, and Shelly tells her she made broth for Dodge.


The fuzziness and ambiguity of the play hitherto is, ironically enough, brought into sharp focus by Tilden. When Vince leaves, Tilden tells Shelly that Dodge killed his baby by drowning it, and told no one, not even Halie. This is a shocking revelation, and reveals the meaning of the play's title. While reliability is still in question—we have no idea if Tilden is telling the truth, or whether the truth even matters in the world of Shepard's play —the stakes of the narrative are raised. Not only have Vince and Shelly found themselves in an unfamiliar and hauntingly obtuse household, but Shelly now learns that Dodge is responsible for a heinous act of infanticide.

Immediately after receiving this disturbing news, we are introduced to a rather menacing and antagonistic character, Bradley. He is a cynical and glib bully, speaking patronizingly about Tilden and alluding lightly to Dodge's evil crime. While the other men in the family are more confused and dim-witted, seemingly post-traumatic and divorced from reality, Bradley's menace comes from the fact that he is a contemptuous realist, a knowing villain. The second act ends with a terrifying moment of dominance and control, as Bradley puts his fingers in Shelly's mouth, then drops a coat over the ailing Dodge, who is lying on the floor.

Act 3 begins with a completely unexpected reversal. Shelly, who has just learned about the infanticide and faced the antagonism of Bradley, enters with a broad smile, carrying a cup of broth for Dodge, whom she familiarly now calls "Grandpa." As soon as a psychological logic is set up within Buried Child, it is quickly contradicted and reversed. The audience cannot tell if something happened to change Shelly's attitude, if she is simply the victim of Stockholm syndrome, or if she is completely insane, but she goes from feeling utterly victimized by the household to becoming completely absorbed in its strange logics and rhythms. She even tells Dodge, "I don't know what it is. It's the house or something. Something familiar. Like I know my way around here."

Nature plays a strange role in the narrative. All of the action takes place inside the house, but we are often made aware of the natural world outside. This is first demonstrated by Tilden's harvesting of various vegetables in the heavy rain. Then, Dodge's murder of the baby is said to have included a drowning and a secret burial outside. Finally, Shelly suggests that her entire outlook is affected by the weather, as she suggests that when it was raining, she was frightened, but feels more at ease in Act 3, because the sun is out. The outside world and nature's whims are strange and menacing characters in the play.

This strange domestic fantasy that Shelly and Dodge are playing out is interrupted by the return home of Halie, who is wearing her Sunday best and laughing glibly with Father Dewis, with whom it is implied she is having a romantic affair. The wildness of the domestic space is overtaken by Halie's watchful and judgmental eye. She assesses the scene and attributes its chaos to the intrusion of the devil, before apologizing to Father Dewis about her chaotic household. It is a strange meeting of the outside and inside worlds yet again, only this time it is not Shelly and Vince who are the outsiders, but Halie and Father Dewis.