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Nimra Khalid Paper

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Quest For Identity In Shepard’s Buried Child


The objective of this research paper is to analyse the “Quest for Identity in Buried Child by Samuel Shepard”. The pursuit for discovering your own self and the identity lost have come to be self-evident in literary, scientifical, philosophical and the sanative discourse of modern life. In this play every character in different ways confronting an identity quest particularly in relation with the buried child. Except Shelly, Vince’s girlfriend, every other character of the play is troubled from identity crisis which has produced external or internal crisis. It also centring on the various causes that lead to quest for identity such as infanticide by Dodge and the incest between Halie and Tilden, family conflicts and its demise, and the disintegration of family. It displays that rather gaining a sense of self, one loses identity when he returns home, that established by itself in the outside world. Home, which ought to be a place where one finds itself or a refuge, becomes a place which destroys the identity of oneself. This research work will add piece of new knowledge in the existing literature.


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In literature, Identity is considered as a much deliberated term. According to encyclopaedia Britannica, “It is a multi-layered dynamic process rather than an inborn trait that cannot be helped. Identities are partly given and partly made” (Shoemaker, “Personal Identity”). Identity in psychology is the beliefs, qualities, personalities, expressions or looks that shuffle a person or a group. A person’s psychological identity associates with a way a person views himself, a feeling of pride in himself, and the distinct personality of himself regarded as a persisting entity. In this regard, Personal identity is defined as, “The totality of one’s self construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present express the continuity between how one construes oneself as one in the past and how one self construes oneself as one aspires to be in future” (Weinreich, “Theories of Race and Ethnic Relation”). It means that how an individual interprets himself in a certain span of time or how an individual recognizes by others in present, past or in future. Personal identity refers to the capability for self – reflection and the awareness of self. It prescribes to a significant degree how one looks oneself as a person and in relation to the other people.

Turner, in his essay Is There a Quest for Identity? argues that the loss of identity and the constant seeking for self discovery have come to be deliberated in literary, philosophical, scientific and curative discussions of modern life. The sophisticated, solitary figure, seeking for honourable significance in the smallest of things, struggling for identification with race or class or group, perpetually endeavour to answer the question, ‘Who am I, What am I,’ has become, almost the central literary type of the age (“The Sociological Quarterly” 148).

In Shepard’s play Buried Child, the quest for identity is much debated term. Because it turns out arduous to establish true familiarity in relationships if our own identity is weak. The Quest for personal identity, we may think, is restricted to the delicate period between the beginning of puberty and adulthood. But identity is something that shifts and grows throughout life as we confront new problems and tackle different experiences.

It is a three act play and has a fascinating plot. It rotates around a physically distressed Midwestern farm family. Shepard, in this play, concentrates on the pungent, gloomy and horrifying legacy that one generation leaves to another. Family remains always very important in Shepard’s plays. In an interview by Matthew Roudane, “Shepard on Shepard”, Shepard says that, “I wanted to write a play about family. Family is very resonant now with audiences ……….Even if you don’t know who your parents were, you are still connected to who brought you into the world -through a long long chain” (2008-2009).

The play started when Dodge, the incharge of the family is lying on the lounge in a sleepy manner. His wife, Halie, is an aging coquet, having an extra marital affair with Father Dewis, a local clergyman. The eldest son, Tilden is mentally retarded. Halie and Dodge’s other son, Bradly is brutal and disabled in one leg but powerful, full of sexual destructive energy. As the play moves ahead, Tilden’s son Vince comes to home after six years with his girlfriend Shelly to meet with his family but his grandfather, Dodge, and his father, Tilden, rejected him, leaving him for quest of his identity. After their arrival, however an eccentric and horrible secret from the family’s past is revealed. Halie and her elder son Tilden have an incestuous relationship, with a result of that Halie gives birth to a Child, a baby boy. This act of incest and consequently infanticide destroys the whole family, leaving the individuals of their family in search of their identities. The theme of identity is integrated by the character of Vince to a great extent. Vince has left his home, moved to New York where he became instrumentalist and has brought into existence as a new distinct personality. But when he comes to home to his family, he is not recognised and not provided with a secure reputation (Shepard, “Buried Child”).

Harriot in his book American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, states: “Buried Child continues Shepard’s obsession with identity” (12). Each and every single character in this play at family level as well as at individual level faces quest for identity. In this regard Annette J. Saddik, in his book Contemporary American Drama, 131 writes, “Deal with the fragile boundaries of identity and the impossibly of locating an authentic self-outside of the roles, masks, images, and performances that mark human action”. So, family disintegration and its demise, family conflict, and the incestuous relationship lead to quest for identity, for the characters of this play, which is the major theme of the play.

Literature Review:

Thomas P. Joswick in his article, Typee: The Quest for Origin, argues that quest for origin seems sometimes in the actions of the protagonists. They dream of regaining the repute of their selves by their absolute personal identity. When the seeking of their own identity becomes dispiritedly evasive, it results in origination which sustains further quest as it discloses in a new form the same problematic of origin. The protagonists through their actions on stage, inform the audience that they are in constant searching for their origin. Sometime they even succeed to gain repute in their families but the families abandoned them to save their so cold reputation in society (336).

The characters of the American Playwrights have difficulties in accepting the reality, finding their place in universe and suffer crisis of consciousness. Roxana Mihalache in his essay The Quest for identity in American Literature says that in America, the literature, apparently seems to be outgoing, mercenary and affirmative. But, in fact, it is profound, based on their eternal quest for their identity. It seems mesmerised with the outcast, the person who resists traditions in order to arrive at some knowledge, some personal wholeness. It is largely assuming that people today experience an assertive quest for identity, and that selflessness and work have been displayed as presumptive routes to self discovery by the forsaking of inhibition and the attainment of familiarity. Mihalache also argues that some of the famous American dramatist such as Eugene O’ Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams were deeply interested in experiential questions. E. O’ Neill was sincerely interested in quest for identity and often the main theme of his plays is man’s conflict and struggle to understand his place in the universe. Yank from The Hairy Ape is in a wider sense a representation of mankind itself and his basic search is for a region to which he can belong. Another example is depicted in Long Day’s Journey into Night, where the writer depicted annoyed families, where fantasies, exposure and morality collides. We are left as an audience looked that the family is not making advancement towards betterment, but rather continually sliding into despair, as they remain tied to the past that they can neither forget nor forgive. In the same respect, Tennessee Williams fought with God for bringing forth a creation in which pitilessness and want was so evident. Among the most salient and urgent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the trouble the characters have in accepting and associating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family is incapable to subdue this trouble, and each, as a result, recedes into a private world of fantasy where he or she finds the comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer. Even most of the characters of Arthur Miller’s plays are in search of their identity, suffering crises of consciousness they are faced with a condition that they are unable of meeting. The famous Willy Lowman from Death of a salesman and Joe Keller from All My Sons like other characters end in death by their lack of self-understanding. All of them are victims (Mihalache, “The Quest for Identity in American Literature”).

Johan Callens, in his article Sam Shepard: Between the Margin and the Centre writes that Buried Child is the theatrical equivalent of an optical illusion: it messes with your mind. Thematically you could sum it up very simply as an eloquent depiction of the inescapability of the family bond, a favourite subject for Shepard and indeed many American playwrights, and in that respect it ranks right up there with The Glass Menagerie and Long Day’s Journey into Night. But what’s extraordinary about Buried Child is that it becomes the things it is about – emotional violence and the mystery of family bond.

In his article Man’s Quest for His Identity, S. S. Deshpande argues that the dramatist evolves only those characters through which the quest for identity becomes significant. Because of their detachment from the herd it is possible for the author to cast more light on them. Indirectly, this method also helps the reader to know something more about the other characters in the crew. The quest for identity becomes more and more acute when we know the encroachment of time on the people there as well as the influence of the various impacts coming from the external world. Therefore, many times the individuals are in a fix. They are not able to do away with the old completely, nor are they prepared to welcome the new fully (Indian Literature 89).

In The South Coast Repertory’s Program, Lawrence Christon quoted Shepard as saying, “One of the weird thing about being in America now is that you don’t have any connection with the past……. You’ve got this emotional thing that goes a long way back, which creates a certain kind of chaos, a kind of terror” (Los Angeles, LA Times. April 11, 1986). People with lost identities are still present in America and of course all around the world. They don’t have any connection with their pasts. This search of seeking your own identity creates a kind of panic and a state of extreme confusion and disorder in individuals.

When Buried Child was performed at Broadway in 1996, Malcolm Johnson, in Hartfort Courant (May 12, 1996) wrote that Shepard’s rural dramas of disintegration, disruption, deformity, incest, and infanticide drifted away before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979. But Buried Child provides evidences for unusual or striking expectation as it breaks down a once blissful family, who is now encumbered with a past that no one wants to keep in mind for consideration.

This study is distinguished from the other studies in a way that it has explored the quest for identity in Buried Child through various reasons as family disintegration, its demise, incest and infanticide.


Callens, Johan. “Sam Shepard :Between the Margin and the Centre.” Theatre Database, theatredatabase.com

Christon, Lawrence. “Angeles Performances.” LA Times, 11 April. 1986, sam-shepard.com

Deshpande, S. (1985). Man’s Quest for His Identity. Indian Literature, 28(3(107)),88-92. Retrieved from Esther. American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews. London: McFarland, 1988. Print.

Johnson, Malcolm. “Broadway Performances.” Hartford Courant, 12 May. 1996, sam-shepard.com

Joswick, Thomas P. “’Typee’: The Quest for Origin.” Criticism, vol. 17, no. 4, 1975, pp. 335-354. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23099572Mihalache, Roxana. “The Quest for Identity in American literature.” Academicsjournal.com

Roudane, Matthew. “Shepard on Shepard.” An NAC English Theatre Company, 2008-2009, Annette J. Contemporary American Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007. Print.

Shepard, Samuel. Buried Child. Revised Edition. Dramatists Play Service INC.

Shoemaker, Sydney. “Personal Identity”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Ralph H. “Is There a Quest for Identity?” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 2, 1975, pp. 148-161. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4105756Weinreich, P. (1986a). “Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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