Caroline, or Change

by Tony Kushner

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Quasi-autobiographical, rife with symbolism, and redolent of an era pregnant with change in American history, Caroline, or Change harks back to Kushner’s childhood. To this story of change and loss, he adds fanciful, nonrealistic touches such as the singing washing machine, dryer, bus, and moon.

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Eight-year-old Noah Gellman, who recently lost his mother to cancer, has a new stepmother (Rose) whom he loathes and a surrogate mother, the family’s black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, whom he idolizes.

Stuffing her anger deep inside, Caroline, staunch, exhausted, and poor, is forced to work in the hot basement laundry room for thirty dollars per week. Divorced with four children (one a soldier in Vietnam), she laments her life and remembers her ex-husband who returned from World War II and, unemployed, became an abusive alcoholic; ironically, Caroline and Noah similarly deal with grief and loss.

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“Change” in the play’s title has different meanings. The main conceit of the play is that Rose has rebuked Noah for his careless attitude about money since he often leaves change in his pockets. Since its phases signal change, the Moon sings about the progress ahead, another meaning of “change.” When the bus tells of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (a supporter of equal rights), Caroline laments what might have been and wonders what change is coming for black people.

When Rose announces that Caroline may keep any change that she finds in Noah’s pockets, Caroline can now buy candy for her children. Noah is so lonely that he purposely leaves change in his pockets, hoping that he can “buy” his adoption into Caroline’s family.

Another aspect of “change” occurs at the Gellmans’ Hannukah party, where Caroline, her teenage daughter Emmie, and their friend Dotty are working in the kitchen. Emmie speaks strongly to Rose’s father (Mr. Stopnick) about her belief in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organized nonviolent resistance, while Caroline rebukes her daughter for standing up to white people. Clearly, Emmie’s voice is that of imminent social change, from deferential acquiescence to protest.

Mr. Stopnick presents Noah with a twenty-dollar bill, which Noah absentmindedly leaves in his pocket. When Caroline takes the money, Noah is furious, and they exchange evil racial epithets. Caroline leaves for several days but realizes painfully that she must return to work. In an epilogue, the audience learns that the statue of a Confederate soldier that had disappeared early in the play was actually decapitated and thrown into the bayou by Emmie, her symbol of real social change to come.

Water imagery plays a role in the play too. Because parts of Louisiana are below sea level, Noah worries that his mother is underwater. The washing machine, through which Caroline earns her pathetic income, requires water, and Caroline suffers real and metaphoric “tears” of exasperation for an employer and society that understand little of her painful degradation. Noah’s name too is symbolic and ironic since, like the biblical Noah who survived for forty days floating on water, Kushner’s Noah is surviving but feels as if he is drowning in tears of grief and loss. Kushner seems to be saying that change for people—and more so for society—is very slow and filled with painful tears.

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