Discussion Topic

The power dynamics and relationship between John and Carol in Oleanna


The power dynamics and relationship between John and Carol in Oleanna shift dramatically throughout the play. Initially, John holds the authority as Carol's professor, but as Carol accuses him of sexual harassment, she gains power, manipulating institutional systems to challenge and control John's actions, ultimately leading to his downfall.

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What quotes in Oleanna show power manipulation between Carol and John?

One quote that might demonstrate manipulation of power between John and Carol is when John tells Carol, “I was raised to think of myself as stupid.” This might be John’s way of avoiding accountability for his actions. If John is in fact stupid, then it might make it easier to explain away the complaints Carol has lodged against him. John’s self-imputed stupidity might be his way of twisting, controlling, or manipulating the situation. If he’s stupid, he didn’t know he was making sexist remarks or behaving inappropriately; thus, it’s not his fault. In a sense, John is manipulating events to make it appear as if he’s the victim.

You might also want to discuss Carol’s manipulation of John. You should be able to locate several quotes in the third act that reflect Carol’s ability to control and twist events. As Carol tells John, “You have an agenda, we have an agenda.” Carol says she’ll withdraw her complaints if he chooses different books to teach. This quote shows that Carol has the skill to use her sexual misconduct charges as a way to gain influence. She wants the power to dictate John’s curriculum.

Carol’s willingness to recant her charges if John gives in to her demands seems to counter her claim that her charges aren’t “trivial.” While Carol’s conduct doesn’t excuse John’s conduct, Carol’s actions, too, appear tied to an alternate agenda or a type of manipulation.

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What is the relationship between John and Carol in Oleanna?

The relationship between John and Carol is interrupted.  This is literally seen in the exposition of the drama with the phone interruptions.  Their relationship is interrupted by the external force of the phone. Its constant ringing and the interruption of legitimate discourse between John and Carol helps to establish the basis of their relationship.  

Yet, in another sense, John's and Carol's relationship is interrupted by external forces appropriated within their own identities.  The perceived gulf between faculty and student serves to "interrupt" their relationship.  John is unable to transcend this chasm in trying to legitimately reach out and connect his instruction to her understanding.  His concerns do not lie in her comprehension of material, as much as they do with tenure and the cultural capital attached to it. At the same time, Carol is unable to overcome the internal conditions within her own psyche that reaffirms her own failure.  The entire premise of her being in his office is because she "doesn't get" the material.  In each of these conditions, their relationship is interrupted by external realities that they have appropriated within their own senses of self.  Their relationship is further interrupted by the demands of John's outside world in the form of the house closing and his role as a husband.  These elements contribute to a relationship of perpetual interruption.  Even in the earliest stages of their relationship, there is nothing seamless and smooth in their relationship. Everything between John and Carol is fraught with interruption and distortion.

Such a condition magnifies as the drama progresses.  The inevitable draw of both parties seeking power helps to interrupt their relationship even further. As the accusations begin to take form and the sides are drawn, the relationship between John and Carol becomes further interrupted by the social constructions of power that are outside of them and within their own identities.  Their relationship becomes further fragmented because of these interruptions.  The desire for power is real and in both of them, the desire to appropriate reality or construct truth in accordance to it is critical.  This is elemental in John's and Carol's relationship.  It is an interrupted entity, one in which the desire for power and control overcomes any chance of resuming communication. Interruptions that exist both internally and externally define their relationship. Mamet's presentation reminds us that some relationships are incapable of overcoming interruptions and distortions, and in this failure, the basis for perpetual conflict is evident.  This state of endless conflict is what defines the relationship that John and Carol share.

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