Paula Vogel

How I Learned to Drive

  • 47-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 21 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English
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How I Learned to Drive Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 47-page guide for “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 21 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Sexual Objectification of Women and Power and Victimization.

Plot Summary

How I Learned to Drive, a play written by Paula Vogel, premiered Off-Broadway in 1997 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998. It addresses pedophilia, victim blaming, and misogyny, as well as the complexities of love and family. Through non-chronological flashbacks, Li’l Bit, now in her forties, uses learning to drive as a metaphor for her learning about sex, and about life, from her aunt’s husband, Peck, with whom she has a sexual relationship. Each scene is designated a driving rule that also reflects the life lesson Li’l Bit learns therein. Well-received by critics as well as survivors of sexual assault, the play addresses sexual double standards women face and how women are often blamed for their own abuse. It also illuminates how women are molded and manipulated not only by their abusers but by society at-large. However, Peck is not cast wholly as a villain, nor does Li’l Bit always reject his advances. The play acknowledges both the immorality of Peck’s behavior and the complicated connection he shares with Li’l Bit. In doing so, it also addresses the issues of sympathy and forgiveness. The contrast between the play’s biting humor and the serious subject matter reflects the complicated relationship between Li’l Bit and Peck. Ultimately, How I Learned to Drive is about the effects one’s past has on one’s present and future, how people are flawed and their souls ambiguous, and how one can grow from trauma or succumb to it.

In the opening scene, Li’l Bit, age 17, and her uncle, Peck, are sitting in the front seat of his car for their weekly get-together. Peck makes sexually-suggestive comments to Li’l Bit, but when she tells him to “e good” (10), he feigns innocence. By the end of the scene, he is asking if he can kiss her breasts, at her hesitation, telling her, “Don’t make a grown man beg” (11). Li’l Bit relents.

Li’l Bit explains to the audience that people in her family are named after their genitalia; her mother adds that when Li’l Bit was a baby, between her legs was “ust a little bit” (12). Peck says he held her in his hand when she was one day old. During a family dinner in 1969, her mother, grandmother, and grandfather discuss the size of her breasts, her grandfather teasing her with crude, sexualizing comments. When Li’l Bit leaves the table, Peck comforts her.

In 1968, Peck and Li’l Bit are out to dinner, and Peck encourages her to order a cocktail. Li’l Bit is hesitant because she’s underage but eventually drinks until she’s intoxicated. When Peck and Li’l Bit return to Peck’s car, Li’l Bit alludes to Peck’s wife, Aunt Mary; Peck insists they are only having an innocent dinner and that “nothing is going to happen between us until you want it to” (23). Li’l Bit falls asleep, and Peck tucks her into a blanket. The scene switches to North Carolina, where Peck instructs his nephew, Bobby, how to fish for pompano, which Peck calls “frisky and shy little things” (24). When Bobby begins to cry thinking of the fish’s pain, Peck comforts him, inviting him to join him for a secret meeting in a treehouse.

In 1979, on a long bus trip, Li’l Bit meets an underage boy; the two go out to dinner and then have sex in her room. The scene turns to when she is 15 years old and is asking her grandmother and mother whether sex hurts for the first time. She once again retreats to Peck when an argument erupts.

During a driving lesson in 1967, Peck tells Li’l Bit he wants her to know the car well and helps her adjust the seat and mirrors. When Li’l Bit makes playful, flirtatious comments, Peck insists she remain serious, for she holds her life in her hands when she’s driving. He tells her that men are confident drivers and that he wants to teach her to drive like a man.

In school, Li’l Bit is frequently teased and targeted for her large chest. In one incident, while girls laugh in the background, a male classmate grabs her breasts and tells her he’s allergic to “oam rubber” (36). At a sock hop, a boy whose gaze is fixated on her chest continues to ask her to dance. Li’l Bit tells a female classmate she feels that her breasts are sending out radio signals “to men who get mesmerized, like sirens” (38). The classmate says she wishes she had her problems and that she should go easy on the boy.

When Li’l Bit is 13, Peck takes photos of her as she poses. When he says he wants to send the photos to Playboy once she turns 18, Li’l Bit objects, saying she thought the photos were just for him. He promises not to show them to anyone and that he loves her. Li’l Bit, somewhat assured, continues the shoot. In a monologue, Aunt Mary explains that Peck is a good man who never recovered fully from the trauma of World War II. She says she knows about Peck and Li’l Bit’s relationship and that Li’l Bit has “twisted Peck around her little finger” (45). At Christmas that year, Li’l Bit, sensing Peck’s melancholy and worried over his drinking, suggests they meet once a week so they can talk.

When Li’l Bit goes to college, Peck frequently sends her gifts and flowers. The packages contain notes in which he counts down the days until she returns. In a hotel room, over champagne, Peck and Li’l Bit celebrate her eighteenth birthday. Li’l Bit tells Peck she is struggling in school, that she knows why he’s excited for her eighteenth birthday, and that she can’t see him anymore. When Peck proposes to her, Li’l Bit reiterates that she can’t see him.

Li’l Bit tells the audience she never saw Peck again and that he drank himself to death seven years later. Now that she’s grown, she sometimes wants to ask him, “Who did it to you?” (54). She then flashes back to when, at 11 years old, she took a long car ride with Uncle Peck. In their first driving lesson, she sat on his lap and steered while he pushed the petals. Peck molested her for the first time, confusing her and bringing her to tears. Li’l Bit says “hat was the last day I lived in my body” (57) and that as an adult, she has begun to believe in forgiveness. Explaining that she feels free when she’s driving, she climbs into the front seat of the car, repeating instructions Peck taught her. As she adjusts the rearview mirror, his spirit is in the back seat, and the two exchange a sympathetic look before Li’l Bit floors it and the stage goes black.

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