How I Learned to Drive

How I Learned to Drive How I Learned to Drive Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
An official-sounding voice announces, “Safety first —You and Driver Education.” Li’l Bit, a “well-endowed” woman of around thirty-five years of age, comes on stage. She announces that “sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.” She sets out the opening setting of the play: a moonlit summer night in Maryland in 1969, when she is seventeen years old and thinks she “knows it all.” She is parked on a dark lane with her married Uncle Peck.
The voice announcement recurs throughout, marking transitions between Li’l Bit’s different recollections using the types of phrases associated with driving instruction. Framing the narrative like this underlines the extent to which Li’l Bit’s trauma and memories are linked to learning to drive—with her Uncle Peck. 
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Peck and Li’l Bit are in his car. He tells her he loves the smell of her hair and, learning that its Herbal Essences shampoo, talks about buying some. As he starts to describe using the shampoo in the bathtub, Li’l Bit asks him to stop: “Be good … Stop being bad.” Peck professes his innocence, saying he has the “mind of a boy scout.”
Peck is supposed to be an authority figure in Li’l Bit’s life, and, to the extent that he teaches her to drive, he is. But this dynamic is twisted by the sexualization of their relationship—which is why they switch roles here, with Li’l Bit playing the moral authority and Peck, for want of a better word, flirting.
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Peck insists that he has been “good” and wants to show Li’l Bit how good he is. She tells him not to “go over the line” and then calls him a “good boy” when he tells her that he hasn’t had any alcohol the entire week. When he asks for a “reward,” Li’l Bit allows him “a small one.” Peck undoes her bra with one hand, begging to give her breasts “just one kiss.”
Like the off-stage voice, “the line” recurs throughout the play and is borrowed from the vernacular of driving, e.g. white lines on the road. The line represents the point of transgression which, of course, Peck is already crossing. This also introduces the idea of Peck’s suppressed vulnerability relating to alcohol.
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Peck rubs Li’l Bit’s breasts, saying “I tell you, you can keep all the cathedrals of Europe. Just give me a second with these—these celestial orbs.” As he kisses her nipples, she insists that they have to go as she has a graduation rehearsal the next morning. She also asks him not to call her “Li’l Bit” anymore, because she’s “a big girl now.”
Peck’s comparison of Li’l Bit’s breasts to cathedrals is a suggestion of the primacy of being young—to him, no cultural achievements can match the body of a beautiful teenager.
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Back in the present, Li’l Bit explains how members of her family are nicknamed for their genitalia. Her mother was called “the titless wonder” and her cousin was branded “B.B.,” which the play’s three Greek choruses explain stands for “blue balls.” The female chorus, taking on the voice of Li’l Bit’s mother, explains that Li’l Bit got her nickname from the appearance of her vagina when she was born. According to the female chorus, Uncle Peck could hold Li’l Bit in one hand back then.
Li’l Bit lives in a difficult home environment which is, on the one hand, crudely sexualized; on the other, it is a suppressed environment in which Li’l Bit struggles to learn anything useful about coming-of-age in relation to sexuality. The female chorus’s mention of Uncle Peck is intentionally grotesque, underscoring the inappropriateness of his sexual attraction to his niece. 
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The off-stage voice says, “Driving in First Gear.” The scene is now a typical family dinner in 1969, and Li’l Bit’s family is commenting on the size of her breasts. The male chorus, in the voice of her grandfather, “Big Papa,” makes lewd jokes about them, saying she’ll need a “wheelbarrow” and that “her tits turn the corner” five minutes before she does.
This scene is one of many instances in which Li’l Bit faces misogynistic comments, particularly relating to the size of her breasts. The male chorus is, in essence, saying that she is defined by her physical appearance.
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As Li’l Bit gets increasingly infuriated with her grandfather, Peck cautions her not to “let him get to you.” Li’l Bit makes an impassioned plea that she wants to get a good education in order to “rise above my cracker background”—she wants to learn Shakespeare. The male chorus, speaking as her grandfather, asks, “how is Shakespeare going to help her lie on her back in the dark?”
Li’l Bit categorically doesn’t want to be defined by her appearance, wanting to use her mind in life rather than her body. She wants to escape the kind of background that doesn’t value women, exemplified by the male chorus. His point—as Big Papa—is that Li’l Bit’s only use is as a sexual object.
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Li’l Bit retorts that Big Papa is going to die soon, and that when he’s at the gates of heaven he’s going to be met by a “beautiful black woman in a long white robe.” When he fails to recognize “The quality of mercy is not strained” as a quote from The Merchant of Venice, she says, he’ll be condemned to hell.
This is a beautiful moment in which Li’l Bit demonstrates her intellectual superiority, even at her young age, over her grandfather. The particular quote in question is relevant to the play as a whole—in order to move on with her life, Li’l Bit has to treat her memories with mercy by letting them live, rather than blocking them out (“strained” in the Shakespeare is short for “constrained”).
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In these situations, explains Li’l Bit in the present, she would then storm out of the house weeping. Her Aunt Mary, Peck’s wife voiced by the female chorus, would send him after her, commenting that “Peck’s so good with them when they get to be this age.”
Li’l Bit’s intervention into the memory shows that this is just an indicative incident, one of many. Aunt Mary’s words, spoken by the chorus, are highly ironic, given Peck’s interest in Li’l Bit is, though partly paternalistic, deeply sexual.
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Peck would then have a heart to heart with Li’l Bit, reassuring her while also insisting that “Family is… family.” He says that she’ll understand what that means as she gets older; in reply, she asks if family “is another acquired taste, like French kissing? ... You know, at first it really grosses you out, but in time you grow to like it?” Li’l Bit takes Peck’s car keys, insisting that she wants to go out for a drive alone.
“Family is family” may be a tautological phrase, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. It implies an acceptance of the status quo, because that’s just the way things are. Li’l Bit’s reply insinuates that Peck used similar logic on her with kissing. In this instance, the car represents a temporary liberation from the suffocating home environment.
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The action cuts forward to 1970. Li’l Bit explains that she got kicked out of her “fancy school” and that rumors were flying around as to why—they assumed her dismissal was to do with sex. But, she explains, it was actually because she was drinking whiskey every day. Kicked out of school, she worked dead-end jobs. During the night, she took long drives through the country, and, despite being drunk, “never so much as got a ticket. He [Peck] taught me well.”
The way the action shifts around rapidly between different time periods is Vogel’s way of emphasizing that trauma and memory do not function in a reliable, linear way. They’re unpredictable, erratic. This particular recollection hints at Li’l Bit’s struggle to process her relationship with Peck and how this struggle negatively impacts her life. Again, the car represents freedom—but it has mixed connotations, because she can only drive thanks to Peck too.
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The off-stage voice cuts in, announcing, “You and the Reverse Gear.” In this scene, Li’l Bit is at a high-end restaurant with Peck, celebrating passing her driving test. He suggests that she have oysters to start as well as a cocktail, despite not being of legal drinking age. He insists that this is a more “European” kind of establishment and that she’ll get away with it. He promises not to drink himself.
This particular announcement signals that the action is going backwards in terms of the play’s chronology. Peck is perhaps trying to get Li’l Bit drunk to make her more pliant to his desires. His suggestion of oysters is also a queasy moment for the audience, given that they have a reputation as an “aphrodisiac.” Peck is trying to coerce Li’l Bit into consent.
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Here, the female chorus interjects as Li’l Bit’s mother to give “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking.” It instructs that a lady must never get “sloppy” and stay away from “ladies drinks” like margaritas, melon balls, and black Russians—“anything with sugar, or anything with an umbrella. A woman should drink “like a man.”
The advice Li’l Bit receives in the play is almost invariably bad and more often than not is about maintaining the status quo. Drinking, says the voice, should be done on a man’s terms—like so many other things in the play.
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Back in the restaurant, Li’l Bit orders a dry martini, which Peck calls a “drink fit for a woman of the world.” Li’l Bit tries to question Peck about his service during World War II, but he resists her questioning. Li’l Bit knocks back more drinks and gets drunk. The female chorus interjects again to instruct that a woman should make herself vomit in the bathroom if she has had too much to drink.
Vogel again drops a hint that Peck’s behaviors might somehow be explained—rather than excused—by his own underlying trauma. His refusal to talk about his WWII experiences implicitly supports the play’s position that people ought to talk more openly.
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Li’l Bit has one more drink, allowed by the waiter because Peck implies that he will pay him extra. Li’l Bit and Peck discuss his mother. He says she wanted him to be “everything my father was not” and to “amount to something.” Li’l Bit says drunkenly, “I’ll bet your mother loves you, Uncle Peck.”
This again hints at Peck’s own trauma, perhaps related to his relationship with his own mother. Li’l Bit plays the role of caregiver and sympathizer, underscoring the emotional complexity of her relationship with Peck.
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Having left the restaurant, Li’l Bit and Peck sit in his car. He intends to take her home, but she asks if he is going to take her upstairs (to the hotel rooms above the restaurant). Li’l Bit’s tone changes as she insists that what they’re doing is “wrong,” saying “it’s not nice to Aunt Mary.” Peck insists that he will be the judge of what’s “nice” to his wife.
Peck’s position is a hypocritical one, implying that it’s up to him with Aunt Mary would approve of his relationship. Implicit in his statement is that men have control over women.
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Peck asks Li’l Bit: “have I forced you to anything?” He tells her that they are just enjoying each other’s company and that nothing will happen between them “until you want it to.” Li’l Bit drunkenly kisses him before pulling back, saying, “someone is going to get hurt.” He fetches a blanket from the back seat and gives it to her to sleep under; though suddenly scared for a moment, she calms down and goes to sleep.
Peck is constantly trying to legitimize his behavior. He may not violently force Li’l Bit to do things against her will, but he undoubtedly coerces her psychologically. His choice of words is usually careful in this way. Li’l Bit’s kiss shows her conflicted her feelings.
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The teenage Greek chorus then introduces an anecdote about Uncle Peck teaching cousin Bobby to fish. Peck plies Bobby with alcohol. When Bobby catches a fish and gets upset at the fish’s pain, Peck tells him not to cry and sets it free. He then suggests that he and Bobby go to a nearby tree house. It’s a “secret place” he says—and Bobby can’t tell anyone that they’ve been there.
Perhaps in order to prevent the audience from feeling too much sympathy for Peck, the teenage chorus introduces this anecdote. It is all told using Peck’s words and shows how he uses language and logic to make his intentions and actions seem perfectly natural and acceptable. There’s a strong sense of coercion here, too.
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Li’l Bit then addresses the audience, introducing what she calls “On Men, Sex and Women: Part 1.” This takes the form of a conversation between the fourteen-years-old Li’l Bit, the female chorus playing her mother, and the teenage chorus playing her grandmother.
The title of this scene as introduced by present-day Li’l Bit is intentionally comic. It has the air of a thesis, implying wisdom and knowledge. The ensuing conversation, though, arguably contains neither of these.
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The female chorus/Li’l Bit’s mother states that men only want one thing, “and once they have it they lose all interest. So Don’t Give It to Them.” The young Li’l Bit isn’t sure what she’s referring too. The teenage chorus/grandmother explains how Li’l Bit’s grandfather has sex like “a big bull,” every morning and evening and even some lunchtimes. He only wants her to do two things: “have the table set and the bed turned down.”
The female chorus’ advice does not provide Li’l Bit with useful guidance about sex—it merely says to avoid it. This is contradicted by the same character later advocating for Li’l Bit to be told more about the “facts of life.” The teenage chorus/grandmother’s account of sex with Li’l Bit’s grandfather paints sex as something animalistic and primal, not allowing for a consideration of tenderness or love. She is also firmly entrenched in her gender role.
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The female chorus/mother and the teenage chorus/grandmother debate the existence of orgasms, with the latter insisting she’s never had one and that they’re made up. The female chorus reveals that Li’l Bit’s grandmother was fourteen—and still a believer in Santa and the Easter Bunny—when she met Big Papa; the male chorus chimes in as Big Papa to describe how he “picked your grandmother out of that herd of sisters just like a lion chooses the gazelle.”
This reinforces the idea of sex as animalistic and primal while also emphasizing that it takes place on the man’s terms. It has pseudoscientific implications, gesturing towards Darwinism and survival of the fittest.
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The action flashes forward briefly to 1979, when Li’l Bit is twenty-seven. She meets a man who is ten years her junior on a bus and ends up having sex with him. Afterwards, she lies on her back and thinks of Uncle Peck, wondering if she feels the same “allure” that he did for her.
Peck’s actions towards Li’l Bit reverberate through time. 1979 is much later than most of the play’s action but shows that Li’l Bit’s memories function like a constant hum in her mind. The sex in this instance is undeniably consensual, and so is markedly different from anything Li’l Bit did with Peck.
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The play moves on to “On Men, Sex and Women: Part II.” This time, Li’l Bit is fifteen years old. She tentatively asks her grandmother and mother, played by the same choruses as before, what it’s like to have sex. The female chorus/mother tells her that sex hurts the first time, and that “there’s a little blood.” Grandmother/the teenage chorus, terrified, says, “it’s agony! You think you’re going to die! Especially if you do it before marriage!” Li’l Bit wonders why it’s so unfair: “Why does everything have to hurt for girls?”
Li’l Bit’s grandmother is a god-fearing woman, which is why she’s taking a line in this which is intended to put off Li’l Bit from having sex before marriage. Though Li’l Bit’s quote here is expressly about sex, it echoes across the other gender issues presented in the play.
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The two choruses argue, with the mother wanting to give Li’l Bit the information that her own mother failed to do. The teenage chorus/grandmother shouts that, “if she [Li’l Bit] stops and thinks before she takes her knickers off, maybe someone in this family will finish high school!”
This reveals that the grandmother is disappointed in Li’l Bit’s mother for falling pregnant early in life. This constitutes a kind of slut-shaming.
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The argument intensifies, revealing that female chorus/mother resents the teenage chorus/grandmother for not telling her more about sex. If she had known more about “the facts of life,” she wouldn’t have had to marry Li’l Bit’s father. The teenage chorus/grandmother says it was her own fault. The male chorus interjects to say, “You Made Your Bed; Now Lie On It!” The choruses break into a Motown song.
This offers the reverse perspective of the above, as the mother blames the grandmother for not being a better role model/confidante. The interjection from the male chorus offers a viewpoint that crops up throughout the play: that a woman is always responsible for everything that happens to her.
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The choruses’ song fades into the same song playing on the radio in Peck’s car, in which he sits with Li’l Bit. It is 1967. As Peck talks enthusiastically about his first car, Li’l Bit addresses the audience on the topic of “a Boy’s First Love”: cars. A boy loves a car, she says, “long after he’s squeezed down the birth canal but before he’s pushed his way back in: The boy falls in love with the thing that bears his weight with speed.”
The transition to this 1967 scene is made possible by Vogel’s use of the Greek choruses, which allow her to jump suddenly—but seamlessly—between different points in time and space. They also allow for communication between different points in time, as in this instance, where present-day Li’l Bit highlights the eroticism in Peck’s youthful attraction to his car.
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This scene is one of Li’l Bit’s driving lessons with Peck. He asks her what the first thing is to “adjust,” to which she quips “my bra strap?” She tries to tune the radio, saying it’s the most important part of the car; he switches it off and insists that she concentrate. He instructs her on seat position, the angling of the mirrors, and how to hold the steering wheel. She half-jokingly asks how she can “defend” herself with both hands on the steering wheel; he promises, “I will never touch you when you are driving a car.”
Li’l Bit uses humor partly to help her deal with her experiences, but it also shows a certain amount desensitization (in this instance at least). Peck’s absurd promise highlights the transgressive nature of their relationship in relation to society’s norms. The car is again presented as a site of the erotic.
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In a serious tone, Peck insists on how important it is to him that Li’l Bit learn to drive well. He tells her that she is the closest thing to a son that he has. He launches into a long speech in which he praises the “power” and freedom that comes with driving. He also outlines what he sees as the differences between male and female drivers: “men are taught to drive with confidence—with aggression. The road belongs to them … Women tend to be polite—to hesitate. And that can be fatal.” He promises to teach Li’l Bit to drive “like a man.”
The perversity of Peck telling Li’l Bit that he looks on her as a kind of son recalls the earlier comment that he could her old her in one hand when she was born. Despite that, what he says after stays with Li’l Bit and throughout her life she continues to view the act of driving similarly to her uncle. Peck associates control with men.
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Li’l Bit promises to take Peck’s teaching seriously. In return, he says, she’ll be able to pass her driving test the first time. He implores her to get to know the car—“this baby”—inside out: “Treat her with respect.” When Li’l Bit asks why the car is female, he replies: “It doesn’t have to be a ‘she’—but when you close your eyes and think of someone who responds to your touch—someone who performs just for you and gives you what you ask for—I guess I always see a ‘she.’” Li’l Bit addresses the audience, saying that at this moment she closed her eyes and “decided not to change the gender.”
Peck’s gendering of the car means that he sees men as the drivers and women as the vehicle: that is, men are the active agents of control and women are the passive recipients, the objects.  Li’l Bit’s decision not to change the gender reflects her complicated feelings towards Peck.
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Li’l Bit recounts some of her high school experiences, all of which involve her breasts. The male chorus, pretending to be a student called Jerome, feigns an allergy attack. Li’l Bit, concerned for his wellbeing, asks what he’s allergic to. Jerome grabs her breast, and to much laughter says, “foam rubber.” The teenage chorus tells the angry Li’l Bit that “rage is not attractive in a girl.”
As in the earlier conversation around the dinner table, Li’l Bit is defined by her breasts. This particular episode places Li’l Bits’ natural compassion—she wants to help Jerome—side by side with her objectification. Vogel equates objectification with a basic lack of humanity. The teenage chorus’ line reflects society’s role in supporting gender stereotypes.
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The next high school vignette takes place in the gym showers. The female chorus and teenage chorus trick Li’l Bit into showering first. They are amazed to see that her breasts are real; the female chorus says Jerome owes her fifty cents.
This shows that Li’l Bit’s treatment was part of a sustained campaign of objectification by her classmates—even the female ones.
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The next vignette begins with the off-stage voice saying, “Were You Prepared?” Li’l Bit is talking to the female chorus about feeling self-conscious. Meanwhile, Peck is setting up a tripod and staring at her. The male chorus plays an awkward boy called Greg, who asks Li’l Bit to dance. She rejects him, telling the female chorus that she doesn’t do “fast dances” because she thinks the boys only want to see her “jiggle.”
Here, Vogel mixes two memories together. One is in the foreground: the dance. Peck is setting up in the next memory to come. With this technique, Vogel underscores both Peck’s constant presence in Li’l Bit’s mind and the way memory has its own logic. Li’l Bit’s avoidance of “jiggling” continues to the present day.
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The female chorus tells Li’l Bit that she should “take it as a compliment that the guys want to watch you jiggle. They’re guys. That’s what they’re supposed to do.” Li’l Bit complains that she feels like her breasts are “alien life forces” that “have grafted themselves onto my chest” so that they can “suck all the nourishment out of my body and I finally just waste away while they get bigger and bigger and—” The female chorus says Li’l Bit is the strangest girl she’s ever met.
The female chorus’s lines emphasize the way unequal gender stereotypes are propagated by an acceptance that they are merely the “facts of life.” Li’l Bit’s imaginative image for her breasts is a sci-fi-inspired way to demonstrate that she feels that her whole identity is being subsumed into her objectification as a sexual object.
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Li’l Bit then puts forward another metaphor for her breasts: “maybe someone’s implanted radio transmitters in my chest … they’re sending out these signals to men who get mesmerized, like sirens, calling them to dash themselves on these ‘rocks.’”  There is a bleeping sound and Li’l Bit feels herself pulled by an invisible force towards both Greg and Peck. When Greg asks her to dance on a “slow number,” she rejects him again, the force taking her over to Peck.
Li’l Bit’s second inventive image also displays her erudition, showing an awareness of Greek mythology (sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their deaths).
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Suddenly it’s 1965 and Li’l Bit is in Peck’s basement. Peck is adjusting the camera on his tripod. He puts on music that he knows Li’l Bit will like, reassuring her that no one is going to come down to the basement and that he won’t cross “the line.” Li’l Bit says, “that’s right. No frontal nudity.” Peck is surprised at her candid manner, wondering where she picked that up. Li’l Bit defensively insist that she “reads”; Peck laughs this off, sarcastically saying that he reads Playboy for the interviews.
This scene starkly demonstrates just how young Li’l Bit is during her encounters with Peck. At this point she is thirteen. Knowing she is looked at increasingly sexualized way, she tries to seem defiant and in control, spelling out the conditions of “the line.”
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Peck trains the camera on Li’l Bit and asks her to respond to the music with her body, “almost like dancing.” He tells her to pretend she’s alone on a Friday night with her mirror. Li’l Bit is self-conscious at first but starts swaying to the music as Peck takes pictures.
Peck uses music to make Li’l Bit feel comfortable—but only for his own gain. The whole set-up gives him a quasi-legitimate reason to ogle Li’l Bit.
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Peck tells Li’l Bit that “for a thirteen-year-old, you have a body a twenty-year old woman would die for.” Furthermore, says Peck, she’s “ten years ahead” “in maturity” of the “Neanderthal” boys she goes to school with. He adds that “girls turn into women long before boys turn into men.”
Peck here plays the role of a sexual authority. He also reminds the viewer that his sexual desires are specifically nubile, implying that he prefers a thirteen-year-old body over a twenty-year-old’s (which itself is a youthful age). The play implies that Peck is right about girls turning into women before boys turn into men—firstly, puberty does start in girls earlier than boys. But the implied meaning is that girls are forced to “grow up”—that is, face their sexualization—earlier than boys because of the way they are objectified.
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As Peck tells her that she looks “beautiful,” Li’l Bit praises the beauty of Aunt Mary (Peck’s wife). Peck says that Aunt Mary’s beauty doesn’t “cancel” out hers. To make Li’l Bit laugh, Peck gets her to think of “Big Papa chasing Grandma around the living room.” Her laughter makes for a “great” shot.
The image of Big Papa chasing Grandma reinforces the earlier idea that sex is an animalistic activity between predator and prey. Peck is also using an appeal to Li’l Bit’s family sensibilities to make her a more willing participant.
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“If we keep this up,” says Peck, “in five years’ time we’ll have a really professional portfolio.” Li’l Bit is shocked, wondering what he’s referring too. He says that she needs to be eighteen to submit for Playboy, realizing that he’s made a mistake in saying so. Li’l Bit vehemently insists that she would never want to be in Playboy, longing instead to go to college.
Li’l Bit has clearly been concerned about Peck’s motives for doing the shoot, and here he forgets his story. His verbal slip—from a man normally so careful with his use of language—exposes his real intentions.
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Peck is adamant that there’s nothing wrong in what they’re doing. As Li’l Bit continues to complain about Peck’s intentions with the photographs, he tries to calm her down, telling her that he’s “very proud” of her: “I think you have a wonderful body and an even more wonderful mind.” Li’l Bit says that she thought the photos were just for him. He promises that, if in five years she still doesn’t want anyone to see them, he’ll keep them private.
Peck uses his position as a father figure to keep Li’l Bit on his side. It’s noticeable that, despite him saying that her mind is more wonderful than her body, “mind” comes second in his sentence. His syntax thus reveals the true hierarchy in Peck’s mind between Li’l Bit’s body and intelligence.
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Li’l Bit has her eyes firmly closed. Peck asks her to look at him and tells her that he loves her. This startles her, opening her eyes. “I have loved you every day since you were born,” says Peck. Li’l Bit’s resolve weakens, and she continues with the shoot. 
Arguably Li’l Bit’s anger subsides here not because she is glad of Peck’s amorous feelings, but because they closely map on to her longing for a father figure. The fact that he has loved Li’l Bit since she was born, meanwhile, further highlights the deeply inappropriate nature of his pursuit.
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The off-stage voice indicates a shift in the action, calling out: “Idling in the Neutral Gear.” The male chorus presents the female chorus as Aunt Mary, who speaks to the audience “on behalf of her husband.” The female chorus/Aunt Mary praises the virtue of Peck’s character: how he does the chores round the house, helps out the neighbors, works overtime to buy her jewelry, etc.
The female chorus’ intervention as Aunt Mary paints a picture for how abuse can be hidden and even tolerated within a family environment. Peck is, on the surface of it, a good man.
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The female chorus/Aunt Mary says that she knows Peck has “troubles.” She mentions Peck’s war experiences and how he never talks about them, “burrowing” them “deeper than the scar tissue.” She tells the audience that she knows “what’s going on.” However, the female chorus/Aunt Mary doesn’t blame her husband: he “fights against it.” She instead blames Li’l Bit for being such a “sly one.” Aunt Mary can’t wait till Li’l Bit goes off to college so that she can get her “husband back.”
The female chorus removes Peck’s pedophilia from being his responsibility by linking it to “troubles” brought on by external events and his repression of emotions. In a roundabout way, she has a good point: that trauma can beget trauma if isn’t handled well. But she intends this as an excuse for Peck, instead placing the burden of responsibility solely on Li’l Bit—which is obviously incorrect.
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The action shifts back to Christmas 1964 (with the off-stage voice repeating, “You and Reverse Gear”). Li’l Bit is in the kitchen with Peck. The latter has an apron on and is doing the dishes, in a quiet “brooding” mood. Li’l Bit says that it’s “really nice” that he does the dishes. He thinks “men should be nice to women” and that it’s only fair that he plays his part.
Vogel is careful not to portray Peck as a monster, and this scene is part of that overall project. By seeing a man act atypically for his gender, Li’l Bit is impressed by Peck and feels sympathy towards him.
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Li’l Bit seems concerned with Peck’s well-being. She asks him why he drinks so much. He explains that, while some people have a “fire in the belly” (like politicians and stockbrokers), and others have a “fire” in their heads (like writers, scientists or historians), he has a “fire” in his heart. “Sometimes the drinking helps,” says Peck.
Peck shows the Li’l Bit and the audience a small glimpse of his own trauma—though not of its causes, just its effects. He clearly feels he has failed to amount to much (as implied in the earlier restaurant conversation), which perhaps exerts a subliminal influence on his lust for youth.
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Out of sympathy for Peck, Li’l Bit offers to make a deal with him. She proposes that they meet once a week to talk about whatever is “bothering” Peck—as long as he stays sober. She doesn’t want her mother or Aunt Mary to know. It has to be in public, she says: “You’ve got to let me—draw the line. And once it’s drawn, you mustn’t cross it.” Peck is clearly moved and accepts the conditions of the deal. They wish each other a Merry Christmas.
Peck and Li’l Bit’s relationship, then, actually starts from her own suggestion. This is in no way intended by Vogel to blame her for what happens, but instead to highlight the complicated mix of seemingly contradictory emotions involved in the relationship. Even at this early age, Li’l Bit is aware of a potential sexual element that she is keen to prevent.
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The official-sounding voice announces: “Shifting Forward from Second to Third Gear.” It’s late 1969. The male and female choruses read out notes and gifts from Peck to Li’l Bit. They are sent to her college dorm room, and include chocolates, roses, a tape of Carmina Burana and a copy of Liasons Dangereuses.
The shift up a gear signals an acceleration towards the climax of the relationship and, more widely, the ending of the play. All of Peck’s gifts show a woeful misunderstanding of Li’l Bit’s age and intellect.
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The messages from Peck grow increasingly desperate, counting down the days to Li’l Bit’s eighteenth birthday (when he plans to visit her) and asking her to send him a reply. Eventually, Li’l Bit reads out a message to Peck telling: “Don’t come up next weekend for my birthday. I will not be here.”
The relationship is inherently unequal and unstable, with Li’l Bit feeling nothing of the loyalty and commitment to Peck that he imagines. This, of course, is a particularly significant birthday—as becomes clear shortly.
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The off-stage voice announces: “Shifting Forward from Third to Fourth gear.” It’s December 10, 1969. Li’l Bit and Peck are in a “very nice” hotel room, an ice bucket with champagne in the corner. Peck is sitting on the bed while she paces up and down the room. She chastises him for sending all of those gifts, saying it “scared the holy crap” out of her, “like some serial killer!”
The acceleration of the action continues. Peck is again trying to bestow on Li’l Bit the kind of romantic gestures of one lover to another. She knows the reason behind is excited impatience for her to turn eighteen.
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Li’l Bit accuses Peck of wanting to her celebrate her birthday because it makes her legal to have sex: “statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it.” Peck says that she misunderstands him, but she insists that she knows what he wants to do “five steps ahead” of him doing it—which she compares to “Defensive Driving 101.”
The reasons for Peck’s behavior become clear. Because of the function of the law in relation to sex and society, Peck senses that one day could make all the difference between “officially” transgressive sexual behavior and a legitimate relationship.
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Peck asks why—if she’s so “pissed off”—Li’l Bit wanted to meet in the hotel room instead of a restaurant. She explains that she doesn’t want to have “this conversation in public.” Li’l Bit gets Peck to open the champagne; he “makes a big show of it.” She frantically knocks two glasses back and says she thinks he should have some too.
Peck took Li’l Bit’s “enthusiasm” for the hotel room as a signal of her sexual and romantic interest in him. But really, she’s just ashamed—and, in part, concerned for his wellbeing. While he views the champagne as a gesture of celebration, for Li’l Bit it represents a way of helping her through a horrible situation. The fact that she suggests he drink some too reflects that she is no longer sympathetic to his quest for sobriety or excuses for his behavior.
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Peck toasts to Li’l Bit’s birthday and asks how her schooling is going. She explains that she thinks she is “flunking out.” Making small talk, she asks about Aunt Mary and then about Peck’s new car. He proudly explains that it’s a “Cadillac El Dorado”—and that it’s for her.
Li’l Bit is clearly struggling to process her relationship with Peck, and this struggle is inflicting on everything in her life. His gift of a car is an attempt to win favor and also a way of implying his authority.
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The small talk fades away. After a brief silence, both Li’l Bit and Peck try to speak; they both have something to say. Peck goes first, explaining how much he’s missed her. She interrupts his speech to tell him that she’s “getting very confused” and isn’t “doing very well,” continuing, “I don’t want us to ‘see’ each other anymore.”
Both the characters have very different intentions in this scene, with Li’l Bit wanting to end their relationship and Peck wanting to cement it. Li’l Bit is coming to realize the inappropriateness of Peck’s behavior.
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Peck, hurt, asks if Li’l Bit has been seeing other men, and if she’s in love with anyone else. Agitated, she says it’s not about that—and that “it’s not really anybody’s business!” He tells her that she’s scared. As Li’l Bit starts trembling, Peck repeats the line that he has loved her since the day he held her in his hand. Li’l Bit, getting more exasperated, says, “I can’t see you anymore Uncle Peck.”
Peck thinks of himself as a legitimate lover threatened by potential others. This, of course, is not how Li’l Bit sees it, which is why she rejects his question about other men. Peck is right: she is scared. But of him specifically, not of being his lover.
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Peck downs his champagne and asks Li’l Bit to open her eyes. All he wants, he says, is to lie down on the bed with her and for them to “hold one another—Nothing else.” He wants to hold her and for her to just see how she feels. Li’l Bit agrees, described by the stage directions as “half wanting to run, half wanting to get it over with, half wanting to be held by him.”
Peck’s drinking of the champagne indicates his destabilization as it begins to dawn on him that things won’t go to plan. His proposal just to hold her is another instance of him coercing her into sexual activity by presenting it as inherently harmless. The “three halves” of Li’l Bit’s mental state indicate her level of confusion.
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Peck and Li’l Bit hold each other on the bed. The male chorus and the female chorus (who is still in the voice of Aunt Mary) recite a surreal “Recipe for a Southern Boy,” describing Peck’s physical characteristics in an increasingly climactic way: “A gumbo of red and brown mixed in the cream of his skin … A curl of Elvis on his forehead … His heart beating Dixie … The whisper of the zipper—you could reach out with your hand and—”
The choruses function to increase the sense of sexual tension. Peck is not an unattractive man, on a purely aesthetic level, and Li’l Bit undeniably feels a degree of physical attraction toward him. This, though, could well be based on years of coercive behavior on his part.
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Li’l Bit leans in to kiss Peck, but “wrenches herself free.” She lies in response to his question, saying she felt “nothing.” Peck, now trembling too, gets out a ring and proposes to Li’l Bit, saying that at forty-five he’s not too “old for a man” and that he will divorce Aunt Mary to be with her. She exclaims: “This isn’t happening.” She tells him to go home, and that he has gone “way over the line.” Li’l Bit leaves, and moments later Peck is depicted ordering shot after shot of alcohol from the male chorus (playing the role of bartender).
Peck plays his last card as he senses Li’l Bit slipping away: a marriage proposal. This is clearly an absurd proposition for Li’l Bit, a nauseous mix of romanticism and paternalism. Though she accuses him of going over the line here, the viewer knows that he has already gone over the line on many occasions before. The interaction with the bartender shows that Peck, now he no longer has the transactional affection of his niece, turns to drink to drown his sorrows.
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Back in the present, Li’l Bit addresses the audience. She explains how she never saw Peck again. Over the seven years after her rejection, she goes on, Peck drank himself to death, losing his job then his wife, “and finally his driver’s license.” One night he drunkenly fell down the stairs, hit his head, and died.
Peck never recovers Li’l Bit’s rejection and is ultimately killed by the same thing that comforts him: alcohol. The sequence with which he loses his life over seven years deliberately culminates in his driver’s license, underscoring how important the driving lessons were as an opportunity for him to get close to his niece.
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Now that she’s old enough, says Li’l Bit, she has a question she wishes she could ask Peck: “Who did it to you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven?” She says she’s come to think off him as “a kind of Flying Dutchman,” a spirit driving “up and down the back roads of Carolina—looking for a young girl who, of her own free will, will love him. Release him.”
The Flying Dutchman analogy displays Li’l Bit’s intelligence and erudition, but also hints at her increasing wisdom and perspective as she reflects on what has happened. Viewing Peck through the prism of a myth shows that she is attaining an increasing sense of distance from the relationship and its traumatic effects.
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The off-stage voice announces a shift back in “reverse gear” to the summer of 1962. Li’l Bit is trying to convince her mother (played by the female chorus) to let her spend more time with Peck—she says that he “listens to me when I talk.” The chorus insinuates that Peck’s motives are less than innocent: “I am not letting an eleven-year-old girl spend seven hours alone in the car with a man… I don’t like the way your uncle looks at you.”
This moment shows that, even though Li’l Bit and her mother can discuss Peck’s potential attraction to her with relative frankness, her family was still unable or unwilling to prevent Peck’s actions.
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Li’l Bit tries to reassure the female chorus/mother that “nothing will happen!” She says that just because her mother lost her husband doesn’t mean she doesn’t “deserve a chance at having a father.” The female chorus/mother tells Li’l Bit that if “something happens” she will hold Li’l Bit responsible.
Li’l Bit is too young to take responsibility for what happens when she spends time with a middle-aged man. But, just as Li’l Bit’s grandmother held Li’l Bit’s mother responsible for her own sexual behavior, so too does Li’l Bit’s mother place the onus of responsibility on her own daughter (thereby not breaking the pattern that seems to be at play within the family).
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The action then reverts to 1962, the “first driving lesson.” On the backroads of Carolina, Peck offers to let Li’l Bit drive, even though she is well under age. For this scene only, Li’l Bit’s lines are spoken by the teenage chorus, though the actions remain hers.
This scene takes the audience back to the earliest point in the chronology of Peck’s sexual behavior towards Li’l Bit. Li’l Bit’s voice is played by the younger chorus as a way of emphasizing her age at the time and as another demonstration of her increasing emotional distance from the abuse.
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Li’l Bit can’t reach the car’s pedals, so Peck gets her to sit on his lap and steer. As he tells her what to do, he starts fondling her breasts. She asks him to stop; Uncle Peck clenches. As a tearful Li’l Bit/the teenage chorus says, “this isn’t happening,” Peck “moans softly.”
By saving the first occasion of abuse for the end of the play, Vogel reframes what has come before. In this scene, Peck makes no attempt to elicit Li’l Bit’s permission for his actions and shows him unable to control his sexual desire. Li’l Bit’s words are exactly the same as the ones she says in the hotel room, drawing a link between the start and the end of the relationship. This link seems to show that, despite moments of affection and confusion on Li’l Bit’s part here and there, the relationship is inherently abusive.
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Peck and the teenage chorus fade away. Li’l Bit steps out of the car as the off-stage voice announces: “Driving in Today’s World.” The present-day Li’l Bit tells the audience that “that day was the last day I lived in my body.” She feels lucky, now she’s a bit older, to have started believing in things her younger self didn’t, “like family and forgiveness.”
The play comes to an end as it began, with Li’l Bit in the present day. The audience has been on a journey deep into her trauma, and with the previous car scene, has witnessed the starting point of the abuse. Over time, and through processing what she has been through, Li’l Bit has learned to value what she didn’t before.
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Li’l Bit says she has still “never known what it feels like to jog or dance. Anything that … ‘jiggles.’” Moving towards the car, she explains that the nearest feeling she has to “flight in the body” is driving her car. She’s checked the oil and tires—“you’ve got to treat her … with respect”—and has a long highway ahead of her.
With the above in mind, Li’l Bit reminds the viewer that her experiences can never be fully left behind. Instead, she has to negotiate her relationship with them and take control (as portrayed figuratively in her checks with the car).
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Getting into the car, Li’l Bit checks “the most important control on the dashboard—the radio.” As she tries to find the station, the female, male, and teenage choruses speak back lines from earlier in the play, e.g. “How is Shakespeare gonna help her lie on her back in the—" Li’l Bit checks her mirrors and adjusts her seat. The spirit of Peck seems to be sitting in the back of the car. She smiles at him, before flooring it.
The car here represents both Li’l Bit’s freedom and the impossibility of “un-experiencing” what’s come before—because her freedom is based on the very environment in which Peck was able to abuse his position. The tuning of the radio is symbolic too—she can’t forget the voices of the past, but she can choose to prioritize others. With the music on that she loves, she thus takes agency of the situation. She can’t forget what happened with Peck, but through better understand her trauma, she can—literally—move on.
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