How I Learned to Drive

by

Paula Vogel

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Driving/Cars Symbol Analysis

Driving/Cars Symbol Icon

As the play’s title suggests, scenes in How I Learned to Drive frequently feature cars and driving. Most broadly, the car represents the complicated emotional relationship between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck. The car is both where Peck teaches Li’l Bit to drive and the place where he most often makes his inappropriate sexual advances on her, thus reflecting the sexual and paternal dynamic between them. As an object of characteristically male obsession, the car also mirrors Peck’s sexual obsession towards his niece. This is drawn out in detail when Peck describes his car as female in one of the driving lessons: “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.’” The car then, at least for Peck, means control—the kind of control he wants over Li’l Bit. When Li’l Bit ultimately rejects him at the end of the play—signaling his loss of control over her—he notably loses his driver’s license. Almost contradictorily, the car is also an expression of power and freedom, giving its user the means by which to go anywhere, and fast. Peck sees cars this way, but so too does Li’l Bit. That’s why the play ends with her “flooring it” in her car, giving her the sensation of “flight in the body” and symbolizing the way in which she moves on from the distressing events of her childhood.

Driving is also reflected by the official-sounding voice that speaks throughout the play from off-stage, reinforcing how deeply Li’l Bit’s experiences with Peck have shaped her life and memories. What it says always relates to driving, and generally reminds the audience of the kind of titles that might head up chapters in a driving instruction manual. This voice serves an important function of literally navigating between the play’s many different destinations of time and space, and is specifically symbolic because the content, though appearing to be targeted aimlessly at a driver who isn’t there, helps the audience make sense of the play’s movements between Li’l Bit’s memories. For example, when the voice states “You and the Reverse Gear,” this is an indication that chronology of the play is going backwards in time. Later, as the relationship between Peck and Li’l Bit heads towards its climax, the voice indicates a shift from second to third and then third to fourth gear. This indicates an acceleration in the action, bringing order to the play’s fragmented form. Again, because Li’l Bit invariably connects driving to Peck, the structuring of the play via this voice thus emphasizes how her relationship with Peck has affected everything in her life.

Driving/Cars Quotes in How I Learned to Drive

The How I Learned to Drive quotes below all refer to the symbol of Driving/Cars. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Theater Communications Group edition of How I Learned to Drive published in 2018.
How I Learned to Drive Quotes

It’s 1969. And I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all. In short, I am seventeen years old, parking off a dark lane with a married man on an early summer night.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

PECK. Don’t change the subject. I was talking about how good I am. (Beat.) Are you ever gonna let me show you how good I am?

LI’L BIT. Don’t go over the line now.

PECK. I won’t. I’m not gonna do anything you don’t want me

to do.

LI’L BIT. That’s right.

PECK. And I’ve been good all week.

LI’L BIT. You have?

PECK. Yes. All week. Not a single drink.

LI’L BIT. Good boy.

PECK. Do I get a reward? For not drinking?

LI’L BIT. A small one. It’s getting late.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck (speaker)
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars, The Line
Page Number: 10-11
Explanation and Analysis:

LI’L BIT. 1967. In a parking lot of the Beltsville Agricultural Farms. The Initiation into a Boy's First Love.

PECK. (With a soft look on his face.) Of course, my favorite car will always be the ’56 Bel Air Sports Coupe. Chevy sold more ’55s, but the ’56! — a V-8 with Corvette option, 225 horse power; went from zero to sixty miles per hour in 8.9 seconds.

LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) Long after a mother's tits, but before a woman’s breasts:

PECK. Super-Turbo-Fire! What a Power Pack — mechanical lifters, twin four-barrel carbs, lightweight valves, dual exhausts —

LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) After the milk but before the beer:

PECK. A specific intake manifold, higher-lift camshaft, and the tightest squeeze Chevy had ever made —

LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) 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.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck (speaker)
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

PECK. So if you’re going to drive with me, I want you to take this very seriously.

LI’L BIT. I will, Uncle Peck. I want you to teach me to drive.

PECK. Good. You’re going to pass your test on the first try. Perfect score. Before the next four weeks are over, you’re going to know this baby inside and out. Treat her with respect.

LI’L BIT. Why is it a “she?”

PECK. Good question. 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.” You can call her what you like.

LI’L BIT. (To the audience.) I closed my eyes — and decided not to change the gender.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck (speaker)
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

LI’L BIT. — Well, what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go —only two more weeks.—And then just numbers—69—68—67—like some serial killer!

PECK. Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.

LI’L BIT. My eighteenth birthday. I'm not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.

PECK. So?

LI’L BIT. So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Peck is walking on ice.)

PECK. I think you misunderstand.

LI’L BIT. 1 think I understand all too well. I know what you want to do five steps ahead of you doing it. Defensive Driving 101.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck (speaker)
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

LI’L BIT. Now that I’m old enough, there are some questions I would have liked to have asked him. Who did it to you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven? (Peck moves to the driver’s seat of the car and waits.) Sometimes I think of my uncle as a kind of Flying Dutch man. In the opera, the Dutchman is doomed to wander the sea; but every seven years he can come ashore, and if he finds a maiden who will love him of her own free will — he will be released.
And I see Uncle Peck in my mind, in his Chevy ’56, 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.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:

FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) 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.

LI’L BIT. For god’s sake, mother! Just because you’ve gone through a bad time with my father — you think every man is evil!

FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) Oh no, Li’l Bit not all men... We... we just haven’t been very lucky with the men in our family.

LI’L BIT. Just because you lost your husband — I still deserve a chance at having a father! Someone! A man who will look out for me! Don’t I get a chance?

FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) I will feel terrible if something happens.

LI’L BIT. Mother! It’s in your head! Nothing will happen! I can take care of myself. And I can certainly handle Uncle Peck.

FEMALE GREEK CHORUS. (As Mother.) All right. But I’m warning you — if anything happens, I hold you responsible.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Female Greek Chorus (speaker), Li’l Bit’s Mother (speaker), Uncle Peck
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Am I doing it right?

PECK. That’s right. Now, whatever you do, don’t let go of the wheel. You tell me whether to go faster or slower —

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Not so fast, Uncle Peck!

PECK. Li’l Bit — I need you to watch the road — (Peck puts his hands on Li’l Bit’s breasts. She relaxes against him, silent, accepting his touch.)

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck — what are you doing?

PECK. Keep driving. (He slips his hands under her blouse.)

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck — please don’t do this —

PECK. —Just a moment longer... (Peck tenses against Li’l Bit.)

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. (Trying not to cry.) This isn’t happening. (Peck tenses more, sharply. He buries his face in Li’l Bit’s neck, and moans softly.)

Related Characters: Uncle Peck (speaker), Teenage Greek Chorus (speaker), Li’l Bit
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: Book Page 57
Explanation and Analysis:

LI’L BIT. The nearest sensation I feel — of flight in the body — I guess I feel when I’m driving. On a day like today. It’s five a.m. The radio says it’s going to be clear and crisp. I’ve got five hundred miles of highway ahead of me — and some back roads too. I filled the tank last night, and had the oil checked. Checked the tires, too. You’ve got to treat her... with respect.

Related Characters: Li’l Bit (speaker), Uncle Peck
Related Symbols: Driving/Cars
Page Number: 57-58
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire How I Learned to Drive LitChart as a printable PDF.
How I Learned to Drive PDF

Driving/Cars Symbol Timeline in How I Learned to Drive

The timeline below shows where the symbol Driving/Cars appears in How I Learned to Drive. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
How I Learned to Drive
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
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.... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
Peck and Li’l Bit are in his car. He tells her he loves the smell of her hair and, learning that its Herbal... (full context)
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
The off-stage voice says, “Driving in First Gear.” The scene is now a typical family dinner in 1969, and Li’l... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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:... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
...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!” (full context)
Sexuality Theme Icon
...he wants to do “five steps ahead” of him doing it—which she compares to “Defensive Driving 101.” (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...“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. (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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.” (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
Li’l Bit can’t reach the car’s pedals, so Peck gets her to sit on his lap and steer. As he tells... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family and Abuse Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Sexuality Theme Icon
Getting into the car, Li’l Bit checks “the most important control on the dashboard—the radio.” As she tries to... (full context)