Driving Miss Daisy

by Alfred Uhry

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

Set in Atlanta during the 1940’s through the 1970’s, Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy, is an engaging drama that captures effectively the blossoming friendship between two unlikely characters—Miss Daisy, a wealthy, elderly Jewish widow, and Hoke, her African American chauffeur. Uhry explores the nuances of their growing personal affinity within the context of Atlanta, historically the locale of economic instability and significant civil rights activity. Proudly self-reliant, independent and sprightly, Miss Daisy is forced by her son, Boolie, to accept Hoke as her chauffeur. Boolie determines that she is incapable of driving herself after she backs her car into the garage of her neighbors, the Pollards. Although initially she is reluctant to accept Hoke’s services, Miss Daisy soon perceives that she has more in common with Hoke than she ever imagined. Within the first few days of their encounter, Hoke defines the parameters of their relationship when he says, “Miz Daisy, you needs a chauffeur and Lawd know, I needs a job. Let’s jes’ leave it at dat.” Hoke’s observation of their situation echoes Miss Daisy’s statement about Idella, her housekeeper: “She’s been coming to me three times a week since you [Boolie] were in the eighth grade and we know how to stay out of each other’s way.”

Uhry weaves the tapestry of their relationship deftly with incidents like one in which Miss Daisy accuses Hoke of eating her can of salmon without her permission and demands that Boolie have a talk with him but is deeply embarrassed when Hoke returns the next morning with a new can of salmon as replacement. This incident is similar to the morning of the ice storm, years later, when Hoke braves the storm to bring Miss Daisy her morning coffee from Krispy Kreme as he knows that she does not have electricity in her house. Such scenes define the rich texture of their relationship. Another such incident occurs when Hoke and Miss Daisy go to Alabama for her brother Walter’s ninetieth birthday. They get delayed after losing their way once, in spite of her meticulous planning, and Hoke has an urgent need to relieve himself. They have just passed a service station, but it is the age of Jim Crow, and “colored” people are not allowed to use this facility, so Hoke stops the car just a few miles short of Mobile, much to the chagrin of Miss Daisy. He leaves the car and takes the key with him. She realizes her dependence on him and he articulates his need for maintaining his dignity.

Along with these “nicks and dents” in the relationship, Uhry provides glimpses of rare intimacy emerging between the two characters. They share their deepest memories uninhibitedly. One such moment occurs when Miss Daisy shares with girlish timidity her first memory of her trip to Mobile, Alabama, and the memory of the salty taste of the ocean waters. When Hoke drives Miss Daisy to the synagogue and learns that the temple has been bombed, he recalls the lynching of his friend’s father and the effect it had on him as a young boy while gently reminding Miss Daisy that although she and the world may claim that things are changing, prejudice still lingers. Earlier, during a routine visit to the cemetery, Hoke also discloses to her, with great embarrassment, his inability to read. Miss Daisy teaches him to read and gives him a gift at Christmastime (all the while insisting that it is not a Christmas gift). It is a writing tablet that she used as a teacher. With characteristic sense and keen sensibility, Uhry...

(This entire section contains 841 words.)

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charts the course of their friendship through everyday incidents.

There are two other characters in the play, Idella, the housekeeper, and her daughter-in-law, Florine, who are so often alluded to, and in such vivid manner, that the audience feels their presence. Uhry shows the bond strengthening between Hoke and Miss Daisy by showing how she gradually takes him into confidence and feels comfortable enough to make derogatory remarks about Florine. When Idella dies, Miss Daisy and Hoke feel her absence, and Miss Daisy remarks that Idella is lucky, thus revealing her innermost fears about her own future. Idella and Florine serve as catalysts in strengthening the bond between Hoke and Miss Daisy.

Near the end of the play, Miss Daisy is in her nineties, slow in her movements, but with her characteristic pride and independence intact. However, she suffers an attack of senile dementia one day, and Hoke encounters a distraught Miss Daisy desperately looking for her students’ papers, thinking that she is still a teacher. Hoke warns her assertively that if she does not collect herself together she may end up in an institution. Miss Daisy then admits to Hoke that he is her best friend. Boolie sells the house two years after Miss Daisy’s admittance to a nursing home, and the play ends on a very tender note: Affirming their long-lasting friendship, Hoke feeds Miss Daisy her Thanksgiving pie.

Dramatic Devices

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Driving Miss Daisy is a one-act play with scene shifts occurring about twenty-four times throughout the play. The play spans two and one-half decades. The structure of the play is episodic and moves chronologically forward, providing insight into characters’ lives through simple events and incidents like a trip to the cemetery or to Alabama to attend a birthday celebration, a Christmas party at Boolie’s home, an ice storm, a celebration of Martin Luther King, and a visit to a nursing home. The plot and action are deceptively simple while the dialogue slowly unravels key information about the main characters. When Boolie appraises Hoke of his mother’s “high-strung” and independent nature and wonders if Hoke would be able to handle her, Hoke’s pithy response is “I use to wrastle hogs to the ground at killin’ time, and ain’ no hog get away from me yet.” Uhry creates a charming lyrical rhythm by using southern dialect punctuated with colloquial expressions. He is a master of understatement, and it is what the play does not say that actually enhances its appeal.

Issues concerning ethnicity and race, conflicts between the young and old, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile are all addressed with subtlety and economy. The exposition, besides introducing the conflict, also imparts necessary information pertaining to the geography, economy, and time through dialogue about cars, insurance, and the churches that people attend. The climax is very restrained and refined, with Miss Daisy simply saying to Hoke, “You’re my best friend.” At the heart of the play is the value of human dignity, integrity, and humans’ inherent dependence on one another, which becomes the pervasive motif throughout the play. The characters, their actions, and the dialogue highlight this theme. When Boolie insists on hiring Hoke to drive Miss Daisy around, she responds,I am seventy-two years old as you so gallantly reminded me and I am a widow, but unless they rewrote the Constitution and didn’t tell me, I still have rights. And one of my rights is the right to invite who I want—not who you want—into my house. You do accept the fact that this is my house?

Humor is another significant device that Uhry uses to underscore the personalities of the characters and make them come alive without elaborate descriptions or scene settings. One example is Hoke’s summation of his achievement, at the beginning of his tenure as Miss Daisy’s chauffeur, driving his reluctant passenger to the local Piggly Wiggly: “Yassuh, only took six days. Same time it take the Lawd to make the worl’.”

Historical Context

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The 1940s After the end of World War II, American society and economy saw significant changes. During the war, many women, Mexican Americans, and African Americans were employed in defense factories. After the war ended, however, as government measures encouraged employers to hire veterans, many of these people lost their jobs. Congress even abolished the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which had protected African Americans from job discrimination. Overall, however, unemployment remained low, and incomes increased. Even though the economy experienced dramatic inflation, many Americans, who had scrimped during the war years, were eager to spend their savings. Rising consumerism helped lead to a new era of prosperity.

President Harry S. Truman ran for reelection in 1948. His stand on civil rights became an important issue in the campaign. Two years earlier, in 1946, African-American civil rights groups had urged Truman to act against racism. African Americans faced segregation and discrimination in housing and employment. African Americans in many areas continued to be lynched, a crime that the courts ignored. Also, Southern African Americans were prevented from voting through the use of poll taxes. In 1948, Truman banned racial discrimination in the military and in federal jobs. In response, Southern Democrats formed their own party, one that called for continued racial segregation. Despite these party divisions, Truman won the presidency.

The Civil Rights Movement African Americans began taking a more active stance in the 1950s to end discrimination in the United States. During the 1950s, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools and transportation systems. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first civil rights law passed since Reconstruction, this act made it a federal crime to prevent any qualified person from voting. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., also emerged as an important civil rights leader. He urged the use of nonviolent resistance to bring about the end of racial discrimination. King was assassinated in 1968.

In the 1960s, civil rights activists continued to challenge racist policies in interstate transportation and voter registration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, barring discrimination in employment and public accommodations, and giving the Justice Department the power to enforce school desegregation. Congress also passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put the voter registration process under federal control. Within three years, over half of all eligible African Americans in the South had registered to vote.

Despite these successes, many African Americans grew to question the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. Some felt they should use violence for self-defense, while others did not want to integrate into white society at all. These African Americans adopted the slogan ‘‘Black Power,’’ which became widely used by the late 1960s. They wanted greater economic and political power and even complete separation from white society.

Throughout the 1970s, African Americans, as well as other minority groups, continued to fight for equal rights. President Richard Nixon, however, vowed to not ask for any new civil rights legislation. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that busing could be used to integrate schools, he denounced their decision. By the middle of the decade, more African Americans were enrolling in college, holding professional jobs, and serving in public office. African-American political leaders formed strong alliances and effective lobbies.

Women and Society Although popular culture in the 1950s presented the ideal woman as a full-time suburban homemaker, many women in that decade held jobs outside the home. By the 1960s, the women's movement was experiencing a widespread revival. Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique vehemently rejected the popular notion that women were content with fulfilling the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker. Friedan charged that many women felt stifled by this domestic life. The National Organization for Women, a women's rights group, was formed in 1966, and more and more women joined the movement throughout the 1970s.

The National Women's Political Caucus, founded in 1971, encouraged women to run for political office. Women's leaders believed that women in public office would contribute to the shaping of public policy in favor of equal rights. In 1972, Congress passed the Education Amendments Act, which outlawed sexual discrimination in higher education. Many all-male schools began to allow women to enroll. The women's rights movement, however, failed to win passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a constitutional amendment barring discrimination on the basis of sex. Although Congress passed the ERA in 1972, not enough states ratified the bill, therefore it never became a law.

The Aging Population Several measures contributed to a changing lifestyle for elderly Americans. President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated the Medicare program in 1965, which offered national health insurance to people over the age of 65. Americans were living longer, so by the 1970s, the aging population contributed to a dramatic rise in U.S. spending on health care—from $74 billion in 1970 to around $884 billion in 1993.

Literary Style

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Symbolism Daisy's automobiles (of which there are many) are central symbols in the play. For Daisy, driving her own car represents freedom. This freedom is taken away from her when Boolie hires Hoke. For Hoke, Daisy's cars—the Oldsmobile that he purchases used from the dealer after Boolie gets Daisy a new car—represents a rise in social status. ''Keep them ashes off my 'polstry,’’ he warns Boolie, as the two men drive to the dealership. For Boolie, however, the car is just an object, a large, dangerous object in the hands of his mother, which he places in the hands of a driver he can trust.

Even when Daisy relents and allows Hoke to drive her car—in a sense, take away her freedom—she does her best to continue to assert herself. On their first trip together, Daisy tries to instruct Hoke on the route to take. ''I want to go to it [the Piggly Wiggly] the way I always go,’’ she says, demonstrating her fixation with being in charge of herself. Hoke, however, rejects her orders, refusing to turn as she tells him to, because he knows a better route to the store. This exchange shows each person's basic nature: Daisy's stubborn insistence on denying that change can occur, and Hoke's quiet yet resolute manner of teaching Daisy to accept change.

Daisy's house also has symbolic meaning. Like the car, it symbolizes her independence. She feels she should be in charge of her house, thus when Boolie hires Hoke, her control of this sphere is undermined. The other characters recognize what the house means to Daisy. Boolie does not sell it until she has been in the nursing home for several years and will never come home. ''It feels funny to sell the house while Mama's still alive,’’ he says to Hoke, ‘‘I know I'm doing the right thing.’’ He looks to Hoke for affirmation, which he finds, but he also admits that he is not going to tell his mother what he is doing. Hoke also agrees with this decision. Both men know that Daisy will not idly abide the only symbol of her independent adulthood being taken away.

Setting Almost the entire play takes place in Atlanta, Georgia. Daisy has spent her life in the city, though she grew up in a much poorer section of town. She is a part of Atlanta's Jewish community. She belongs to a temple and takes part in Jewish cultural events. Boolie has also spent his life in Atlanta. He has taken over his father's printing business, and he becomes a leading figure in the city's circle of businessmen. Though his wife, Florine, is also Jewish, she socializes within the Christian community because it gives her higher status.

Even though Atlanta is a thriving city, the atmosphere is more that of a small town. The people within Daisy's social circle are all well acquainted. Even Hoke has a connection to the Werthans prior to working as Daisy's chauffeur. He used to work for a Jewish judge whom Boolie knows.

Although Daisy leads an insular life, she does get out of the city. Boolie, as well, takes trips to New York. Hoke, however, has never left Georgia before he drives Daisy to attend a funeral in Alabama. Hoke originally comes from a farm near Macon, and his recollection of the lynching of his friend's father serves as a reminder of the racial violence that regularly took place in the rural South. Although his family also lives in Atlanta, they clearly belong to the generations of African Americans who leave the South, or if staying there, make the choice to do so. His daughter, married to a train porter, has visited northern cities such as New York and Detroit and urges her father to do so. His granddaughter still lives in Atlanta, but she is an educated scientist, teaching at an African-American college.

Structure The play has no specific acts and scenes. Instead, it is divided up into segments, some of which flow one into the other, others that do not. The play also spans twenty-five years, so sometimes large amounts of time pass between segments. This structure frees the action of the play from time or plot constraints. Uhry can create exactly which incidents he believes will be the most evocative. The structure also emphasizes the compactness of the characters' lives. Though the fluid structure would seem to indicate that little changes over the course of twenty-five years, that is not the play's reality.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: Of a total U.S. population of close to 164.3 million in 1955, around 7.4 million are aged between 65 and 79, or 4.5 percent.

1990s: Of a total U.S. population of 273.9 million in 1998, just over 18 million are aged between 65 and 79, or 6.6 percent.

1950s: In 1956, the Supreme Court rules that segregated transportation systems are illegal.

1960s: In 1960, the Supreme Court rules that segregation in certain public facilities is illegal.

1970s: In 1971, the Supreme Court upholds affirmative actions programs in schools and businesses.

1990s: In 1996, the Supreme Court hears a case involving allegations that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles selectively pursued and charged blacks in crack cocaine cases. The Court finds that the African-American defendants are unable to prove the allegations, so the guilty charge stands.

1950s and 1960s: African Americans stage numerous boycotts, marches, and sit-ins to protest segregation laws in the South.

1990s: Since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination in employment and in public accommodations has been illegal.

Mid-1960s: In 1964, less than 6 percent of eligible African Americans in Mississippi are registered to vote.

Late 1960s: By 1968, 59 percent of African Americans in Mississippi are registered to vote.

1990s: In 1990, 31.5 percent of African Americans of voting age in Mississippi are registered to vote.

1960s: In 1969, only about 1,500 African Americans hold elected office.

1970s: By the end of the decade, more than 4,500 African Americans hold elected office.

1990s: In 1997, there are 8,617 elected African-American officials throughout the United States.

1960s: In 1964, only about 200,000 African Americans attend college.

1970s: By the end of the decade, more than 800,000 African Americans attend college.

1990s: In 1994, about 36.7 percent of African Americans, out of a total population of 32.5 million, attended two- or four-year colleges.

Media Adaptations

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Uhry wrote the screenplay adaptation for 1989's Driving Miss Daisy. The movie starred Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, and Dan Ackroyd. Bruce Beresford directed it. Warner Home Video released it in 1990.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brustein, Robert, Review of Driving Miss Daisy in New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 28-30.

Canby, Vincent, '‘‘Miss Daisy,' Chamber Piece from the Stage’’ in New York Times, December 13, 1989, p. C19.

Gussow, Mel, Review of Driving Miss Daisy in New York Times, April 16, 1987, p. C22.

Oliva, Judy Lee, ‘‘Alfred Uhry: Overview,’’ in Contemporary Dramatists, 5th ed., edited by K. A. Berney, St. James Press, 1993.

Shewey, Don, ‘‘Ballyhoo and Daisy, Too’’ in American Theatre, Vol. 14, April, 1997, p. 24-27.

Uhry, Alfred, Preface to Driving Miss Daisy, Theatre Communications Group, 1986.

Further Reading

Shewey, Don, ‘‘Ballyhoo and Daisy, Too,’’ in American Theatre, April, 1997, p. 24-27. This article surrounds a talk between Shewey and Uhry about several of his plays, providing a unique look at Uhry's perspective of his work.

Sterritt, David, ‘‘A Voice for Themes Other Entertainers Have Left Behind,’’ in Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 1997, p. 15. This article discusses Uhry's work in relation to prevailing attitudes toward morality in the United States.


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Sources for Further Study

Gussow, Mel. “Driving Miss Daisy.” New York Times, April 16, 1987, p. C22.

Kauffman, Stanley. “Cars and Other Vehicles.” The New Republic 202 (January 22, 1990): 26-28.

Kauffman, Stanley. “Southern Comforts.” The New Republic 208 (April 5, 1993): 30-31.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide