How I Learned to Drive

by Paula Vogel

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What is the major dramatic question in How I Learned to Drive?

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The major dramatic question for How I Learned to Drive is, “Will Lil Bit ever be free of the demons of her past?” The answer comes in the climax when Lil Bit tells Peck she does not want to marry him, and she drives away from his place.

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The major dramatic question in a play is the question that drives the action of the plot. In cinema and drama, the major dramatic question is often answered through the climax of the action, with some of the answer coming through the resolution and denouement of the story. The text...

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must always answer the major dramatic question. Therefore, when trying to determine what the major dramatic question is and is not, it is prudent to ask if the question you are thinking of has an answer.

In the case of How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, the major dramatic question centers around the actions and decisions made by the main protagonist Lil Bit. The play forays into the grotesque experience of familial sexual abuse and the issues surrounding repression of negative memories. Lil Bit is the subject of abuse by her uncle Peck, who is the one who teaches her how to drive. It is during those driving lessons that Peck first molests Lil Bit and, through the years, continues to molest her.

Based on the action of the play, the major dramatic question seems to be as follows: Will Lil Bit ever be free of the demons of her past? We can conclude this because of the action in the play. Despite being her uncle, Peck slowly falls in love with Lil Bit in the play, oscillating between perversion and gentleness. Lil Bit is unable to get away from her uncle, and his abuse is cyclical in that he is the one she turns to when the rest of her family or life get out of hand. The audience, therefore, wonders when she will be free and when she will finally cut off Peck. How will she break the cycle of abuse?

The answer to the question comes in the climax of the play where Peck proposes to Lil Bit—and she tells him no. She then walks away and never sees her uncle again. We, the audience, have wondered the entire play if she would overcome her demons, and we see in the final scene that she does. At the very end of the play Lil Bit wonders, “Who did it to you Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven?” Which shows Lil Bit empathizing with her uncle despite his part in hurting her. Her concern for his problems shows that she is moving beyond the demons of her past. This last part of the answer is symbolized by her driving away and leaving the memory of her uncle standing behind on the stage—the final part of the answer to the major dramatic question.

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What are the major themes of the play "How I Learned to Drive"?

One of the major themes in How I Learned to Drive, the Pulitzer-winning play by Paula Vogel, is sexual abuse of adolescent girls, particularly by family members or friends. However, Vogel wanted to write these scenes in a way that was sympathetic to both parties. She told Kathy Henderson, a reporter for Playbill, "Critics have said that this is a play about pedophilia, but I think the relationship between these two characters is more complex than that. . . . I wanted to get inside this guy's [Uncle Peck's] head and present him as a three-dimensional character."

Actor David Morse, who played the character off Broadway, said, "What this man does is born of a sickness, but I can't think of him as a villain. Paula has written the story in a forgiving and loving way."

As the lead character, Li'l Bit, matures, another recurring theme becomes apparent, namely, that of gender expectations. The world around Li'l Bit expects her to be strong enough to resist (or at least cope with) men's advances but vulnerable enough to attract men with fragile notions of their own positions of power in society. When Jerome gropes Li'l Bit's chest, a classmate tells her, "Rage is not attractive in a girl," as if Li'l Bit's bearing is the most important consideration.

Uncle Peck also has stagnant ideas about gender roles, even with respect to inanimate objects. He justifies his use of a feminine pronoun when referring to a car by saying, "[W]hen you close your eyes and think of someone who responds to your touch—someone who performs for you and gives you just what you ask for—I guess I always see a ’she.’” This is also how he expects young women, including Li'l Bit, to treat him at all times, even in moments of abuse.

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