Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

How I Learned to Drive is a memory play that deals with issues of victimization, sexual abuse, incest, and alcoholism. It is also a play about growth, acceptance, and forgiveness. Paula Vogel blends comedy, sadness, and pathos to examine a deeply dysfunctional family with a sexual predator in its midst. The humor allows Vogel to present disturbing scenes regarding the sexualization of children. This sexualization and exploitation are not only condoned but are also encouraged within the family.

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The collision of tones complicates these issues and forces the audience to realize that the damaged characters are sympathetic and even deserving of forgiveness. Uncle Peck is not simply a pedophile. He is a mentor and teacher whose driving lessons give Li’l Bit the ability to realize her identity as an individual. Indeed, Peck gives her the strength, confidence, and power that will ultimately allow her to reject him. He gives her the power to bring about his ultimate destruction as well as the sense of kindness to forgive him.

Vogel has said that the play illustrates how people may receive great love from those who harm them. What makes the play controversial for some is Vogel’s resistance to portraying Li’l Bit as a victim. Not only does Li’l Bit receive gifts from Peck along with the abuse; she at times encourages the sexual aspect of the relationship. She sets limits on her uncle’s inappropriate behavior, but there are moments when she seems to invite such behavior. Eventually, she even follows in Peck’s footsteps, seducing teenage boys. Vogel presents the characters in such a way that Li’l Bit’s complicity is understandable and even forgivable.

Ultimately the play is more about the idea of growth and maturation than the destructive force of abuse. Li’l Bit does eventually become reconciled to her past and finds the ability to forgive her family, Uncle Peck, and most important, herself.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1302

Growing Up
Audiences can sometimes miss the fact that How I Learned to Drive is a play about growing up. One reason for this is that the main character, Li'l Bit, already has grown-up attitudes and responsibilities when she is young. The earliest chronological scene takes place in 1962, when Li'l Bit is eleven. Warned against the danger of riding in a car with her uncle, she not only shows an awareness of the possibility that he will take a sexual interest but also a cool confidence that she can control the situation. In addition, at the age of eleven, she is intelligent enough to understand her own psychological motive for being attracted to Peck: ‘‘Just because you lost your husband—" she tells her mother, "I still deserve a chance at having a father! Someone! A man who will look out for me! Don't I get a chance?’’ Even this young, Li'l Bit is intellectually mature, understanding her situation more clearly than many adults would. The fact that she has an adult perspective about sex throughout the play helps to obscure the fact that she still needs to grow up emotionally, to distance herself from her family, especially from Uncle Peck.

Another reason that this play does not seem like a story about growing up is its structure. The play starts with Li'l Bit as a grown woman, nearly thirty-five, and it moves backward through her life, reaching the earliest time frame at the end. The action all reveals details of the relationship between Li'l Bit and Peck, but not in the way that Li'l Bit experienced it. She seems mature from the very first scene, when she is seventeen, and the narrator explains, ‘‘I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all.’’ The play questions assumptions that often connect growing up to chronological...

(The entire section contains 1624 words.)

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