A Reader Response Criticism Of How I Learned To Drive

1826 words - 7 pages

How I Learned to Drive is the story of Li’l Bit’s teenage life. The 17 year old Li'l Bit functions as the narrator of the story, following her life between 11 and 17 years old. The story mostly revolves around Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, the man who molests and sexualizes Li’l Bit throughout the story. The story makes the story itself into a story as a result of the narratorial and dissociative structure. The life of Li’l Bit, and even her description of events that are close to her in the present, is structured like a play and her running commentary is filled with humor, satire, etc (like she is a comedian making a joke in poor taste). This manner of narration implies Li’l Bit has an attitude of dissociation, or a detachment from from the events that she describes to the audience. The act of molestation is itself dramatized in such a way that it takes on the appearance of fantasy, losing with its reality its moral weight, and the molester, Uncle Peck, is not only a character of great irony but also of great ambiguity. He is never condemned for his actions; rather he is sympathized with, and he is unwittingly supported by his family. To truly understand How I Learned to Drive, one must not look to the text itself for answers, as the metastory and story are both different fictions (which hampers the use of psychological, social, and formalist critical approaches) and one may not look to an underlying moral message, as the entirety of the text is pervaded by moral ambiguity. It is in the act of interpreting our response by which How I Learned to Drive may be understood. How I Learned to Drive gave me a sense of religious optimism, amusement, anger, and bewilderment.

During my reading of How I Learned to Drive, I was surprised by the sexual nature of the play. The story describes explicit sexual encounters or sexually charged events between Li’l Bit and the other characters (male or female). Uncle Peck’s driving lessons and communications with her are always opportunities for him to make his sexual advances (counting down to Li’l Bit’s 18th birthday (2259-60), giving up drinking for a while to massage her breasts (2230), etc.), which Li’l Bit tolerates and makes jokes about; the conversations at the dinner table are usually focussed on sex, with talk of the grandfather’s sex drive and talk of Li’l Bit’s body (specifically her breasts); the pranks of school children have comedic sexual undertones, the prank that resulted in Li’l Bit’s breasts being grabbed by Jerome (2249) and her being seen naked by the school children (2250). These sexual encounters all have an underlying repressive character to them, an example is when Uncle Peck emphasizes that he “will not touch Li’l Bit when she is driving a car” (2248). I am reminded of the Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, who says:

To this paradox, I like to link another, which interests me even more: how this applies at all levels, not only at the personal level. Namely, how false is the official...

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