Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat: It’s All About Context

 

 

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat touts itself as a ‘metaphysical shocker’.  What it reads as, though, is a deterministic holiday romance, not so much A Room With A View, but more like Daisy Miller mixed with a splash of The Talented Mr. Ripley.  The story centers around a woman named Lise whose behaviour seems bizarre in most instances, but ultimately, as the novel concludes, seems to have been working toward a clear goal.  Indeed, in his review of the novel, Ian Rankin suggests that The Driver’s Seat must be read twice because the ending sheds light on Lise’s behaviour throughout the novel.  A second reading allows the reader to make sense out of the seemingly bizarre and nonsensical outburst on the part of the troubled protagonist, and gives meaning to small ostensibly insignificant details.  There is a degree of absurdity in some of the scenarios, and so, in reading the work through a feminist lens, or a deterministic lens, it is unclear what the intent of the author might be, but the novel does successfully raise a number of questions.

 

thedriversseatOne of the most interesting scenes in the novels is found upon the first page.  In the scene, Lise is trying on a dress.  When the salesperson tells Lise that the dress is stain-proof, Lise begins tearing the dress off and questions the salesperson: “Do you think I spill things on my clothes?  Do I look as if I don’t eat properly” (8)?  This scene is telling in that it is demonstrative of how when two people talk they bring in different contexts.  The salesperson might assume that the customer would prefer a stain-proof dress so that it might last longer, while Lise speaks as though she is offended that the sales person might imply she might make a mess.  It is not until the end of the novel that this scene can be understood by the reader as Rankin notes.  SPOILER ALERT!!!  Lise is planning on being murdered.  A stain-proof dress might not hold her spilled blood.  The implications of this is interesting.  Lise seems to want her mark to be left.  She wants to soil the dress with her blood.  This suggests both that she wants to be remembered through the stain that she leaves behind, and that she wants to in some way sully the world that is around her.

 

A movie poster for the film adaptation of The Driver's Seat.

A movie poster for the film adaptation of The Driver’s Seat.

This idea that she wants to be remembered is reinforced through other behaviour.  Rankin positions Lise as both “both sign and semiolger (sender of signs” (146).  Her vibrantly coloured and clashing wardrobe, akin to wardrobe donned by Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, serves as a flashing light meant to ensure that people will see her and be able to both identify and remember her.  This, as Rankin notes, makes her an anti-chamelian (148) of sorts.  The dress may seem like a trivial point, but Spark makes the importance of the colour clear by mentioning how a number of people respond to them throughout the novel.  Aside from those who overtly mention it, there is also a scene in the airport which reinforces how appearance plays a role in forming impressions.  Lise runs into a woman looking at books in the airport gift shop.  She is not looking for a particular title or author, rather the lady is looking for books of a certain colour.  Their content is irrelevant to the woman.  The colour is the only concern because in “all [her] places [she has] spare bedrooms… two green, two pink, three beige, and [she is] trying to pick up books to match” (22).  There is a preoccupation with appearance and a lack of concern for content.  This extends beyond books and to people as well.  People are more concerned with Lise’s outfit than who she is, and it is this reluctance of people to truly engage with those around them that allows Lise’s to continue on her self-destructive path.  Even her co-workers show little concern for her.  When Lise breaks down and cries at work, they are more interested in sending her away for vacation than they are with finding out what is wrong and helping her.

 

Elizabeth Taylor, as Lise in the film adaptation of The Driver's Seat.

Elizabeth Taylor, as Lise in the film adaptation of The Driver’s Seat.

Lise’s clothes are not the only method through which she sends signals.  She manipulates language throughout the novel, and like the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Lise takes advantage of the fact that those around her do not know her.  This affords her the opportunity to invent a number of identities for herself.  On the plane she tells one person that she brings no luggage when travelling because her extensive travelling experience has taught her that she can buy everything she needs on the other side, but the truth is that she plans on dying and so does not need luggage. In another instance, though, she tells another stranger that she never travels at all.  Though she works in an office, she tells a variety of people that she has holds different positions: a widow, and intellectual, a socialite, and a teacher, among others.  In each instances she allows herself to transform her signifying role to the person with whom she is speaking.  The multiple identities allows Lise to be remembered by the various people she meets.  This desire to define herself as she wishes is reinforced by the fact that Lise intentionally leaves her passport in a taxi, a symbolic gesture that suggests she is leaving her old identity behind.  It is also a move that will make it more difficult for police to identify her after her murder.

 

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

Because Lise is untruthful in so many instances, it is hard to determine when she is lying, and Spark uses the narrative technique, akin to the unreliable narrator, to keep the reader guessing.  In most narratives, readers rely on the omniscient narrator to enter the mind of the character and explain the motivations of the protagonist, but Spark does not do this.  As early as first chapter Spark offers a situation in which Lise forgets to leave a set of keys behind, but refuses to employ the omniscient voice to tell the reader whether it was on purpose on not (17).  This turns into an instance of metafiction when the omniscient narrator steps out of the narrative to ask a rhetorical question of the reader: “Who knows her thoughts?  Who can tell” (50)?  Here the narrative voice admits to its own limits, questioning the authenticity of the narrative voice. This is an effective post-modern technique that question the author and the creative process, but perhaps more importantly, the narrative voice is encouraging the reader to question what is going on inside Lise’s mind.  This works well in terms of how Rankin frames the work as he calls is a piece of detective fiction.  Spark encourages the reader to be on guard for a perpetrator at the beginning of chapter three, when she tells the reader that Lise will be found dead the following morning, but here Sparks draws the reader’s attention to Lise’s mind and not to a would-be murderer.

 

Elizabeth Taylor may have been an ideal casting choice to play not only one of Muriel Spark's characters, but Spark herself, as the two women share a similar beauty.

Elizabeth Taylor may have been an ideal casting choice to play not only one of Muriel Spark’s characters, but Spark herself, as the two women share a similar beauty.

When it becomes clear that Lise is seeking out a murderer to end her life, other elements of the novel seem to come into place, but the nature of the relationship between Lise and her murderer calls into question the nature of victimization.  When Richard, Lise’s soon-to-be murderer suggests that they not go to the park because a “lot of women get killed in the park”, Lise confirms this, but suggests they get killed “because they want to be”.  Seemingly unwilling to accept the absurdity of this statement, Richard repeats his concerns: “A lot of women get killed”.  Lise, though, likewise reasserts her assessment: “Yes, I know, they look for it” (104).  The absurdity of this dialogue reads almost like mocking of the rape-culture mentality that often resorts to victim-blaming or suggesting that a victim was asking to be assaulted.  Here, though, it is the female asserting this approach.  Though such a stance seems absurd, a similar logic is used earlier in the novel when an elderly woman who is shopping with Lise gets an item she purchased stolen: “Everyone looks around for it and sympathizes, and points out that it was her own fault” (68).  Though the people around her offer her sympathy, they also fault her for her the theft despite the fact that she is clearly the victim.  This kind of victim blaming is common for things like theft, but when Spark frames it in instances of murder, the absurdity of such claims becomes apparent.  Still, it is unclear how much this is meant to promote a victim blaming, and how much it is meant to argue against it.  In another scene, there seems to be a subtle suggestion that people have authority over such things.  When riding in the plane, it is noted that the “no-smoking lights go out and the loudspeaker confirms that the passengers may now unfasten their seat-belts and smoke” (30).  Safety-belts are symbols for things that can save lives (though they are frankly moot in instances of a plane crash, even if they are useful for landings and turbulence).  Allowing the passengers to reject a safety measures could be read as suggesting that they are inviting death when they take the safety-belts off.  The safety-belts are paired with smoking, which is an interesting juxtaposition as cigarette smoking is linked which causes cancer and in turn death.  The passengers, then, are given permission to engage in an activity that cause death, and therefore are would be responsible for whatever harm might befall them.

 

Another poster from the film adaptation of The Driver's Seat.

Another poster from the film adaptation of The Driver’s Seat.

Conversations about victim blaming are often linked with feminist theory, and Spark’s approach to this is equally perplexing.  In the first chapter, the omniscient narrator notes that Lise had “five girls under her and two men” and that “over her [were] two women and five men” (9).  This demonstrates that impact of the glass ceiling.  As a professional woman who does not have a family, Lise seems to have nothing in her life outside of her career, but the potential to move up is difficult for women as demonstrated by the ratio of men to women in senior management.  There is some progress as there are two men working under her, and two women working above her, but it is clear that men still dominate the higher up the corporate ladder one goes.  This seems to work within a feminist reading, but there is another part which seems problematic.  The elderly lady with whom Lise goes shopping bemoans that men “are demanding equal rights with” women (71) and warns that if women “don’t look lively… [men] will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while [women] go and fight to defend [men]and work to keep them…  Next thing [men will] want the upper hand” (72).  This is an interesting position, suggesting that women, being in possession of the domestic sphere, are at the top and that the men, who must go out and do work, and men are essentially slaves to women.  While an interesting framing of the patriarchal structure that challenges how we see it, it can also be read as problematic as it glorifies the subordinate position women are in by trying to frame it in a misleading way. Given that Spark was a devout Catholic, or at least was reported to be, it is possible that she adheres to antiquated views on women, but being a female author, and a brilliant mind who was also rumoured to have been engaged in a long-term relationship with another woman (though this was never substantiated and was vehemently denied during her lifetime), it is clear that Spark did not accept all Catholic doctrine.

 

You can never have to many images of Elizabeth Taylor.

You can never have to many images of Elizabeth Taylor.

Spark criticizes patriarchy and masculinity throughout the novel, so the work certainly doesn’t kowtow to patriarchy.  As an author whose seems to be quite familiar with the power of signifiers, Spark makes clear how masculine figures try to negate the autonomy and intellect of women by attacking their sexuality.  When one female student challenges the treatment of a male counterpart, a clerk dismisses the criticism by calling her a whore (63).  There is no effort to debunk or challenge the content of her statements, merely an attempt to discredit her for her perceived or assumed sexual activity.  This is a clear ad hominem attack, one focused on female sexuality.  When a mechanic sees Lise after a student protest, he assumes she is a student and tells her to go back to the brothel from whence she came.  This again is an ad hominem that fails to address whatever issues the student protester may have had and attacking the presumed sexual activity of a woman.  After attacking the sexuality of Lise, her mother and her grandmother, he finishes by calling her a student, as if that is the worst offence, thereby linking academia with whoredom (75).  This rejection of education in favour of ad hominem attacks clearly situates that patriarchal figure heads as unthinking.  Their morality is further brought into question when the first two men Lise is alone with attempt to rape her, demonstrating that they have no control ove their lust and have no respect for the autonomy of others.  Lise also makes an interesting comment that speaks to how women are perceived by men in a position of authority as she instructs Richard to “never talk to the sort of girls that you wouldn’t leave lying around in your drawing-room for the servants to pick up” (101).  The comment seems to come out of nowhere, but is important. Of the two men who tried to rape Lise, both were either working class or middle class.  In this instance Lise demonstrates how even in the aristocracy women are treated as objects.  They are used and then discarded, and the men who discard them don’t even have the courtesy to let them share a bed and escort them out in the morning.  Instead, they are left in the drawing room for the servants to clean up in the morning.  Spark, though her presentation of feminist issues is problematic, makes an overt criticism of the patriarchal system as well, or at the very least the people who represent it.

 

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

Rankin likens the novel to a holiday romance (150), and when reading it I couldn’t help but find similarities between Spark’s work and Henry James’s Daisy Miller.  Though the two works are very different, they do both share a commonality in that they both feature women who do not concede to social expectations and both women decide their own fate.  The most striking similarity between the two works is the location of their deaths.  Daisy Miller catches the Roman Fever whilst touring the Coliseum in the evening.  Though the illness takes several days to kill her, her death’s conception takes place at the Coliseum.  Lise likewise dies at the Coliseum.  She takes Richard there with her and compels him to kill her in the park.  Their deaths are quite different, but what the two works have in common is that these women choose their own death.

 

Another shot of Elizabeth Taylor.

Another shot of Elizabeth Taylor.

Upon finishing the novel, I couldn’t help but feel torn.  Spark is a clever narrator.  When putting Lise together before the reader, she does a magnificent job of alluding to details about Lise’s life without revealing too much.  When Spark notes that Lise has “done again what she had not done for five years” (10) after she bursts into tears, the reader gets a sense of the magnitude of this event, and coupled with a prior comment that Lise had work at the office for a number of years “except for the months of illness” (9), the reader again gets a sense that there is something about Lise that is not being told.  But other elements are inconsistent.  Is Lise the victim of a determinism?  Or is Richard, her murderer, a victim?  He tries not to kill her, but he has an illness and Lise entices him and drags him to her death.  Or is the absurdity of such a scenario meant to demonstrate the absurdity of determinism?  Regardless of what the intent of the author might be, the books serves to at the very least raise some interesting questions.  How complicit is a victim in their own crime?  Do humans have authority over their biological impulses?  Do humans have authority over their own ‘destiny’?  Is free-will an illusion?  There are no answers, and Spark doesn’t even seem to have a consistent or overt answer to them, but she challenges the reader to explore them through a narrative that is hypnotically intriguing and demonstrates narrative tools that seem to be employed by a master story teller.

 

If you enjoyed this post and want to get my most recent posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  And if this novel interests you, read the Ian Rankin’s essay “Surface and Structure: Reading Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat” as Rankin has a number of interesting insights into the novel.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

 

 

Spark, Muriel.  The Driver’s Seat. Net York.  Penguin.  1970.  Print.

 

Rankin, Ian. “Surface and Structure: Reading Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat”.

The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring, 1985), pp. 146-155.  JSTOR. Web.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Hi Jason, great review of the book, I’ll certainly check out the Rankin essay. I have some stills from the film starring Elizabeth Taylor on my flickr –
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/36940576@N04/sets/72157626458385085/

    which you can use on your blog if you wish. The photos are in chronological order, so scroll down till you get to them. The film itself which I imagine you have seen, is quite interesting and faithful to the text- Elizabeth is deep into her art house phase here, and despite it being available only in low quality copies and cheap budget re-issues, the film is better than its availability would suggest hopefully one day it will get a decent re-issue.

    best Andrew

  2. Thanks for your kind words Andrew!

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