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Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat and it’s Influence on Second-Wave Feminism

Info: 2212 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 12th May 2021 in Literature

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 Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat largely impacted Second-Wave Feminism in the late 20th Century, whether or not that was Spark’s intention. Through Spark’s life she never claimed herself to be a feminist of any type, she did however use her life and notoriety to campaign strongly for equality, focusing on equal pay. Equal pay was of the upmost concern for Spark in regards to women’s rights. Spark understood the patriarchal capitalism dominating the world and the way in which equal pay would change the complete power dynamic of the business world. Muriel Spark used her novels, not to fight for women’s rights but, to describe the exact situation in which women of the time were living within a patriarchal society, even going as far as to make light of the horrific situations in a comical way. Spark’s humorous and light tone of voice often belittled the seriousness of the situation she was discussing within her work.

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 Spark’s novella could have been her own elite joke, playing on the idea of women ‘asking for it’ and exploring the very natural of control within relationships. The Driver’s Seat, despite its very dark subject matter, is a hilarious story that upends all traditions of murder mystery stories and makes fun of romance. Lise experiences many examples of male dominance and patriarchal power throughout the novella, from attempted rape to mansplaining, each of these men resonating constant anger towards Lise when she resists their own desires in favour of her own. Lise is a hunter where all these men only see her as prey, she uses these men for her own personal gain within her ‘game of life’ and they do not take lightly to being used by a woman no less. Spark’s mocking novella was her response to all of the sexism deep rooted in literature of the world in 1970s. Roland Barthes published his writing titles The Death of the Author in 1967 which ignored the possible presence of female writers. With Spark’s novella being published a mere three years after Barthes text it is likely that the character of Lise was used as a response to Barthes in a mocking response of ‘The Death of the Author-ess’.

 Within The Driver’s Seat Lise takes charge and becomes the instigator of her own murder, inverting all traditional stereotypes of a victim being nothing but a passive object. This strong woman being brutally murdered is a common theme throughout many forms of fiction, whether that’s in writing or on screen. Spark takes this trope and inverts it by giving Lise her own sense of control by being the central character in this novella, she will not be forgotten in a heartbeat as with many victims. Spark also uses this story to question the nature of victimhood, however she also gets very close to encouraging the narrative of victim-blaming with the excessive amount of violence against women featured within the novella. The Driver’s Seat investigates the relationship between the aggressor and the victim, it explores the way in which the aggressive cycle continues throughout this relationship. In the oppressive society that Lise lives in creates victims from nowhere, Spark argues that we could all be a victim when faced with this form of society, no matter to what degree. Spark also presents how easily a victim can turn into an aggressor when she truly wants something.

 The Driver’s Seat, released in 1970, fuelled a generation of Second-Wave Feminism. Following the release of Spark’s novella there was a surge in the feminist movement, whether or not Spark’s writing had a direct influence on this. Throughout the 1970s the feminist movement was successful in granting women the right to get an abortion and marital rape was also outlawed while the discussion of rape and domestic violence became more prevalent. In the same year as Spark published her ‘metaphysical shocker’ feminist classics such as The Female Eunuch and Sexual Politics, written by Germaine Greer and Kate Millett respectively, were also published. The Female Eunuch rebelled against the sense that women were only seen as sexual objects, whilst Sexual Politics focussed on the idea that the patriarchy was “the most pervasive ideology of our culture” (Millett pg 25). Lise, in herself and her possession of her own body, also rebels against her body being used as a sex object, she uses her garish sense of style and her compulsive dating to express her rebellion.

The Driver’s Seat is first and foremost a story about murder, however this is not a typical ‘whodunnit’ but more of a ‘whydunnit’ with the setup telling us from the start that Lise plans to organise her own murder. Spark uses a typically passive female figure and spins her into a woman in charge of her own destiny. Spark’s unrecognised skill of securing a woman as the centre of attention was one of her greatest achievements and is clearly shown throughout the novella. Nonetheless her heroines were not necessarily ‘nice’ women, they are often unlikeable by society and the characters around them. Spark’s leading ladies surpass a plain ‘victim’ and extend into real life in the way you could apply Spark’s cycle of victimhood to any other situation where people have been deceived into self-sabotaging. The playful yet revolutionary subject matter that Spark chooses to write on are often a light-hearted way for her to write on the true atrocities of the world around her. On the surface her book may seem simply a joke about a troubled woman but to look deeper you will find the disturbing tale of a woman rebelling against the deeply conceited and narcissistic society that she lives in.

Lise, within the novella, exposes the very centre of patriarchal capitalism in the world around her and inverts all stereotypes within her environment. Lise uses her inner strength and power to take control of her own situation, in a male dominated world she embodies the stereotypical vision of a hysterical woman while retaining what she deems to be a sense of dignity. Lise uses her madness to deter men from her true sense, they are quick to label her as insane whilst completely missing the point of what she is really aiming to achieve. The Driver’s Seat presents the idea that oppressive patriarchy can drive people to do crazy things and cause them to self-sabotage. The novella also focuses on that idea that only a woman of ill mind would organise her own murder and therefore Spark’s text also negates any sense of victim-blaming. This also proves that female hysteria is and always has been merely a patriarchal concept that men used to undermine women to keep control over them.

Muriel Spark’s novella is cleverly titled The Driver’s Seat, capturing the essence of this woman’s determination to climb into the driver’s seat and control her own destiny, even though this means organising her own murder at the very hands of a stranger. Lise has obviously fantasized about her inevitable murder for a long time, even coming up with a certain “type” of man that she wants to carry out her murder, she goes through many men and deems them unworthy of murdering her. This depiction of female strength presents a woman choosing to be the victim, causing a potentially problematic feminist reading. On one hand Lise is the perfect feminist, she takes control of the way she wants her life to end, but on the other she inevitably gives her power over to a man. From the beginning of this novella Lise shows erratic and irrational behaviour, she seems to be unravelling from the large amount of power she has given herself and the responsibility she has claimed for organising her demise. Although this is arguably a red herring for her actual feelings, while it simply looks as if she is insane it is actually all a part of Lise’s plan to “lay the trail”. Lise strategically buys garish clothes so she can stand out and invite mocking, she behaves erratically to make sure the people around remember her, everything she does is carefully calculated. Lise is creating clues and witnesses everywhere she goes, she lays her whole day out for the police.

 Lise is very much the hunter and not the hunted within this novel, she is determined to find her perfect man to kill her. She is attacked by two different men who do not fit to her “type” and she fights them both off, stealing their cars and therefore removing their ‘manhood’. After these unsuccessful attempts at finding her attacker Lise finds Richard who she deems the perfect killer. Lise exhibits female power throughout her choosing the specific man she wants to kill her, resonating feminist strength and echoing the social upheavals within the era. Within the 1960s, the time in which Spark was writing the fiction, there was a surge in the Second-Wave Feminist movement, the first oral contraceptive was released allowing women to have control over their own bodies, the “Women Strike For Peace” took place, and their was a great leap for feminist civil rights. The 1970s, after the book was published, showed even more change for the feminist movement with women gaining the right to an abortion and marital rape being outlawed. Spark was very ahead in this movement with featuring many of these topics in her novella, Lise is a very obvious feminist taking control of her own body in every sense. Mrs Fiedke, Lise’s companion throughout, illuminates how “the male sex is getting out of hand”:

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There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn’t have made them different from us to the naked eye. […] the male sex is getting out of hand. […] They won’t be content with equal rights only. Next thing they’ll want the upper hand, mark my words. (SPARK, Chapter Five)

 Mrs Fiedke’s speech is laced with venom against men, she has seen the world change and men with it and wishes it would revert to the way it used to be. At the very heart of her declaration she assumes that the change is creating inequality between men and women. This novella centres around the power play within the relationship between men and women and this speech perfectly summarises the sexual politics in the era. Spark’s critical tone shows her disapproval of misogyny but also of the extremism often seen in feminists, instead she aims for a balance between both sexes in which they could co-exist in harmony. Lise also comments on the which that “everything is different now, it’s all changed” (SPARK, Chapter Four), further resonating on the sexual politics of the time.

 Muriel Spark’s iconic novella emanates feminism and comments explicitly on the positive and negative changes in the feminist movement within the era in which it was written and published. Spark uses her critical tone to discuss her own opinions and views on these changes and the way they would have affected real women living through this time period, she focuses on a morbid central character with a fixation on proving a point to illuminate the extreme changes that were forced upon people. Lise is used as a prop to play out Spark’s warning tale of what could happen if one were to be too invested in the lifestyle you live, she takes in too much of her environment and becomes obsessed with making a stand against this world. The Driver’s Seat inverts all stereotypes of both detective stories and romance stories, both of these genres end with perfect endings of solving the puzzle or finding the perfect match. This novella inverts these entirely, Lise overturns the detective type novel by planting her own clues before her murder, and she uses the romance type to find her perfect man however she needs her man to kill her instead of living happily ever after. Spark’s witty story highlights so many world changing revelations of the 1960s-1970s, this novella is a central piece of writing to the feminist movement and will continue to be vital to this movement forever.

Works Cited

  • Spark, Muriel. The Driver’s Seat. 1970. PDF file.
  • Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. Harper Collins e-books, 1991. https://seminariolecturasfeministas.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/germaine-greer-the-female-eunuch.pdf
  • Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. University of Illinois Press, 2000. https://ia801702.us.archive.org/9/items/KateMillettSexualPolitics/Kate%20Millett--Sexual%20Politics_text.pdf

 

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