Whose line is it anyway? Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat explained


The Driver’s Seat reveals a woman’s murder in the words of the eye witnesses – but the story they tell can’t be trusted.

What is The Driver’s Seat about?

In the opening pages of The Driver’s Seat, the protagonist – we only ever know her as ‘Lise’ – is trying on a gaudy dress. At first she loves it, but becomes almost hysterical when she learns it’s stain resistant:

The customer, a young woman, is suddenly tearing at the fastener at the neck, pulling at the zip of the dress. She is saying, ‘Get this thing off me. Off me, at once.’

By the end of the novel, Lise’s reaction has a new framing. Her journey is the search for ‘Mr Right’: not a man to love, but to whom she can entrust her death. The dress is to be both peacock plumage and a prop. With such an aim in mind, a stain-resistant dress would be a waste.

The Driver’s Seat presents a perverted idea of female agency. Against a textual backdrop of sexual liberation and protests for equality, here’s a woman who turns freedom into a means to stage-manage her death. Is this the ultimate in women’s lib, or a dangerous misreading?

In a narrative so riddled with inconsistencies, the key to this novel isn’t the dress at all, but the plurality of voices that relate its events. The text, like the title, clamours to answer the question: just who’s driving this thing?

Who is Lise?

What we learn about Lise is confusing and contradictory.

In the opening scene, she’s described as a young woman. Later there’s a clinical description, almost as if lifted from the police report, or from someone who barely knows her:

Lise is thin. Her height is about five-foot-six. Her hair is pale brown, probably tinted … she might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six.

She appears inappropriately flirty when talking to the airline clerk, and greedy and ignorant with Bill. She’s irresponsible and unhinged with Mrs Fiedke and, frightening and controlling when dealing with her killer.

Lise is an office worker, a teacher from “Iowa, New Jersey”, a seasoned traveller, a widow and an intellectual. She laughs too long and too loudly, even when no joke has been made. And she cries readily and has a knack for stealing cars.

The sum of the details is that Lise is a mad creature, full of pretence and artifice, first one thing then another as suits her audience. As they tell it, she’s not just a willing victim, but one who grooms her killer.

When Lise creates an odd impression at the airline check-in desk, we’re told “it is almost as if, satisfied that she has successfully registered the fact of her presence at the airport”.

This is one of many red herrings in this subverted whodunnit.

Lise’s actions are rituals, pointing the way to a death fetish. But beyond them lies an altogether different possibility.

The missing woman

There are no substantial details about Lise in The Driver’s Seat because this isn’t her tale. One of the story’s many subversions is that, despite the use of the present tense, Lise is already dead.

She is ‘missing’ from the narrative and instead, events are recreated through a slew of witness accounts.

There’s testimony from the salesgirl and office colleagues through to those who take advantage of her – right down to the man who kills her. Each has their own agenda and, each casts Lise in a different light.

It’s this that makes The Driver’s Seat so compelling and disturbing. It presents Lise as a madwoman in the attic. Her actions make no sense or, are morbid and unhinged.

At the same time, her madness is a construct: it’s the sum of all her parts blown open by a number of voices trying to take control of the story.

Lise is passed from person to person, each encounter overwriting the one before. She exits the tale as soon as it begins because she doesn’t, in fact, exist. What remains is a reconstruction: a disturbing photo-fit.

As a result, The Driver’s Seat contains two narratives. In one, strangers dictate Lise’s character and motivations. Lise is mad. She’s a liar. She makes no sense. She’s suicidal. Sex in her hands is entirely destructive.

The other reading is far more tragic. Lise, a lonely woman looking for love, is senselessly murdered.

The first interpretation makes the murderer the victim. The second brings more sense and honour to Lise’s life. This is what the question of the title comes down to: who’s responsible for Lise’s death? Is it murder, or suicide? Design, or accident? Who, exactly, is in the driving seat?

The ‘second narrative’ theory

At the novel’s opening, we’re invited to eavesdrop on a shop’s changing room:

‘And the material doesn’t stain,’ the salesgirl says. […] ‘If you spill like a bit of ice-cream or a drop of coffee, like, down the front of this dress, it won’t hold the stain.’

The customer, a young woman, is suddenly tearing at the fastener …

This memory – its tense, wording and even ingredients – is revised just moments later, almost as if under questioning or examination:

‘And it doesn’t stain,’ the salesgirl had said […]

The customer had flung the dress aside.

The salesgirl shouts, as if to assist her explanation. ‘Specially treated fabric … If you spill like a drop of sherry you just wipe it off.’

(emphasis added)

Events that happen in the plane are also given twice. First there’s a description of the businessman inexplicably vacating his seat to move away from Lise and Bill. Almost immediately there’s a cut to the following evening, in which the businessman reveals: “I moved my seat. I was afraid.”

At the end of the novel another cut scene teases us with the details of Bill’s police custody. “‘Lise, he says. ‘I don’t know her other name. We met on the plane.’”

This is why Lise has no last name: there’s no omniscient narrator to give it. The author-narrator who strings together these accounts admits as much: “Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?” (p50).

The many voices who tell this tale (none of them entirely reliable) account for the narrative’s inconsistencies. The construct draws attention to not just who is responsible for Lise’s death, but why the question is important at all.

The first narrative

On first reading, the story unfolds like this:

Lise is going on holiday. It’s important to her to find a remarkable dress – the gaudier, the better. Her colleagues support her vacation (there’s a suggestion of an illness). Lise lives an arid, untouched life: she’s a loner. She’s somewhat unhinged, laughing alone and talking on the phone even after the other person has hung up.

She goes to the airport and tries to get noticed (by acting oddly). We get a shocking glimpse of how she dies. Lise flies to a country she’s been to before. She’s on the lookout for a particular type of man, but he’s not easy to find. It’s as if the men sense she’s up to no good and fear her.

Lise goes to a hotel but is too skittish to unpack. She finds the place she wants to die on a local map and draws an X on the spot. Then she goes shopping, and buys further props for her death, including a scarf and the knife that will kill her. She meets men who try to take advantage of her, but she’s not interested in sex alone – she has her eyes on a darker prize.

Eventually she meets the ‘right’ man. He has a history of sexual crimes, but has attempted to go straight. Lise forces him to take her to her chosen location – she wants to get ‘laid’, in the most final and fetishised way. The murderer merely follows instructions.

The hidden narrative in The Driver’s Seat

If you read the book as a kind of police report, the plot feels quite different. Here, Lise has been killed and the book is a reconstruction of the events leading to her death.

Lise prepares to go on holiday. She lives alone, but has a few supportive friends and colleagues. She finds a dress and coat which she thinks look good together.

Lise covers up the embarrassment of travelling alone by trying to seem better travelled than she is. She fusses on the plane to appear more cultivated, but bungles her attempts to talk about macrobiotics. She is noticed by a convicted sex maniac, who worries he’s going to commit a crime and quickly moves seats.

Lise meets Mrs Fiedke, an older woman with bad eyesight and prone to passing out. Lise kindly helps her with her shopping, stopping along the way to pick up presents for family and friends. She buys a collection of scarves and ties for them, and a blender for herself. She tells Mrs Fiedke that she’s looking for a boyfriend.

The two women are separated during a riot. Lise is attacked by one man but manages to escape. She then bumps into Bill. Lise tries to tell him she doesn’t want sex (she wants a boyfriend). Again, she escapes – only to come face-to-face with a sex maniac. He lures Lise to the park, rapes and kills her, and fabricates details in order to weight reconstructed events against her.

Freeing Lise

To accept the narrative as the sum of many voices throws doubt on its reliability. Why should we accept their portrayal of Lise, given they all have their own agendas?

The biggest consequence is to unbuckle Lise from the driver’s seat altogether. Rather than being some Machiavellian femme fatale, Lise is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the first reading seems so plausible – and damning – is due to how the novel subverts appearances, clichés and norms.

Lise’s dress factors largely in this, as a (multicoloured) red herring. It’s a calling card – a way to be recognised and remembered.

For a middle-aged woman living an invisible and lonely life, the dress is a means of becoming visible – albeit to cruel ends. When the concierge spies Lise’s get-up, she “throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out a high, hacking cough-like ancestral laugh of the streets.” (p17)

At the hotel, we learn more about the assumptions being made about Lise’s clothes:

Just as, in former times, when prostitutes could be discerned by the brevity of their skirts compared with the normal standard, so Lise in her knee-covering clothes at this moment looks curiously of the street-prostitute class beside the mini-skirted girls and their mothers whose knees at least can be seen.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Lise may dress exactly unlike a street walker, yet that’s how others treat her.

Her gaudy dress is the scarlet letter often given to victims of sex crime: she was asking for it. In fact, we’re led to believe that Lise is ‘asking for it’ – she craves death and destruction in a highly fetishised way.

Appearance Vs Reality

As with any detective yarn, The Driver’s Seat sets up the thrills by masking the identity of the killer (see also A Kiss before Dying).

Spark does this firstly by throwing Lise in the path of a number of men whom we assume must be bad news, based on appearance, cliché, and action.

We write the true killer off as a respectable businessman, “a rosy-faced, sturdy young man of about thirty; he is dressed in a dark business suit and carries a black briefcase.” We see Lise try and fail to make his acquaintance, and feel frightened for her as Bill (with vibes of Red Riding Hood’s wolf) latches on to her instead.

And there’s no doubt we are to be wary of Bill, who has villainy written on him as clearly as any Fagin, i.e., with racialised descriptions:

Meanwhile, closely behind Lise, almost at her side, walks a man who in turn seems anxious to be close to her … He is bespectacled, half-smiling, young, dark, long-nosed and stooping.

(emphasis added)

Bill, for all his talk of pure nutrition, is a randy cad – as is mechanic Carlo. Both men attack Lise; both times, she escapes.

Masked by the responses of these opportunistic men to a vulnerable and lone[ly] woman, businessman Richard is shown to be not only well dressed and very proper, but also the one who flees from her. How could we suspect such a man of wrongdoing?

Thus Spark subverts the romantic adventure, in which boy meets girl and wins her round through persistence.

Instead the narrative paints Lise as predator. She thrills in the pursuit (“‘The torment of it,’ Lisa says. ‘Not knowing exactly where and when he’s going to turn up.’”).

Romance and gender

When Lise finally finagles her man, it is she who supposedly dictates how the relationship is to be consummated:

‘I’m going to lie down here. Then you tie my hands with my scarf; I’ll put one wrist over the other, it’s the proper way … Then you strike.’ She points first to her throat. ‘First here,’ she says. Then, pointing to a place beneath each breast, she says, ‘Then here and here. Then anywhere you like.’

If this doesn’t make it plain enough to the police later, the words are placed in Lise’s mouth:

‘A lot of women get killed in the park,’ he says, leaning back; he is calmer now.

‘Yes, of course. It’s because they want to be.’

Arguably it’s Richard who puts these words in Lise’s mouth. It’s his phony recollection that shapes the novel, and the reader’s judgement:

He runs to the car, taking his chance and knowing that he will at last be taken, and seeing already as he drives from the Pavilion and away, the sad little office where the police clank in and out and the typewriter ticks out his unnerving statement: ‘She told me to kill her and I killed her. She spoke in many languages but she was telling me to kill her all the time.’

Lise is killed, and her killer will ask our sympathy for the two lives destroyed: “She told me precisely what to do. I was hoping to start a new life.”

The businessman claims to have unmasked the murderer and, shockingly, it is Lise herself.

The upside down

So, everything is upside down in this book. Appearance and reality. Present tense (for past events). A constant and reliable narrator. All of these play into the biggest swap of all: victim and abuser.

The sex-death Lise plans is a stand-in for the romance, intimacy and full-blown eroticism that elude her in life. It’s a compromise on the loneliness that follows sexual union.

It’s even a compromise on suicide, because she can’t kill herself. She can’t even die alone – it must be at the hands of another, even in his arms.

This is the joke at Lise’s expense. She’s not in ‘the driver’s seat’. She delegates the moment of her death (or orgasm – popularised by Freud as “the little death”) to a man.

Even then, her instructions are ignored: “I don’t want any sex,’ she shouts … All the same, he plunges into her, with the knife poised high.”

But if Lise’s approach to sex is itself a kind of subversion, that also applies to her story. It’s this which causes the narrative to break down.

What if it isn’t a seamless presentation of facts, but the piecing together of unreliable accounts? What if Lise hadn’t planned to die, but merely to go on holiday? How about all those other men and women who die at the hands of others – what if they really did conspire with their abusers; what would that look like? How would a woman go about ‘asking for it’? How would she plan it, and how would it appear to by-standers? What, afterwards, would the remnants of her life be worth?

This is the novel’s final twisted subversion. There’s no clear answer about who is the driving seat but, in weighing up the last moment’s of a life, the proportioning of blame and excuse is compelling and unavoidable.

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark (1970)

Quoted edition published by Penguin Books, 2006

Picture credit: Travis Jones