Lesson Plan: Stephen King’s Big Driver and Sexual Violence

Alissa Burger

I regularly teach a 300-level Great Writers course on the works of Stephen King, in both face-to-face and online formats. The course is offered online both as a half-session, seven-week course during the fall or spring semester and as an accelerated four-week course during an abbreviated winter session. In the four week winter session version, I narrow the scope of our discussion to reality-based horror and our reading and discussion focus on several of King’s novellas: in the latest iteration of this course, Rage and The Long Walk from King’s early collection The Bachman Books (1985) and Big Driver and A Good Marriage from the more recent Full Dark, No Stars (2010).  Each of these novellas addresses disturbing, realistic, horrific themes, with school shootings in Rage, competition in The Long Walk, sexual violence in Big Driver, and serial murder in A Good Marriage. For each of these online units, I provide students with a background lesson that contextualizes that novella’s theme, a series of discussion questions to get our conversation started, and a critical reflection prompt.

Big Driver

The depiction of rape and sexual violence in Big Driver is graphic and intense and, in fact, my students often struggle more in responding to and articulating their thoughts about this sexual violence than they do about the school shooting scenario of Rage. As a result, setting up this thematic context prior to our reading and posing questions that can help them break through that discomfort is essential in facilitating effective discussion and engagement with the novella.

Background Lesson

The background information is set up in a self-directed, multi-page lesson, through which students can proceed at their own pace. In the case of Big Driver, these pages focus on issues of real life sexual violence and the rape-revenge film sub-genre of horror.

1) Full Dark, No Stars

While The Bachman Books include work from very early in King’s career, we’re now making the jump to Full Dark, No Stars, his most recent collection of novellas (2010). As we’ve been drawing connections between what we’re reading and King’s other works (where applicable), we can also talk about how his writing style has changed and evolved over the course of his career from The Bachman Books to Full Dark, No Stars in our discussion of the larger literary and thematic elements.

As you know from our overview of themes in the “Introduction to the Course,” our first novella from the collection, Big Driver, deals with some pretty graphic depictions of rape and violence against women.

2) Sexual Violence and Rape Statistics

According to the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape)” (“Who Are the Victims?,” emphasis original). While men experience rape and sexual assault as well, 9 out of 10 victims of sexual assault and rape are women (“Who Are the Victims?”). While anyone can be targeted for sexual violence or rape, the majority of rape victims are young women, with 80% under 30 years old and 44% under 18 years old (“Statistics”).

A recent U.S. Department of Justice survey estimates that there are approximately 207,754 victims of rape and sexual assault each year (“How Often”).

These statistics are based on reported rapes and sexual assaults, by survivors who report their assault to the police and/or seek medical attention for their injuries. However, rape statistics are notoriously debated, since so many attacks go unreported. As Betsy tells Tess in Big Driver, “Sixty percent of rapes go unreported according to them [the National Crime Victimization Survey]. Three in every five. I think that might be low, but who can say for sure? Outside of math classes, it’s hard to prove a negative. Impossible really” (King 353).

3) Why Don’t Victims Report Rape?

There are several reasons victims may not report being raped, including:

  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Shock: “Many victims say that reporting is the last thing they want to do right after being attacked” (“Reporting Rape”)
  • Backlash, especially if they personally know their attacker
  • Denial: “many survivors don’t want to believe that something as horrible as rape could have happened to them, so they deny that it was rape” (“Why Most Victims Don’t Report Rape”)
  • Fear of being blamed for their own rape: “asking for it” by being dressed provocatively, drinking, being out late, being somewhere they “shouldn’t” have been (Bates)
  • Low conviction rates for rapists (Beckford)
  • “The media and society at large is unsympathetic to rape victims” (Beckford)

4) Effects of Rape

According to the World Health Organization, victims of sexual assault and rape are:

  • “3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
  • 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
  • 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
  • 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.” (“Who Are the Victims?”, emphasis original)

In addition, “Across the board, the most negatively affected domains were self-esteem, sexual reputation, (i.e. being labeled as promiscuous), frequency of sex, desire to have sex, and self-perceived mate value or desirability” (Sinn).

5) Rape-Revenge Films

Violence against women, including sexual assault and rape, are ubiquitous in popular culture, including mainstream film and television, and are often shown in sensationalized or sexualized ways.

The rape-revenge film genre (though in many cases, it can also be productively read as a sub-genre of horror) developed in response to this pattern of representation. As Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explains, “At its most basic level, a rape-revenge film is one whereby a rape that is central to the narrative is punished by an act of vengeance, either by the victim themselves or by an agent (a lawyer, a policeman or, most commonly, a loved one or a family member)” (3).Some of the most famous rape-revenge films include I Spit on Your Grave (1978; remade in 2010), The Last House on the Left (1972; remade in 2009), and, more recently, The Brave One (2007), and Teeth (2007).

6) Rape-Revenge Films (cont.)

The rape-revenge film traditionally has a basic three-part structure:

  • “Act I: A woman is raped/gang raped, tortured, and left for dead.
  • Act II: The woman survives and rehabilitates herself.
  • Act III: The woman takes revenge and kills all of her rapists.” (“Rape-Revenge Films”)

Act I—the rape itself—is usually incredibly graphic and extensive; for example, the gang rape scene in the original version of Last House on the Left goes on for 25 minutes and bombards the viewer with images of extremely explicit sexual violence.While this would seem, at first glance, to further the sensationalization of sexual violence against women in popular culture, the second and third acts speak back to this violence, with either the woman herself–or, if she has been killed as in the original Last House on the Left, survivors who want to avenge her death—torture and kill the rapists.As Hannah D. Foreman explains, “Rape-revenge films are about the degradation of rape and the empowering moments when a woman takes her healing into her hands in a way that can only be done legally on screen” (qtd. in Oler 31).

7) Positive or Negative?

Rape-revenge films became popular during the exploitation era of the 1970s, but as the remakes of I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left show, these films mark the continuation of a popular cult genre.The rape-revenge genre provides a means of catharsis, of speaking back against and violently punishing rape, though in a fictional, vicarious way. In a situation where many survivors feel powerless and terrified, the rape-revenge genre can be read as a way of symbolically reclaiming power and exacting punishment on the perpetrators—a kind of revenge fantasy.On the other hand, we should critically question “the rape-revenge convention that vengeance is an adequate pathway to healing—no matter how much it may be informed by righteous anger” (Oler 33). In other words, is more violence the answer to violence? Can violence ever be a means to healing or only result in more trauma?

Discussion Questions

As previously mentioned, there is a strong cultural taboo in talking about rape and sexual violence, so getting the conversation started regarding these issues and Big Driver can be a challenge. However, providing students with a range of questions on the novella and the critical applications of literary terminology (which is central to each novella unit), as well as ones addressing these larger themes of sexual violence, has proven productive in getting the discussion started and helping students work through this discomfort.

1. Foreshadowing

King gives us foreshadowing of the attack on Tess very early in the novella. In the second chapter, he tells us that “Whether or not you could put a price tag on pain, rape, and terror was a question the Knitting Society ladies had never taken up …. But when Tess was forced to consider it, she thought the answer was no” (200). In the next chapter, he tells us “her fate was decided as simply as that. She had always been a sucker for a shortcut” (201).King does this in other works as well, especially when the horror to come is realistically-based rather than supernatural horror, which often relies on the power of surprise or shock.  For example, in Pet Sematary, King tells us about the Creeds’ son that “Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously” (224). Why do you think King uses foreshadowing such as this when it comes to realistically-based horror?

2. Tess and Rape Victim/Survivor Profile

Considering the information from our background lesson, in what ways does Tess fit the pattern of a rape victim/survivor? What does this tell us about our cultural beliefs and/or perceptions about women, violence against women, and rape?

3. Reliability

We know that Tess “had been making up voices and conversations since childhood, although at the age of eight or nine, she’d quit doing it around other people, unless it was for comic effect” (271-272). However, as the novella progresses, her conversations with Tom the talking TomTom and Fritz the cat become more frequent and take on different voices than the usual ones she imagines. With this in mind, is Tess a reliable character, in terms of narration? If she becomes an unreliable narrator over the course of the novella, at what point do you think she switches from reliable to unreliable? Why?

4. Catharsis

Watching rape-revenge films, Tess thinks about “the low but authentic catharsis movies like The Brave One offered” (289). What is the role and purpose of this catharsis? What is it about the catharsis of rape-revenge films that keeps viewers watching and, as a result, filmmakers making, this genre of films?

5. Horror Film Allusions and Tess’s Characterization

Throughout Big Driver, Tess keeps making horror movie allusions. As she is contemplating crawling out of the culvert after her rape, she thinks that “In a suspense novel, this would be the moment of false relaxation before the big climax. Or in a scary movie …. She didn’t like scary books or movies, but being raped and almost murdered seemed to have unlocked a whole vault of scary movie memories, all the same. As if they were just there, in the air” (222).These allusions haunt her as she makes her way back to civilization, but after she has committed herself to seek revenge upon her rapist, she leaves her house and “clouds scudded across the face of a three-quarter moon. Tess thought it was a fine night for a horror movie” (295).Why do you think Tess keeps thinking of these horror movie allusions? How does her perspective change as the novella progresses? How does this perspective reflect a change in Tess’s characterization?

6. Murder and Morality

After stabbing Ramona, Tess reflects that “she had believed she would never … be able to hurt something that way without feeling remorse or regret. She suffered neither in the living room of the house on Lacemaker Lane. Perhaps because, in the end, it had been self-defense. Or perhaps that wasn’t it at all” (304). Which do you think is the case: self-defense or something else? What does this tell us about Tess?

7. Big Driver’s Hat

After shooting him, Tess puts on the hat Big Driver was wearing when he raped her: “She took off her hat, stuffed it into her jacket pocket, and put his on in its place. It was too big for her, so she took it off again long enough to adjust the strap in back” (323). She then puts his ring in her pocket and drives his truck down the road to his brother’s house. Why do you think she does this? How does this mark a shift in her characterization?

8. Guilt

In Tess’s conversation with Tom the talking TomTom, he tells her that “When a person does a bad thing and another person knows but doesn’t stop it, they’re equally guilty” (339). Do you agree? And with this in mind, do you feel justice has been done at the end of Big Driver? Why or why not?

Critical Reflection

The final activity of each of the novella units is a brief (3-4 page) critical reflection that requires students to synthesize material from the novella with secondary, critical sources to make and support an argument regarding our reading and themes for that unit. For each critical reflection, I provide students with a range of options from which to choose.

For Big Driver, choose one of the following options and write a 3-4 page critical response, incorporating quotes from Big Driver and at least one critical source:

*Considering the rape-revenge genre, do you think this genre is positive and cathartic? Or a negative glorification of violence?

Tammy Oler shows both sides in her article “The Brave Ones,” arguing that we can view these films—and Big Driver—as positive because “despite their often agonizing depictions of violence against women, they are among the only films in which women are portrayed as triumphant survivors in a world where rape is rarely recognized or prosecuted” (Oler 31). On the other hand, we need to critically question “the rape-revenge convention that vengeance is an adequate pathway to healing—no matter how much it may be informed by righteous anger” (Oler 33). A full-text copy of Oler’s article is posted on our course site in the Big Driver unit.


*Want more King? If you’re interested in Stephen King’s real-life horror fiction based on violence against women, you can read “The Gingerbread Girl” (posted on our course site in the Big Driver unit) and develop a critical comparison/contrast of Big Driver and “The Gingerbread Girl.” While Tess is raped, Em in “The Gingerbread Girl” faces and responds to her attacker before she can be raped and murdered, though other women before her have not been so lucky. What themes do these two works share? In what ways are they different? In what ways are these women avenging or protecting themselves and in what ways are they fighting for other women?

For this response, you will pull information from our background lesson on rape and rape-revenge films and include at least one of those critical sources, as well as quotes from Big Driver and “The Gingerbread Girl.”


*If you are familiar with one or more rape-revenge film(s), you can develop a critical comparison/contrast of Big Driver with that film(s). In what ways are Big Driver and that film similar? In what ways are they different? How does each fit into, uphold, or challenge the traditions of the rape-revenge genre?

For this response, you will pull information from our background lesson on rape and rape-revenge films; you’ll likely find the definition of the rape-revenge genre or the breakdown of the three-act structure of the traditional rape-revenge narrative especially useful here. If you’re interested in comparing Big Driver to a particular rape-revenge film and want a hand looking for a critical response to or review of that particular film, let me know and I’ll be happy to help you find some good resources.


*As we’ve seen from the remakes of I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, as well as King’s Big Driver (which is a contemporary novella: 2010), even though it has its roots in the 1970s exploitation film tradition, the rape-revenge narrative continues to be a cult genre that attracts viewers and readers. Why do you think this is the case? What is the attraction of the rape-revenge genre?

For this critical response, you can draw on the quotes from the Oler article above or more general information from our background lesson on rape and rape-revenge films, including the definition of the rape-revenge genre. A full-text copy of Oler’s article is posted on our course site in the Big Driver unit.

This combination of activities for each of the novella units engages students in multiple types of critical thinking and engagement, from the critical contextualization of the background lessons to the discourse and debate of the discussion boards, as well as the analysis and synthesis of sources required by the critical reflections, each of which work toward students effectively and critically considering and responding to King’s literature.
Works Cited 

Bates, Laura. “A Crime Upon a Crime: Rape, Victim-Blaming, and Stigma.” Women Under Siege Project. 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

Beckford, Martin. “80% of Women Don’t Report Rape or Sexual Assault, Study Claims.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

“How Often Does Sexual Assault Occur?” Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

King, Stephen. “Big Driver.” Full Dark, No Stars. New York: Pocket Books, 2010: 195-355. Print.

— . “The Boogeyboys.” Horrorking.com. Stephen King, 2009. Web. 31 Dec. 2013.

— . Just After Sunset. New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.

— . Pet Sematary. New York: Signet, 1983. Print.

McBain. Ed. “Introduction.” Transgressions: The Ransom Women by John Farris and The Things They Left Behind by Stephen King. New York: Forge, 2005: vii-x. Print.

Oler, Tammy. “The Brave Ones.” Bitch: Feminist Responses to Pop Culture. 11.42 (Winter 2008): 30-34.

“Rape-Revenge Films.” Mubi.com. MUBI, 2008-2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

“Reporting Rape.” Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

Sinn, Jessica. “Effects of Rape Go Beyond Depression.” Futurity.org. 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

“Statistics.” Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).” RAINN, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

“Who Are the Victims?” Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

“Why Most Victims Don’t Report Rape.” Cosmopolitan. Hearst Communications, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.

Footnote 1.

In contrast, in the full semester, fifteen-week, face-to-face version of the course, we read and discuss a wider range of King’s themes, looking at supernatural horror and technohorror, in addition to this reality-based horror. For the seven-week online version of the course, I have focused the course in several different ways; for example, the Fall 2013 offering coincided with the release of King’s Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, and in that section, we read and discussed the prequel “Before the Play,” The Shining, and Doctor Sleep, as well as the promotional and review materials surrounding the release of Doctor Sleep, while my upcoming section of this course will look specifically at representations of women in King’s work through Carrie, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder.

Footnote 2.

Novellas are a quite unique format. As Ed McBain, who collected and edited the novella series Transgressions defines it, “A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words. Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words), it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain’t easy to write” (vii). King’s short novella The Things They Left Behind was included in Transgressions (it’s also in King’s collection Just After Sunset [2008]); King has published several collections of novellas over the course of his career, including the aforementioned Bachman Books, Different Seasons (1982), Four Past Midnight (1990), and Full Dark, No Stars.

Footnote 3.

King pulled Rage from publication after a copy was found in the locker of Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old school shooter in Kentucky (“The Boogeyboys”), though my students have thus far been able to get copies of the book either used or from libraries for our course reading with little difficulty, and much like the promotional and review discussion of Doctor Sleep in another section of the course, this gives us an opportunity to think and talk critically about connections between popular culture and violence, (in this case self-) censorship, and King’s decision to no longer publish Rage.

Footnote 4.

Each of these background lessons concludes with an MLA style Works Cited page that provides information for all critical sources cited within the lesson. In recent semesters, I have also included a second, APA style-formatted list of references to accommodate students from a variety of majors, many of which—like nursing and criminal justice—use APA rather than MLA style in their major courses. I have included the citations for the background lesson critical sources at the end of the overall lesson plan.

Footnote 5.

As with the background lessons, each critical reflection prompt includes MLA and APA style citations for critical sources referenced; here they are included in the Works Cited at the end of the lesson plan.