Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates
In Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates we have the theme of conflict, independence and control. Written in 1966 and narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, most critics would agree that the story is based on the crimes committed by Charles Schmid. What is also interesting about the story is the title. Again many critics would believe that Oates took the title from a verse in the Old Testament (Judges 19:17). Oates also provides a hint in the story which would suggest the title is taken from the bible. Arnold Friend’s car has the numbers 33, 19, 17 sprayed on the side. If the reader reads backwards, the 33rd book of the Old Testament is Judges and Chapter 19, Verse 17 reads – And when he had lifted up his eyes, he saw a wayfaring man in the street of the city: and the old man said, Whither goest thou? and whence comest thou? Though Oates has never confirmed that she took the title of the story from this verse, it would appear to be too coincidental for it not to have been taken from the Old Testament.
It is also noticeable that very early on in the story Oates explores the theme of conflict. There is the fact that Connie’s mother scolds Connie for spending so much time looking at herself in the mirror. Connie’s mother also makes comparisons between Connie and her older sister June, which Connie doesn’t seem to like. Again this may be significant as it can also suggest that there is some conflict between not only Connie and her mother but also between Connie and June. June is level headed, works as a secretary and appears to be in control of her life. This is in contrast to Connie who believes that looking attractive is the most important thing in life.
There also appears to be an internal conflict within Connie. She struggles to be independent, believing that by being attractive she will reach her goal of standing on her own two feet. Though June works hard and would seem to be going in the right direction, Connie, possibly through naivety believes that her looks will carry her through to maturity. It is also interesting that though Connie is striving to be independent, she still relies on others. This is noticeable by the fact that she is driven to and from the shopping mall by her friend’s father. Though she spends her time in the restaurant with older boys, she is still reliant on others to take her home. Symbolically this may also suggest that Connie is not yet ready to be independent, she is after all only fifteen years old.
Probably the most obvious sign of conflict is the struggle Connie encounters with Arnold Friend. Despite several attempts to get him to leave, he remains rooted at Connie’s door. Even when she threatens to call the police, he remains fixed at the door. There is also a sense of irony in Friend’s surname. In no ways, despite attempting to portray it, is he a friend of Connie’s. Also some critics suggest that Oates is symbolically linking Friend to the Devil, or to the common perception of the Devil. There is the fact that Friend finds it difficult to walk in his boots, to some this mirrors the Devil’s hooves. Also Connie when she sees Friend, notices his ‘shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig.’ Again some critics believe that the reference to a wig would suggest the hiding of horns, again common symbolism associated with the Devil. The fact that Friend never enters Connie’s house may also be symbolic. Many critics believing that the Devil cannot enter a home unless he is invited. Many critics also believe that Arnold Friend is simply ‘An old fiend,’ (notice the two r’s removed), another name for the Devil. Friend’s suggestion that if Connie’s house was on fire, that she would run out to him, may also suggest symbolism. Fire being associated with the Devil.
There is other symbolism in the story that may be worth noting. The restaurant that Connie hangs out at, though Oates never mentions the name, there is a good chance that it may be a Big Boy restaurant. There is a ‘revolving figure of a grinning boy holding a hamburger aloft’, and Oates may be using the restaurants logo as a foreshadowing device. Later Connie will encounter an older boy (or man), in the shape of Arnold Friend at the restaurant. Oates also appears to be using music as symbolism in the story. Connie associating or linking her fantasies of what romance is, to the popular songs being played on the radio.
Whatever Friend’s intentions (rape or murder) it is clear that Connie does not have the tools to cope with him. When she first sees Friend outside her house, he is listening to the same music station as Connie. At first this connects Connie and Friend but she soon realises that he may not be all that he seems. Friend’s age is also important as for the first time in her life Connie is being confronted sexually by an adult. All Connie’s previous sexual experiences have occurred when she was in control and were with boys a year or two older than her.
At the end of the story it is the adult Friend who is in control and the reader senses there is an end of innocence for Connie. The fantasy she associated with her looks has a harsher reality, a reality that Connie is not prepared for. There may also be a sense of irony at the end of the story. Connie wanted to control her life (or be independent) however by focusing on her looks she has allowed an older man control her. As is seen when Connie walks out of the house to leave with Friend.
This follows up comments I posted at the Selected Shorts website after they broadcast a reading of this short story. I don’t know that Connie, by focusing on her looks, has allowed an older man to control her. This sounds to me like blaming the victim. Do you think her sister June would have handled the situation any better? Or that the story would have turned out differently if Connie had never laid eyes on Arnold Friend? The point is this: he’s the one peering through the crosshairs. Connie is simply unlucky in that she’s the one he’s decided to take aim at. You know that pinpoint of light she can’t get out of her mind at the end of the story? I’m hoping that when JCO writes her sequel, that pinpoint will turn out to be Connie’s budding realization that things aren’t so just because her delusional abductor says they are. I’m hoping Connie will fall back on the same defiance she used against her mother, and hold Arnold Friend in the same contempt in which she wrongly held her sister. I’m also hoping the number 17 is an allusion to the Book of Esther. And, since you want to get biblical, I’m hoping Arnold Fiend will discover that though he has sown the wind, he will reap the whirlwind. END
Thanks for the comment Doris. You make some valid points and the great thing about the story is that it’s open to interpretation. Connie does appear to be unlucky that Friend is focusing on her and not on June. It’s difficult to say if June would have reacted differently. Though she is older (and does appear to be more level headed) than Connie and as such may not be as easily drawn in by Friend. Connie’s downfall may be that she is young and as such is still impressionable or places an importance on things (like looks) that older people may not necessarily think are important.
Downfall? I think too much is made of Connie’s so-called faults. So what if she glances at herself in the mirror? You know, in stories about boys, their vanities are hardly ever defined as downfall-causing attributes. A guy can dream about pitching a no-hitter in the 7th & defining game of a World Series without disaster befalling him and his household because of it. All the hours he spends out in the backyard hurling stones at targets come back by story’s end to be the one thing that saves him and his family. Even if he’s seen as the scourge of the county, his delinquency turns out to be the very attribute that makes him a hero. Could you see this story re-written with a boy as the main character — some youngster so eager to please older, cooler guys that he lands himself in a really bad situation? How do you think such a story would have ended? As for June’s not being so “easily drawn in by Arnold Friend,” I don’t know what “drawing in” you’re talking about. This stranger appeared on her doorstep purporting to keep an assignation that did not exist. Connie wasn’t drawn in. She was put out. END
Hi Doris. My use of the words ‘drawn in’ may not necessarily fully reflect Connie’s engagement with Friend. As Connie and Friend begin their conversation I feel that Connie is a little bit impressed with Friend (his interest in music mirroring Connie’s). Oates also tells the reader (just after their conversation begins) that Connie ‘couldn’t decide if she liked him or if he was just a jerk.’ It is for that reason I used the words ‘drawn in’. However later in the story there is a sense (in my opinion) that Connie is being coerced or pressurized by Friend and I would agree with you that she is being ‘put out’ by him. Why Connie continued to talk to Friend, I don’t know. Maybe she was impressed by an older boy (or man) showing an interest in her, even if he did eventually make her uncomfortable. Regardless as to why Connie may have continued talking to Friend, she does appear to have paid a very high price for engaging with him.
I read this story all the way through once, and I didn’t appreciate it till my professor analyzed it, after which I realized I’d been breezing through too many popular novels that were more plot-based than character-based. Now I really like the story–so much, I wrote my essay on it. Doris, I agree about much being made of Connie’s faults. She was just the typical teenage girl. Her family was rather distant, and didn’t seem that interested in her, so she felt her looks were her currency to getting attention (albeit the wrong kind). I believe Connie was a victim of opportunity; had June been the one home alone, she probably would’ve told him to take a hike, even if he did threaten her family, because, as Arnold says, and I am paraphrasing, “Not a one of them would have done this for you.” Thanks for the great analysis. I linked this page to my blog; it’s Writer’s Digest Poem-a-Day month, and the theme was stay and go, which was perfect for a poem about this story.
Thanks for the comment Sarah. You make some really interesting points many of which I would agree with you on. Connie may very well be a typical young teenager more preoccupied with herself and how she looks due to her family circumstances. A lot of Connie’s actions throughout the story would be typical of a young teenager particularly when it comes to Friend (a sense of naivety to the dangers of life). I would also agree with you that should the incident with Friend have involved June things may have been different with June most likely having the maturity through life experience to tell Friend to go away.
I like your poem. Reflects the story very well.
What does the opening line “her name was Connie” suggest about the theme in the story?
It’s difficult to say for certain. If you take the theme as being independence then from the beginning of the story Oates is giving independence a name (Connie). Also by immediately focusing on Connie Oates may be mirroring how Connie feels about herself. The most important person in Connie’s life is herself. As would be the case for many young teenagers.
How is the title of the story relate to the settings, characters , theme etc?
Thanks for the comment Valerie. Just as the title of the story is a question taken from the bible. Connie also has to ask herself what she wants to do. Does she want to stay at home or get into Arnold Fiend’s car even though she doesn’t trust him. Whereas Connie might have felt she was in control of the situation this is no longer the case at the end of the story. Fiend’s car plays a larger part in the setting and the reader suspects he uses it to entice younger school girls. Girls who may be impressed that an older man has taken an interest in them.
Examples of teenage culture?
Some examples of teenage culture would be listening to music with friends (or alone). Avoiding homework. Arguing with parents. Meeting friends to go to the local diner. Keeping secret about activities they might have been up to from their parents. Mistrusting their parents as their parents are the rule makers.
Can you please give specific instances of these examples in the story ?
Connie is listening to music as she is fixing her self up. She is not listening to her mother. She is getting reader to go to the local diner in the hope of seeing boys. All of which would be part of teenage culture. However teenage culture doesn’t have to be mischievousness or dangerous but in Connie’s cast it becomes a nightmare due to her interest in older boys (Arnold Fiend).
Can you please explain what the story tells us about good and evil, through the use of symbolism
Arnold Fiend’s name is a play on the words An old friend. Suggesting that evil can come in ways that are least expected. Also Connie by focusing on her looks is leaving herself exposed to Fiend who has the ability to charm the younger Connie. The fact that Fiend can’t enter Connie’s home because he has not been invited into the house also plays on the notion that the devil has to be invited into someone’s home. Some critics also suggest that Fiend (or the devil) is wearing boots in order to hide his hooves.
What do all of the settings symbolize?
I no longer have a copy of the story so I’m working from memory. Connie’s home symbolizes safety till Fiend gets involved. The diner is a also a safe haven though Fiend can be seen to be there too. Connie’s friend’s father who drives Connie home (or to the diner) can symbolize protection and safety and Fiends wish to take Connie to the woods symbolizes not only danger but possibly the ending of Connie’s life.
Great analysis. I was wondering in what ways do you think Oates could be hinting American society in the story? What comment does she make about society through it? Can you use some examples please?
Thanks for the comment Victoria. Oates may be suggesting that women (or girls) need to be more independent. To put themselves as number one rather than catering for the wants and desires of men. It is also possible that Oates is placing a spotlight on men too. Highlighting how men allow themselves to be driven by lust while at the same time looking at women (or girls) as objects rather than as human beings. Some critics will suggest that Connie is at fault for what may happen her while others will suggest that Fiend is the real culprit.
Thanks for all your analysis on this story. I have been reading up on symbolisms that occur in the story, and there is one thing I can’t find any explanation for. It is when he draws the “X” in the air in front of her face. It says that when he puts his hand down she can still see the X floating in the air. What is your take on this?
Thanks for the comment Brett. It may be a case that Oates is suggesting that Friend has marked Connie. That he is to take her. Which he does physically manage to do at the end of the story.
Thanks for the eye-opening analysis. One thing that im not sure of is the role of Ellie in the story. There must be a reason of him being in the car.
I’m not sure of Ellie’s role in the story. Perhaps he provides legitimacy to Friend. So as to say everything is alright.