Fiction can often provide a short synopsis of some significant element of human development. In Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where are you going, Where have you been?”, the main character, Connie, can be seen to go through a great deal of growth in a short amount of time. Her innocent-yet-not-innocent use of her growing sexuality as she attempts to discover the pathway to adulthood has the inadvertent effect of attracting the wrong man. Her encounter with this man forces her to take the giant step from innocent child and slightly knowledgeable, self-absorbed teen to greatly disillusioned and sacrificing adult.
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At the beginning of the story, Connie is characterized as a typical teenager. She is completely self-absorbed on a superficial level, concerned with the way she looks and how others perceive her. “She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Connie’s age presumes a certain degree of innocence, which is supported by her description.
Her ideas of good taste are called into question with the mention of the clattering charm bracelets and the hairstyle that involves hair pulled up and puffed on one side of the head. Her interests include boys, fashions, hairstyles, and makeup.
Contrasted against this image of innocence, she lives a double life. “Everything about her had two sides to it; one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out.” In this characterization, Oates illustrates that her character is at once very innocent in her experience, but also rebellious and ready, so she imagines, much more exciting and adult experiences.
As an attractive and social girl, Connie is also portrayed as associating her impending adulthood with her blossoming sexuality. This is portrayed through the sense of triumph she experiences as she walks with Eddie to his car. “So they went out to his car, and on the way Connie couldn’t help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music.
She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive.” The fact that she could get a boy, a ‘cool’ boy, with a car, to spend three hours with her having dinner “and then down an alley a mile or so away.” Even as she enjoys her moment of glory, at some level looking around to see how many people are noticing her conquest, she notices the admiring glance of who she will later learn is Arnold Friend. Although she does not seem to be particularly attached to Eddie per se, more interested in her own abilities to attract a date, Connie does not seem to encourage Arnold’s attention as much as she simply remains a victim to her own vanity.
When she first sees Eddie, she thinks of him as somewhat strange in that he has sloppy hair and a strange colored unusual car and behaves in a disturbing way. This reaction is obvious in her body language in response to his behavior. “Connie slit her eyes at him and turned away.”
Her downfall, however, is her vanity in wondering how her slight on him had affected him as “she couldn’t help glancing back.” This precocious understanding of the powers of her sex marks her for the man in the gold car. “He wagged a finger and laughed and said ‘Gonna get you, baby,’ and Connie turned away again without Eddie noticing anything.” Only now has Connie discovered the dangers associated with her newfound powers, but she is not given a chance to discover just how that trace of fright Arnold introduced fit into her burgeoning identity before he was pulling up to her door and she was forced to take her final step.
As Connie talks with Arnold at her ranch house door, she is forced to realize that she can no longer retreat to the status of the child. She wants to run and hide, but realizes, as Arnold points out the weaknesses of her house, that there is nowhere for her to run. She wants to hide behind her protecting parents, but again is brought up short as Arnold seems to become clairvoyant by describing the scene at the barbeque at that moment: “Yeah. Sitting around. There’s your sister in a blue dress, huh? And high heels, the poor sad bitch – nothing like you, sweetheart! And your mother’s helping some fat woman with the corn, they’re cleaning the corn – husking the corn.”
Her desperate attempt to use the telephone proves her panic as she begins to realize she is being forced into a very adult decision. Whether she realizes this may be her last decision or not is made clear, just as Oates does not provide any textual evidence that Connie is inevitably going to lose her life. Finally, Arnold presents her with the question that will determine her adult status. Will she give her life to save that of her family? While this is a compelling enough question, it is not what finally convinces Connie to leave the house.
Arnold bluntly states what Connie has been piecing together: “The place where you came from ain’t there anymore, and where you had in mind to go is canceled out.” She cannot go back to being a child after this encounter, no matter what decision she makes now, while her plans to explore the power of her sexuality have just been destroyed by the fear she has now learned to associate with it.
From near-complete innocence at the beginning of the story, the character of Connie can be seen to make the final transition to adulthood as perhaps her last act of free will. Illustrated as a frivolous teenager who can think only of herself and her exterior appearance at the beginning of the story, Oates allows her character to reveal a small transition occurring within her psyche as she is beginning to understand her approaching adulthood in terms of the fun and excitement brought on by her sexuality. However, as she is directly confronted by this sexuality in the form of Arnold Friend, she learns, too late, that it can have a darker side.
The beautiful future she vaguely envisioned full of sensual pleasure and exciting romances has been destroyed by the fear Arnold has introduced even should he disappear while his appearance at her house has forced her to realize that she can no longer return to her childhood either. The final sign of her sudden maturity is in her resignation to this truth and her willingness to attempt to prevent any harm from falling on the rest of her family.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where are you going, Where have you been?” The Ontario Review. 1991. Web.