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Joyce Carol Oates: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Essay (Review)

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Updated: Jun 13th, 2022

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is often interpreted as a reverberating warning about the dangers of strangers, who appear friendly at first. In this reading, the protagonist, Connie, is a fifteen-year-old girl who is often demeaned by her family because she grew to become ‘not like them’, not perfect by character. Her mind is a self-conscious tornado, and that is why an older man takes advantage of her. The short story demonstrates the horror of mental manipulation and sexual assault on teenagers. While the manipulator initially appears to be a friendly boy, he later reveals his ugly nature. This essay analyzes the psychological portraits of characters, the plot, themes, and describes the symbolism of this piece of literature.

The author of the short story, Joyce Carol Oates, described it as cross-genre work. According to her, she tried to tie psychological realism with realistic allegory in this novel (Chapman). If to approach a different angle of literary analysis, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” can also fit the coming-of-age genre, because it has a teenage protagonist on the verge of an important decision bound to change the course of her life. The main character goes through a moral and sexual transformation, which can be tied to the peculiarity of a coming-of-age genre (Hastings 33). What makes the story extremely believable from the psychological perspective is that the author depicts Connie’s thoughts and feelings in a precise manner. The surroundings are also extremely recognizable, which makes the novel more poignant and close to the reader. Yet, there are some elements to the story, such as the description of Arnold Friend, equivalently to the nearly supernatural ending, which helps the story to appear allegorical (Oates 6). The conclusion is a parable, a genre with archetypical characters (correspondingly to the main antagonist, who seems to represent an archetype of evil).

The characters in this novel are unique and ordinary at the same time. Connie is a recognizable person; some would say that she is a typical teenager, always arguing with her family, going on dates with boys, trying to appear older than she is, and obsessed with her façade (Hastings 36). The habit of continually checking her appearance in the mirror is an indication of her insecurity as a teenage girl. Although she says that she is aware of her physical beauty, she still needs reassurance. Some people mistakenly assume that those who continuously look at their reflection are egotistical. However, this habit can be described as not being able to imagine oneself without a pretty facade.

Just like Connie, people with a similar tendency cannot feel worthy without their looks. This anxiety leaves them defenseless to the manipulation, which one can observe in the behavior of Connie. As one can imagine, despite the common misconceptions, Connie has low self-esteem, which is characterized by the model of thinking that everything wrong that happens to her is deserved (Hastings 38). Moreover, because of her low self-image, Connie is unable to form close relationships. It can be proved by looking closely at her surroundings. For example, she always fights with her parents, the reader never learns about her friends, because it seems as if she is emotionally distant from them, does not have a boyfriend, and has a sibling rivalry with her sister (Oates 1). That, along with her beauty, leaves her vulnerable to kidnappers and rapists. She goes away with the main antagonist not because of her desire, not because she wants to protect her family, but because she acknowledges his words. Connie thinks that she has nothing keeping her inside the house because no one would even care if she was gone.

Another main character is the antagonist named Arnold Friend. Although he is portrayed as a human being, he can be a demon or a fantasy. He represents the ‘evil’ archetype with his weird looks, strange behavior, and sexual obsession with young girls. People, who studied the work even suggested that his unstable manner of walking hints that he could have had hooves instead of standard feet (Hastings 40). Perhaps the author tried to make Arnold look devilish on purpose to portray his evil nature. His voice is threateningly calm, just like his behavior when he tries to lure Connie out of her house (Oates 3-4). When she refuses to give in, he becomes angry, and his tone shifts completely. A reader can almost sense the threat that comes from this person. What makes the reader question whether he is a human or not is his seeming knowledge of everything. He demonstrates unexplainable awareness of everything concerning Connie’s family and friends, which makes the reader imagine him as the devil or at least a stalker.

Other characters include Ellie, Connie’s Mother, and June (Connie’s elder ‘perfect’ sister). Ellie seems like Arnold’s friend, although Friend regularly makes non-flattering remarks concerning this man. He is mostly indifferent to what is happening, although he calmly offered to cut Connie’s phone, proving that he is at least an accessory. Connie’s Mother also seems like an indifferent character, who secretly wishes to change her younger daughter so she would become a copy of her older one (Oates 1). The Mother appears jealous of Connie’s appearance, and she probably saw her younger daughter as her reflection, and that is why she scolded and nagged her. This had been a sick and twisted way to fix her psychological problems. June, as the opposite of Connie, is a chubby adult woman who obeys her parents and is an unproblematic child. She appears as a person without her opinion, because it was something her parents broke at a very young age.

The main idea of this story is to showcase the horror of abduction, manipulation as a consequence of parental neglect, and favoritism. It exemplifies how mental manipulation works, especially in the minds of self-conscious teenagers. Although Albert Friend does not lay a finger on his future victim, he threatens to burn her house and harm her loved ones if she would not comply. He wants to perform sexual acts with a fifteen-year-old, which he graphically describes to a child (Gray-Rosendale 133). The author wanted to set an example that the victim can never be blamed because, in such vile acts, the fault is with the criminal.

In addition, this story has many symbols, which can be interpreted in a plethora of ways. As written earlier, the character of Albert Friend can be a symbol of a devil. It can be proven by his unsteady posture, which some link to hooves and ambiguous knowledge of everything concerning Connie. Moreover, the symbolism can cover the ominous numbers on his car (33, 19, 17). If one is to add these numbers, a 69 would appear, which is a suggestive number of sexual actions. Moreover, the numbers refer to the passage in the Bible, which replicates the story’s name. However, these numbers can also be interpreted as his age (33), and the ages of his previous victims (19, 17), a more believable and realistic explanation. He knew what he was doing and, therefore, Connie was not his first victim.

As for an “X”, the symbol of Arnold can also be interpreted in many ways. One could say that it is a symbol of the devil, and others argue that it is a suggestive comment. This duality of Friend’s nature is what confuses many people. The house and thin doors can be interpreted as a symbol of Connie’s virginity. The whole scene, according to the author, is a representation of rape (Chapman). Connie’s house is a symbol of the safety of her family, which Arnold forcibly takes away. His phrases like “You know me, just did not remember” or “Don’t you know who I am?” along with a seeming recognition of his character hint that he is not a human being, but something viler and ominous.

To conclude, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” can be interpreted in a plethora of ways because of its symbolism and broad theme. In this reading, Connie, a fifteen-year-old girl, is a self-conscious girl and is manipulated by an older man. The short story showcases how mental manipulation works and how children are sexually abused. The manipulator is friendly at first, but his game is sly, and soon he becomes aggressive and threatens a young girl. The essay analyzed psychological portraits of characters, the plot, and described the symbolism of the short story.

Works Cited

Chapman, Maile. “Oates, Joyce Carol”. Literature. 2017. Web.

Gray-Rosendale, Laura. Me Too, Feminist Theory, and Surviving Sexual Violence in the Academy. Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield. 2020.

Hastings, Phyllis. . Brill. 2019, vol. 122, pp. 33-43. Web.

Oates, Joyce. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Ontario. Ontario Review Press. 2018.

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