Of all Joyce Carol Oates’s stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has generated the most critical commentary and the most discussion. After it was originally published, Oates added the dedication to Bob Dylan for his song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” (where the title question occurs), a song she called “very beautiful, very disturbing,” and which recalled to her the legend of Death and the Maiden. The story itself moves from intense psychological realism to surreal myth.
The story starts innocently enough with a description of the fifteen-year-old Connie, who, like many adolescent girls, sleepwalks through life listening to music only she seems to hear. Connie and her friends frequent the mall, and she has begun some kind of sexual experimentation and has been with boys “the way it was in movies and promised in songs.”
The mythic journey begins one hot Sunday afternoon when Connie is home alone—having refused to accompany her family to a barbecue—and two boys in an open jalopy pull into her driveway. She recognizes one of them from the mall the night before, but she knows neither and, as she talks with the driver through her screen door, the scene becomes more and more dreamlike. The driver introduces himself as “Arnold Friend” and his passenger as “Ellie,” but something is wrong about both of them. For one thing, Arnold’s language—the rambling patter with which he assaults her—is out-of-date. In addition, although he wears the standard 1950’s dress of jeans and tight shirt, he has trouble walking in his boots, seems to be wearing a wig, and is older than he appears. He invites her to come riding with them, and Connie is mesmerized, dizzied by his incantatory words. He knows intimate details of her life that no stranger could know and threatens her family, and she feels helpless to resist him. She opens the door to a “land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”
On one level, Oates seems to be blaming the shallow Connie for her fate, and there certainly is a hint of criticism here for young people seduced by mass culture, especially music, and the “trashy daydreams” of teenage love. At a deeper level of the story, however, Connie and Arnold are acting out some mythic dance. “Arnold Friend” is a rough approximation of “An Old Fiend”—the devil, the Antichrist, Pan, and/or death. He draws an X in the air—a cross turned on its side—and both he and Connie exclaim “Christ!” The theme of Death and the Maiden, of a young girl seduced not toward sex but toward extinction, runs beneath this powerful and disturbing story. Beneath the superficial strains of popular music and adolescent culture, Oates warns, lurks the sexuality that leads, if not to death, then to a violent end of innocence.