The tale of an insecure, romantic teenage girl drawn into a situation of foreboding violence, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" presents several themes that arise from the interaction of sharply drawn characters engaged in psychological manipulation.
Connie prides herself on being a skilled flirt who has never been in a situation she could not handle. She feels confident when Arnold Friend arrives at her door while she is alone in the house: "Who the hell do you think you are?" she asks. Mistaking him for the type of boy she frequently attracts, she thinks she recognizes him from the sound of his car's horn, from his clothing and appearance, and from the banter with which he attempts to lure her into his car. Both Arnold and Connie contribute to these erroneous first impressions. Arnold assumes the role of teenage Romeo although he is much older, and Connie accepts his facade because of her fondness for the "trashy daydreams" to which her mother accuses her of subscribing. Because the story is told from Connie's perspective (although she is not the narrator), readers see the gradual dismantling of these first impressions through her eyes. She concludes that Arnold's hair may be a wig, that his tan is the result of makeup, and that his boots "must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller." Though the veracity of these observations is never proven, they reveal Connie's realization that Arnold is not what he seems. His romantic words are not original, but taken from popular songs, and his manner is that of "a hero in a movie." Nothing about Arnold Friend is genuine, except his violent intentions and his skill at psychological and physical intimidation. By the story's end, Connie understands that she is not the confident flirt she thought, but a powerless pawn in the hands of a dangerous individual.
Connie is vulnerable to Arnold Friend's manipulations primarily because she has no clear identity of her own. As a teenager, she is neither a child nor a woman. Connie attempts to establish her identity by testing the boundaries her parents set for her, assuming a different persona at home than with her friends, and seeking validation of her attractiveness from the boys at the drive-in restaurant. She identifies her worth as a person with her physical beauty, a factor that causes her to disparage her sister, fight with her mother, and engage in the "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 behavior is typical among teenagers searching for identity. Though Connie's encounter with Arnold Friend is extreme, Oates devised the situation to illustrate how an unstable identity can make an adolescent—especially a girl—susceptible to exploitation by someone who knows how to feed a vain, unsteady ego for his own interests and desires. Connie is practiced in acting out the stereotype of a pretty girl. By the time Arnold asks her, "What else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?" she feels she can do nothing but comply. Trusting in her incomplete identity to the end, she is led to ruin.
Her unstable identity provides Connie with a mentality that...
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