Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

The Presence of Evil in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Since Joyce Carol Oates's phenomenal appearance on the literary scene in the mid-1960s, she has certainly been one of America's most prolific and talked-about writers. The author of more than twenty novels and numerous volumes of short stories, poems, plays, and essays, she has drawn the attention of readers and critics alike. Whatever one's opinion of Oates's work may be, it is not possible to ignore her importance as a writer, particularly one who chronicles life in twentieth-century America. Oates has been compared to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Honore de Balzac, and William Faulkner for her efforts to portray an entire culture of people. It is not surprising that she has been compared to these greats, for Oates also tries to explain some of the mysteries of life, believing that a ''writer's job, ideally, is to act as the conscience of his race."

In her essays on D.H. Lawrence and W.B. Yeats, Oates has expressed her interest in "the richness of pain and chaos." Certainly, these elements are apparent in Oates's own writing, and many critics have commented on the bleak nature of her fiction and on the many unpleasant things that happen to her characters. Oates has noted, ''People frequently misunderstand serious art because it is often violent and unattractive. I wish the world were a prettier place, but I wouldn't be honest as a writer if I ignored the actual conditions around me." These words apply particularly well to one of her best-known stories, which was based on the case of an Arizona serial killer who preyed on teenage girls. The prize-winning "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" depicts fifteen-year-old Connie, a "typical" American girl, who is seduced into what we assume will be her rape and murder. Oates mirrors reality in this horrifying portrayal, stinting only on the physical details while deftly exploring Connie's mental terror.

As with much of Oates's fiction, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" uses the technique of psychological realism, funneling the narrative through Connie's consciousness, along with elements of gothic horror, to chilling effect. The story has been subject to differing interpretations by various critics. It has been seen as an inverted fairy tale in which Connie is joined not with Prince Charming but with the Prince of Darkness. These readers have pointed out similarities between Arnold Friend and the devil: his disguise, his supernatural knowledge of the whereabouts of Connie's family, his ability to lure Connie to him against her will, even his very name, which is by no coincidence close to ''Arch Fiend.'' Others see it as a tale of initiation into evil, with the end depicting Connie's acceptance of the depraved American culture. Here Connie inhabits a world of moral impoverishment in which only the false and tawdry are revered. The loss of Connie to Arnold Friend is thus not only the story of one girl's fatal misperception of appearances but also a representation of a loss of innocence.

There are still others who read the story as a feminist allegory which suggests that young women of today, like the generations that have come before them, are headed into sexual bondage. When Connie, the innocent female, walks out of the house to meet what may be her demise, she also represents the spiritual death of women at the moment they give up their independence to the desire of the sexually threatening male.

In addition to reading ''Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" for its critical interpretation, it can also be enjoyed as a finely crafted story. Oates's control over her narrative is clearly evident as she introduces a protagonist who is familiar enough to earn the reader's empathy, yet still able to surprise. Connie, despite her shallowness, is ultimately likeable. She is suffering, not from a malicious desire to be cruel, but merely from romantic delusions in her search for a "sweet, gentle" love ''the way it was in movies and promised in songs.'' Connie's behavior, when she is in the public eye, testifies to this need: her voice is "high-pitched and nervous"; her face "pleased and expectant" as she enters the drive-in; while sitting at the counter her shoulders are "rigid with excitement." Whereas Connie is proud of herself for mingling in the world of older teenagers and for fooling her "simple" mother, the reader sees the danger she can encounter in being places where she does not belong. Thus when Arnold, the boy at the drive-in who warns Connie, "Gonna get you, babe," shows up...

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Connie's Tambourine Man: A New Reading of Arnold Friend

The critical reception of Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?'' reveals a consistent pattern for reducing the text to a manageable, univocal reading. Generally, this pattern involves two assumptions: Arnold must symbolize Satan and Connie must be raped and murdered. No critic has yet questioned Joyce Wegs' assertion that "Arnold is clearly a symbolic Satan." Marie Urbanski argues that Arnold's "feet resemble the devil's cloven hoofs," Joan Winslow calls the story "an encounter with the devil," Tom Quirk maintains the story describes a "demoniac character," and Christina Marsden Gillis refers to "the satanic visitor's incantation." Wegs' assertion that Arnold is "a criminal with plans to rape and probably murder Connie" is also accepted at face value. Gillis assumes that Arnold ''leads his victim ... to a quick and violent sexual assault," and Quirk refers to "the rape and subsequent murder of Connie." Even though Gretchen Schulz and R. J. R. Rockwood correctly claim that the portrait of Arnold ''is created in the mind of Connie ... and that it exists there only,'' they still persist in having Arnold as a demon and Connie as doomed: "But we know that he is still the Wolf, and that he still intends to 'gobble up' this 'little girl' as soon as he gets the chance. Connie is not going to live happily ever after. Indeed, it would seem that she is not going to live at all."

While all of these critics insist on seeing satanic traces in Arnold, they refuse, on the other hand, to see that these traces are only part of a much more complex, more dynamic symbol. There are indeed diabolic shades to Arnold, but just as Blake and Shelley could see in Milton's Satan a positive, attractive symbol of the poet, the rebellious embodiment of creative energy, so we should also be sensitive to Arnold's multi-faceted and creative nature. Within the frame of the story, the fiction of Arnold burns in the day as the embodiment of poetic energy. The story is dedicated to Bob Dylan, the troubadour, the artist. Friend is the artist, the actor, the rhetorician, the teacher, all symbolized by Connie's overheated imagination. We should not assume that Arnold is completely evil because she is afraid of him. Her limited perceptions remind us of Blake's questioner in "The Tyger" who begins to perceive the frightening element of the experiential world but also is rather duped into his fear by his own limitations. Like the figure in Blake, Connie is the framer, the story creator—and the diabolic traces in her fiction frighten her not because they are the manifestations of an outside evil but because they are the symbolic extrapolations of her own psyche.

If the adamant insistence that Arnold Friend is Satan is rejected, then who is this intriguing mysterious visitor? In Enter Mysterious Stranger: American Cloistral Fiction Roy Male asserts that many mysterious intruders throughout American literature "are almost always potential saviors, destroyers, or ambiguous combinations of both, and their initial entrance, however much it may be displaced toward realism, amounts to the entrance of God or the devil on a machine.'' And if Arnold Friend is not satanic, then his arrival could be that of a savior. This possibility moreover is suggested by Connie's whispering "Christ. Christ" when Arnold first arrives in his golden "machine." Not only is "33" part of Arnold's ''secret code'' of numbers, but his sign, an ''X'' that seems to hover in the air, is also one of the symbols for Christ. Because music is closely associated with religion—''the music was always in the background, like music at a church service''—it also adds a religious element to Arnold's arrival. The key question then is who is this musical messiah, and the key to the answer is the dedication ''For Bob Dylan''—the element of the story so unsatisfactorily accounted for by our...

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Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

In a recent essay Joyce M. Wegs brilliantly establishes the satanic identity of the sinister Arnold Friend, young Connie's abductor and probable rapist-murderer in Joyce Carol Oates's widely anthologized short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" On another level, the psychological level, she points out that Arnold is "the incarnation of Connie's unconscious erotic desires and dreams, but in uncontrollable nightmare form.'' I would go a step further and suggest that, on still another level, the whole terrifying episode involving Arnold Friend is itself a dream—a fantasy that Connie falls into on a sleepy Sunday afternoon when she is left alone in the house and decides to spend the entire day drying her hair. For...

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"Don't You Know Who I Am?": The Grotesque in Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Joyce Carol Oates's ability to absorb and then to transmit in her fiction the terror which is often a part of living in America today has been frequently noted and admired. For instance, Walter Sullivan praises her skill by noting that ''horror resides in the transformation of what we know best, the intimate and comfortable details of our lives made suddenly threatening." Although he does not identify it as such, Sullivan's comment aptly describes a classic instance of a grotesque intrusion: a familiar world suddenly appears alien. Oates frequently evokes the grotesque in her fiction, drawing upon both its traditional or demonic and its contemporary or psychological manifestations. In the prize-winning short story, "Where Are You...

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