On a literal level, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a spine-chilling tale of rape and murder with a plot carefully controlled to create suspense. On a figurative level, it is an allegory of lost innocence, the screen door symbolizing the fragile threshold between childhood dreams and adult experience, between romantic illusions of love and the brutal reality of adult sexuality. Connie’s “friend” turns out to be a “fiend”; her vague dream-lover arrives masked in the familiar trappings of her world, only to reveal the face of lust and violence beneath the false facade.
On a still deeper symbolic level, Connie’s experience itself becomes a metaphor for American naïveté and vulnerability. In this story, as in much of her fiction, Oates explores the moral poverty of American popular culture and the ways in which it leaves her characters defenseless against powerful forces of evil. For Connie, “the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant” is a “sacred building” and the omnipresent music is like a “church service” always in the background, something on which she can depend. As if to parody Christian symbolism, Oates describes the “grinning boy,” holding a hamburger aloft, which caps the bottle-shaped restaurant. It is here that Connie finds the “haven and blessing” otherwise missing in her life. Oates shows her readers how teenagers have created a strict code of dress, behavior, and language to fill the void left by the absence of conventional religion and adult authority. The inauthenticity of such a code is revealed by Arnold’s ability to ape it so easily; its impotence, by Connie’s absolute inability to defend herself against his attack.
In this story, Oates pays special attention to the mother-daughter relationship and the lack of meaningful communication between them. Their bickering, as described by Oates, is itself an empty ritual: “Sometimes, over coffee, they were almost friends, but something would come up—some vexation that was like a fly buzzing suddenly around their heads—and their faces went hard with contempt.” In the end, it is her mother for whom Connie cries; her last thought before she finally pushes open the door is that she will never see her mother again. As she crosses over into the “vast unknown,” Connie shuts the door on childhood. Oates seems to suggest that if either one of them had made the effort to communicate, Connie might have remained safely a child until old enough to choose the future. Ironically, it is Arnold Friend who promises to teach Connie about “love,” typically the mother’s role, while threatening to kill the entire family if she does not permit him to do so.