Please explain the role of knowledge in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The role of "knowledge" in Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is particularly significant. In this short story, Connie at fifteen thinks she knows everything—perhaps not so untypical of a person of her age. We can sense Connie's attitude towards her mother as the mood is set at the beginning of the story:

Her mother...noticed everything and knew everything...

Connie's reaction is clear:

Connie would raise here eyebrows at [the] familiar complaints and look right through her mother...[Connie] knew she was pretty and that was everything.

Connie's mother knows the world, but Connie sees value not in knowledge or information, but in appearance. This is an example of the theme of appearance vs. reality, for Connie is tricked by the illusion Arnold Friend conveys rather than searching for the truth (gleaning knowledge) of who he really is. This is the extent of Connie's pursuit of knowledge—it runs skin-deep. She has no time for information. For example, her sister June is a responsible adult, but she is unattractive, and, predictably, Connie dismisses her.

Connie rejects the authority her mother represents, but it is her mother who is the keeper of knowledge in this story. Connie's father is a pale character who works, comes home, eats supper, reads the paper and goes to bed. While her mother would be concerned if Connie snuck off to the diner where older kids hung out, the father of one of Connie's friends drops them off to ostensibly shop or go to a movie, and never questions what they have done that evening. Her mother is her caretaker in every sense of the word. Connie, however, wishes her mom were dead.

Connie's lack of knowledge is dangerous. She has no clear understanding of the world: how drawing attention to oneself can attract unsavory—even dangerous—men. On one of these nights, Connie piques the interest of the most depraved person she will ever know—a critical mistake on her part.

Connie is unaware of how little she knows until Arnold Friend tracks her to her house, showing up one Sunday when no one is home. He is thirty, though he first appears to be her age. This element of deceit is only a sample of the many things about him that Friend masks from view. However, when Arnold begins to threaten her family and exert his will over Connie—which she cannot fight—she slowly begins to realize that she is out of her element. Like Friend, she has pretended to be what she is not—grown up. She is not the adult she thought she was, simply because she was pretty and dressed a certain way. Ironically, Friend also looks handsome and dresses a certain way, but it is not until she really studies him that she understands the depth of her mistake in believing she knew anything about him...or about herself.

It's all over for you here, so come on out. You don't want your people in any trouble, do you?

Connie realizes that she is out of her depth:

She was hollow with what had been fear, but what was now just an emptiness...She thought, I'm not going to see my mother again. She thought, I'm not going to sleep in my bed again.


She thought for the first time in her life that [her heart] was nothing that was hers...this body...wasn't really hers either.

In that moment, "for the first time," like Eve taking a bite of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the knowledge of good and evil comes to her. Connie knows Friend is evil; and she knows she will die at his hands.

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