Identify the significance of "screen door" to the overall meaning or theme of the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," several everyday items take on a symbolic and frightening meaning in a tale based on a true story of a young man who "enticed and...killed" several girls in the West, in the 1960s.

Connie is a fifteen year-old girl who lies to her mother one night and goes to the drive-in restaurant across the highway to hang out with the older kids. She loves being there, but she seals her own fate, bringing herself to the attention of Arnold Friend, a serial killer—a man who conveys his plans based on repeated practice.

Arnold and his friend Ellie show up days later when Connie's family is at a barbecue and she is home alone. Arnold appears like other kids at first, but as Connie studies him through the screen door, she realizes he is probably much older than he lets on—probably thirty. He mesmerizes her with the chanting way he speaks. And by threatening her family, he is able to make Connie do what he walk out through the screen door and leave with him.

Arnold has promised not to come inside the house unless she uses the phone to call the police. As she tries to bar his way with the screen door, Arnold points out that it provides no real physical protection for Connie:

She rushed forward and tried to lock the door. Her fingers were shaking. "But why lock it," Arnold Friend said gently..."It's just a screen door. It's just nothing...I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to...specially Arnold Friend."

The door is, on one level, symbolic of a separation between his world and Connie's world. As long as she can stay on her side of the door, she believes she will be safe. However, Arnold slowly breaks down this belief until she accepts instead that nothing—not a screen door or glass or wood—can stop someone like him. Of course, once he threatens to kill her family (which is what he implies when noting that they don't need to be "involved"), her resolve shatters.

The screen door, on another level, might be seen to represent Connie herself. While she seems to finally recognize how dangerous Friend is, she is really not strong enough to withstand his constant insistence that she come with him. His voice (and the fear he creates) pound away at her until she gives up:

A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.

The door keeps her in place, but really does not stop Arnold—or so she believes as he speaks to her. He gets inside her head. He tells her that her father's house cannot keep him out: he can "knock it down any time." He is in control and has brainwashed her to believe it. Friend is able to convince her that the door is really not a door at all. To her, it represents safety on some level, but it cannot protect her family or her from him:

She put her hand against the screen. She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were safe back somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head...moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.

Like the tragic figure of Lady Macbeth, Connie walks as if in a dream. She leaves behind her family—her mother who she knows she will never see again—and her house, with a sense that nothing in life—not even her heart—ever belonged to her anyway. She moves with certainty to her eventual death, while Friend speaks his "incantation kindly."

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