Identify the significance of "secret code" to the theme of the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" presents the charismatic and nefarious character of Arnold Friend, based on an actual serial killer of the 1960s in Arizona. 

Connie, fifteen and rebellious, draws Friend's attention when she sneaks to the drive-in restaurant across the highway to hang out with the older kids. This is a critical mistake. He comes to her house one Sunday afternoon, knowing her name and that her family is away for the day.

Arnold wears a disguise; he is a man with a lot to hide. His hair is "crazy like a wig." He wears metallic sunglasses so that his eyes are hidden. His boots are stuffed, maybe with newspaper, to make him appear taller.

It has been suggested that he is Satan-like: perhaps he has hooves instead of feet, which is why he wobbles when he walks. His speech is mesmerizing, even referred to as an "incantation." He draws an "X" in the air which to Connie was "almost visible," which could be interpreted as a spell. There is also a sense of timelessness about him:

Connie...had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even the music that was so familiar to her was only half real.

He says, "Don't you know who I am?" as if he is some fearful creature she should recognize from an old fairytale. 

Then there is the reference is the sum of the numbers painted on his car. Arnold calls it his "secret code."

"Now these numbers are a secret code, honey..." [and] ...He read off the numbers 33, 19, 17, and raised his eyebrows at her to see what she thought of that...

The numbers add up to 69, which can be...

...interpreted as yet another indication of Arnold Friend's sexual deviancy[...]the secret code underscores Arnold's intention of raping and murdering Connie whom he allegedly wants to take 'just for a ride.'

Debate has raged for years about the numbers. Oates responded that the numbers were random. Some scholars see the numbers as having Biblical significance, referring to the book of Judges—the thirty-third book, starting from the back of the Old Testament of the Bible, chapter 19, verse 17. Others note that "18" is the letter "R" in the alphabet.
Removing the R's from "Arnold Friend" leaves us with "an old fiend." Numerological calculations prove the numbers to be 6, 6, 6: the sign of the devil. These are also the ages of the women murdered by Charles Howard Schmid, Jr., in Arizona.
The numbers may mean nothing! What we do know, however, is that Arnold is insane. He pretends to be something he is not: a young, friendly guy. He is masterfully manipulative. His secret code may just be another part of his twisted belief that he is all a girl needs:
I'm your lover, honey...
The theme of appearance vs. reality continues throughout the story. Connie does things in secret. Friend pretends to know the secrets of what a girl needs. He simply takes advantage of Connie's naiveté—for she is looking for love:
...those words [were] the echo of a song from last year, about a girl rushing into her boyfriend's arms and coming home again—
Friend is undoubtedly a devil. Friend's code, however, seems to be just another mind game he plays with Connie—a ploy first to make him mysterious and appealing to her, and later to break her will, as he threatens to kill her family if she uses the phone. It's definitely not...
...the way it was in movies and promised in songs...

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