Identify the significance of "sunglasses" to the overall meaning or theme of Joyce Carol Oates' 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?," we are privy to the evil at the heart of a truly sick man. Oates was inspired after... 

...reading an account in Life magazine of a charismatic but insecure young man who had enticed and then killed several girls in Tucson, Arizona, during the early 1960s. 

Oates shows us the same charisma that a spider has for a fly. One of the overriding themes in this story is the difference between reality and perception, or "Don't judge a book by its cover." For when Connie first sees Arnold Friend (note the irony of his last name), her impressions are very different than when he shows up at her house.

One night Connie lies to her mother about where she was going and ends up at the "drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out." Connie is desperately trying to be grown up. She sees Arnold as she studies all the cars around her.

It was a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold. He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin. 

Connie looks away and then looks back, unable to help herself. 

He wagged a finger and laughed and said, "Gonna get you, baby..."

When rereading the story, we pick up details missed before. For example, note the foreshadowing and symbolic meanings in Connie's behavior, delighted to be out this evening:

She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive...

The movement of her shoulders could be seen as a defensive gesture in later circumstances; "sucked her breath" could speak to the last moments of her life. And the "pleasure" may address Arnold's joy in killing. When he shows up one day some time later at her house, Connie notices things that not really enticing or mysterious, but off-putting. When Arnold first arrives, his golden jalopy makes her check to see how she looks. The car...

...was painted a bright gold that caught the sunlight...

The gold is blinding, for she has no premonition of danger. When she looks at the boys, she recognizes Arnold; his hair is "crazy like a wig," inferring a disguise.

Both boys wore sunglasses. The driver's glasses were metallic and mirror everything in miniature.

Arnold's glasses do not allow Connie to see his eyes, which are said to be "windows of the soul." Her own image, reflected back to her, is smaller, perhaps "mirroring" his ability to make his victims feel small and helpless.

The feeling of what is real as opposed to what is perceived continues as Connie notices important details: he looks like he is pretending to be relaxed—a predator poised; he has a "slippery friendly smile," not to be trusted; the singsong way he talks is like a snake hypnotizes its intended meal; and, the fist that hits the palm of his other hand as if following the beat of the music may be symbolic of his hidden strength, dangerous intentions. But none of these details "come together."

Connie thought him a boy, but she realizes he isn't. She asks his age and he gets tense. He looks thirty; he says they're the same age...or maybe he's eighteen. Connie doesn't believe him; she looks at Ellie, his companion: he's not a kid either, but "a forty-year-old-baby."

These details are a warning to Connie, but she a lamb with a wolf. When she "faintly" tells them they should leave, she has already lost. The sunglasses hide the soul of a murderer. Other details warn of danger, but they go unnoticed. Arnold is nothing as he first appeared to be.

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