There is much about Joyce Carol Oates’ short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? that suggests a strong religious undertone, from Oates’ reference to Connie’s family ritualistically eschewing observance of the Sabbath (“none of them bothered with church”) to the references to the sleazy diner to which Connie and her friend head in search of a true place of worship: “They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for.” This restaurant, Oates makes clear, is, for Connie, church, as in the following description of the atmosphere inside:
“They sat at the counter and crossed their legs at the ankles, their thin shoulders rigid with excitement, and listened to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.”
Connie’s family life is dysfunctional, her relationship with her mother one of mutual contempt, her sister seeming to exist solely for the purpose of contrasting her absence of personality, ambition and beauty to the dreams of escape and eroticism embodied in the younger sibling, and the father a total nonentity in her life. Into this dull, stifling existence walks – or, more accurately, drives in his gold-painted classic convertible with the numbers 33, 19, and 17 painted on the side – is the strangely named Arnold Friend, a mysterious individual of indeterminate age who offers the beguiling opportunity of escape. Much speculation has surrounded Oates’ story, including the nature of Arnold Friend’s existence, and the symbolic meaning of those numbers painted on his car. Below is a link to a thoughtful analytical essay on potential biblical references to the numbers 33, 19, and 17, but this connection to the Bible is purely speculative. In the context of a story with such strong biblical undertones, however, interpretations of those numbers that suggest references to Scripture may have merit. In any event, Arnold can clearly be seen as representing evil; in short, he may be the devil. He is promising Connie an escape from her current unsatisfactory, unfulfilling existence with thinly veiled promises of sexual rapture:
"Yes, I'm your lover. You don't know what that is but you will," he said. "I know that too. I know all about you. But look: it's real nice and you couldn't ask for nobody better than me, or more polite. I always keep my word. I'll tell you how it is, I'm always nice at first, the first time. I'll hold you so tight you won't think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you'll know you can't. And I'll come inside you where it's all secret and you'll give in to me and you'll love me"
This last comment exists on two levels, that of demonic possession and of sexual climax, and such a statement existing within the context of this story can certainly be interpreted as representing the fulfillment of a wish for a better life in exchange for relinquishment of bodily possession. Additionally, the references to the radio station that Connie listens to, and that she hears emanating from the transistor radio held by the threatening figure of Ellie suggests a religious connection that once again leans towards the darker side of human nature. The “hard, fast, shrieking songs” that Connie listens to one after another, and the description of Connie’s entrancement into another world (“And Connie paid close attention herself, bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest”) all suggest that Oates is creating a world of in which Satan exists and is actively trolling for victims. Is it significant that Connie whispers to herself “Christ. Christ” when contemplating her appearance upon the arrival at her home of Arnold Friend? It is unlikely that Oates’ use of this blasphemous phrase was accidental.
Then, again, maybe this is all reading way too much in Oates’ story. Another thoughtful analytical essay, linked here, suggests that interpretations that focus on demonic angles represent a massive misreading of this story, inspired, as it was, by Bob Dylan’s lyrics. The disc jockey’s comment on the radio – “An' look here, you girls at Napoleon's—Son and Charley want you to pay real close attention to this song coming up!” – is an ode to Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and other parallels exist. Furthermore, the “x” Arnold imaginatively draws in the air, following Connie’s utterance of “Christ. Christ,” is interpreted as symbolizing the sign of Jesus, indicating that Arnold Friend is a benign figure sent to deliver Connie on a more righteous, fulfilling path. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that one finds it hard to imagine Jesus threatening the lives of Connie’s family if she rejects his entreaties. Personally, I’ll stick with the demonic presence interpretation.
[See http://www.csun.edu/loverman/355/essay4tierce.pdf for the alternative interpretation that suggests Dylan’s music as more important than religious themes]