What is the COMPLICATION/CONFLICT/CENTRAL PROBLEM in "Where are You Going, Where Have you Been"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A review of Ms. Oates's collection of stories entitle The Wheel of Love, a reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review wrote that Oates had certainly achieved her goal "to record and communicate what do seem to be dominant tenors of life today," as shocking as they may be.  Indeed, Oates has received much condemnation for the violence in her stories, such as "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" whose title ironically cautions parents to stay involved with their children.

From this prevailing caution to parents to rein their children in from the hypnosis of teen culture with its mesmerizing music that for them "made everything so good," Oates designs a conflict that results directly from lack of parental control. For, throughout her narrative, Oates alludes to this non-involvement of parents. The first example occurs as one of the fathers who drops off the Connie and her friends at the shopping plaza picks them up hours later and "never bothered to ask what they had done."  Then, the following day, although Connie has told her mother that she was going to the plaza to watch a film, her mother fails to inquire about this movie.  Only her sister June asks how the movie was and is satisfied with Connie's nebulous response, "So-so."

Further, although Connie's mother does address some issues, she and Connie are merely "tugging and struggling over something of little value to either of them." That they "were almost friends" indicates that the mother has exerted no authority over her daughter, a parental authority that provides perimeters of behavior and guidance in thinking.  Worse than the mother is Connie's father, who is completely uninvolved in the rearing of his children.  Working most of the time, he comes home, eats supper, reads the newspaper, and goes to bed.  When he is aware of his daughter, it exits only as a passive person, seated while his wife scolds Connie over him.

Without the guidance of firm parents, Connie has a mind "filled with trashy daydreams and music that she "depend[s] upon."  Unarmed with moral guidance from parents, who "never bothered with church," Connie who is alone at home, having been allowed to remain behind as the rest of the family attends a relative's barbeque, falls victim to the malevolent Arnold Friend, disguised as a fellow teen, whose "whole face is a mask." Confronted with an evil of which she has no knowledge, Connie finds herself incapable of interpreting the threats to herself and dealing with them, and unwittingly allows herself to become psychologically dominated by the demonic Friend who ironically asks her,

"Don't you know I'm your friend?  Didn't you see me put my sign in the air when you walked by?"

"What sign?"

"My sign" [the sign of the devil].  And he drew an X in the air, leaning out toward her....After her hand fell back to his side the X was still in the air, almost visible.

Without a true identity of her own, one that could have been instilled by active and involved parenting, the problem with Connie is that she is unable to identify the malevolence of Arnold Friend. In this inability, she, thus, becomes terribly vulnerable as she lacks a grounded sense of self generated from having morals and values that would have allowed her to recognize life's perils. In short, Connie is unable to perceive reality through the deception of appearances upon which she has formed her life.

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