What does the title "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" mean?
I think that the title is really powerful. In analyzing Oates' short story, Gale Cengage speaks to the intense nature of the title as a statement on how the real challenge in the short story speaks to how there is a gap between Connie and her parents. For a variety of reasons, there exists a chasm between both that can be seen as the numbing reality of modern parent/ child or reflective of something more intensely dangerous:
Connie's father plays a small role in her life, but by paralleling repeated phrases, Oates suggests that this is precisely the problem. Because he does not ''bother talking much'' to his family, he can hardly ask the crucial parental questions, ''Where are you going?" or "Where have you been?" The moral indifference of the entire adult society is underscored by Oates' parallel description of the father of Connie's friend, who also "never ... [bothers] to ask'' what they did when he picks up the pair at the end of one of their evenings out. Similarly, on Sunday morning, "none of them bothered with church," not even that supposed paragon, June.
The title is powerful in this respect. The two most basic questions that all parents must ask of their teens reside in "Where are you going?" and when the children return, "Where have you been?" This is something that forms the basis of any solidified notion of parenting because it shows care and devotion, almost to the point where receiving angst from a child for such question can be seen as a note of distinction and success. I think that this becomes the basis for the title, something that is important in that these two questions are never asked by Connie's parents. Whether they see it as trying to respect Connie's freedom or not wanting to engage her in confrontation, Oates' title brings to light that there is a parenting challenge present. She is too skilled to lay the blame at their doorstep, the very same one that Arnold Friend threatened their own harm to Connie and compelling her to leave home because of it. Yet, it is a significant point made in the title that these two questions, some of the foundational in all parenting, were never asked from the parents. Sadly, with the ending, these two questions are the two questions that the parents will most commonly ask over and over when they return to find Connie gone, presumably never to return. It is here where I think that the story's title is powerful and meaningful.
In accordance with the above observations that there is the absence of a parent asking the questions posed in the title, it is interesting to note that the father of Connie's best girlfriend "drove the girls the three miles to town and left them off at a shopping plaza" so that they could wile away the time in the shops or at the movie; most significantly, he "never bothered to ask what they had done." It is this detached lack of interest in the teens and the lack of control that leads them to become influenced by the "music that made everything so good."
With the music as a subliminal control, "something to depend upon" and to provide an "urgent insistent pounding," Connie's friends and she are absolutely directionless themselves. Instead, Connie is detached from her normal familial relations and stays home when they go to a barbeque, with her eyes closed in the sun,
dreaming and dazed with the warmth around her as if this were a kind of love...and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before....
Clearly, Connie never seriously contemplates what she may become; in effect, she does not ask herself the questions, "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" in order to formulate some purpose and goals in her life. And, so, because she has been seduced by music and movies and daydreams in the sun, Connie finds herself victimized by one who has been watching where she has been going and what she has been doing. She has lost herself and her family both to the subliminal perils of life wrought by suggestive music and erotic attentions.
Joyce Carol Oates chose to call this story "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" because of how it deals with youth culture and identity. The main character, Connie, is at a crossroads of her own identity, and is considering whether to adopt the safe lifestyle of her parents and her older sister, or whether to find a greater measure of freedom, at the expense of danger. Where Connie has "been" is the traditional culture of the 1950s and early 1960s, while where she is going is representative of her more rebellious new attitudes.
As a larger statement, Oates is using Connie to illuminate the state of youth culture in general at that historical moment. The entire generation that was at adolescent age during the 1960s was having to make the choice of whether to go with the same values as their parents, or whether to forge their own paths. As we can see looking backward in history, they chose the latter, but in this moment, before this progression has gone very far, Oates is cautioning youth to be more cognizant of their choices.
The questions "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" are meant to remind young people that the ways they spend their time, like Connie's frivolous hookups and shallow interests, are actively creating where they are "going." In light of this, Oates is asking them to take a little more time to think about where they've "been," and where they want to be "going." In sum, the title is about the relationship between a person's past and future, and what that means for their identity.