In Oates's story, Connie is a pretty and typical middle-class American girl of the 1960s. She feels alienated from her parents and older sister, though she senses that her mother loves her. Her father is emotionally distanced from his family, and her mother is naïve about Connie's activities, thinking she is hanging out at the local shopping plaza with girlfriends on weekend evenings.
In fact, feeling her sexuality and looking for excitement, Connie is hanging out on the weekends with teenage boys from a local drive-in. This brings her to the attention of an older man, Arnold Friend, who sees her there. His intentions are evil. He stalks Connie and her family so that he can approach her when the rest of the family is gone.
From the beginning of their encounter in the driveway of her house, it is clear that Arnold Friend is a disturbed, dangerous man, probably a sociopath, who is out to rape and hurt Connie. His eyes, when he takes off his sunglasses, are empty, reflecting light like shards of broken glass. His sunglasses reflect a "tiny metallic world" that symbolizes his own inner hardness and emptiness.
As they talk, Connie receives an initiation into the ugly realities of adulthood. Arnold mentions sexual intercourse, and it becomes clear that Connie's other encounters with boys have been innocent. She gradually realizes Arnold and his friend are older, and her sense of danger increases greatly as Arnold threatens to harm her family if she doesn't comply with his wishes.
As Connie drives off with Arnold at the end, the reader perceives that a girl's budding sexuality in American society can emerge within a warped, dangerous context of male violence and predation and also that flirting with danger can and does attract harmful consequences. Although the story was written more than fifty years ago, it is relatable because similar dangers exist today.