illustration of a young girl, Connie, reflected in the sunglasses of a man, Arnold Friend

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

by Joyce Carol Oates
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What is the major theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

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Readers will likely pick out more than a single major theme from this wonderfully chilling story. One theme that I really like to discuss with classes is the thematic interplay between freedom and confinement. You could call it independence instead of freedom if you like as well. Connie begins the...

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Readers will likely pick out more than a single major theme from this wonderfully chilling story. One theme that I really like to discuss with classes is the thematic interplay between freedom and confinement. You could call it independence instead of freedom if you like as well. Connie begins the story as a girl that clearly wants to establish some space and independence from a family that she feels stifles her and ruins her fun. What's great about this story is how quickly Arnold Friend rips that freedom from Connie. In a way, he is offering her freedom from her family, but the entire encounter feels more and more oppressive as Friend gains more and more control over Connie. For someone that desperately sought independence from her family, she suddenly finds herself deeply wishing and hoping for rescue from her family. Her freedom from Friend depends on her family rescuing her.

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The central theme of this chilling story is the way that the central protagonist is shown to be trying to establish her own sense of identity as she searches for who she really is. Connie, as a teenager, seems to be representative of this important stage that all teenagers go through as they move away from childhood and try to enter adulthood. She tries to push the boundaries placed on her by her parents, and deliberately creates an alternative self that she displays when she is with her friends:

Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head...

Connie is deliberately trying to search for her identity. Because she is so unsure about who she is, she bases her identity on how attractive she feels and whether or not she is able to make the boys in the diner look at her. The author makes the point that going through such a stage in one's development actually makes you intensely vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of a character like Arthur Friend, who is able to feed the vanity of such a character and force them into actions that spell their ruin and doom.

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