Please describe the theme of "Where are you Going, Where Have you Been?"

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The beauty of such texts as this excellent short story by Joyce Carol Oates is that they leave themselves open to a number of different approaches rather than being strictly defined by one discrete theme. Thus it is that this story could be related to a number of different themes. However, from my perspective, one of its most interesting themes is what is says about identity and how we come to establish our own identity.

We are presented with Connie, who is an awkward teenager trying to find her identity in the world. Connie seeks to establish her identity by developing a rebellious side to her that acts completely differently away from home than she is at home. Note how this two-sided element to her personality is explored:

She wore a pullover jersey top that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. 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 musinc in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out...

She is developed as a character who finds her identity in her own beauty and the effect that her beauty has on others. However, crucially, because of the instability of her identity and the way that it is still developing and not fully formed, she leaves herself vulnerable to the psychological manipulation of Arnold. He is able to recognise her need to be appreciated and to be flattered, and his repeated reference to her as "honey" and her beauty are designed to manipulate her unformed identity and make her comply with his clearly violent and potentially murderous desires. When he says, towards the end of the story, "...what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?", we get the feeling that Connie has no choice at this stage but to yield to Arnold, as she is relying on her partial identity to define who she feels she is. Thus one theme of this story is the way that, as we search for our identity, we can leave ourselves open and vulnerable to manipulation by others.


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