Given Oates's story, "Where are you going? Where have you been?," address the following questions:
1. To what extent do you sympathize with Connie early in the story? Why and how so? At what point and why might Connie or your attitude towards her begin to change?
2. What cues do you get about when, as well as where, this story takes place? How important are the specifics of time and place? In these terms, why might it matter that much of the story's action takes place in a "ranch house" that Arnold Friend describes as "a cardboard box I can knock down anytime" ( par. 152)?
3. Both Connie and Arnold Friend more that once suggest that he or she, or should be, familiar to her. Aside from the fact she has seen him once before, why and how does he seem familiar? Why might that familiarity be significant, or how might it shape your sense of who Arnold is or what he might represent in this story?
A distinct aspect of Connie's characterization is that she is not very likable at the story's exposition. Evoking sympathy for Connie is difficult because she barricades herself from the world with the belief that she is better than it. She doesn't want sympathy from anyone, and this includes the reader. While this might be the end of the reader's impressions of Connie, Oates develops another aspect to this characterization. She generates Connie as someone who wants to define herself in a fundamentally different way from the life she leads at home. Connie lives a "double life" and the intensity with which she does so might enable the reader to generate some sympathy for her in a psychological or existential sense:
Connie had long dark blond hair that drew anyone's eye to it, and she wore part of it pulled up on her head and puffed out and the rest of it she let fall down her back. She wore a pull-over jersey blouse 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 music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out; her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—"Ha, ha, very funny,"—but high pitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms on her bracelet.
Connie does not want sympathy for anyone. However, Oates makes it clear that Connie's identity is constructed out of a position of strength compensating for weakness. There is not a domestic realm where Connie feels comfortable being "herself." In fact, Connie's world is constructed in such a "two sided" manner that it is almost dizzying to see her in action. She asserts individuality, but does so with a "nervous" tinge to it. Oates shows the frailty of being a teenage, as one where Connie is not quite a woman, but no longer a child. It's a painful position in life and one that Arnold exploits to a brutal manner. Certainly, the nature of the question assumes that the traditional reading of Connie is that she is self- indulgent at the start of the story and then, by the end, no longer seen in that way. Yet, I would suggest that the reader's sympathy is evoked early on in the narrative because Oates shows adolescence to be agonizing in the need to live a life in which "there are two sides for everything." It becomes dizzying in which one appears one way in one context and another in another. Connie thinks she is in control of her act that "fools" people like her mother. Yet, it is clear that such power is illusory and I think that this is where one feels sympathy. The dedication of the story to Bob Dylan is reminiscent of his lyrics about how "she acts like a woman, but breaks like a little girl." This dynamic is essential to Oates's characterization as one where the hunter becomes the hunted and perhaps was never a hunter. This is a sad condition.
Rightfully, this condition is brought out in full force when Arnold becomes a threat in Connie's world. When Arnold's intent becomes clear, one has sympathy for Connie as one who is immersed in something beyond her:
"Shut up! You're crazy!" Connie said. She backed away from the door. She put her hands up against her ears as if she'd heard something terrible, something not meant for her. "People don't talk like that, you're crazy," she muttered. Her heart was almost too big now for her chest and its pumping made sweat break out all over her. She looked out to see Arnold Friend pause and then take a step toward the porch, lurching. He almost fell. But, like a clever drunken man, he managed to catch his balance. He wobbled in his high boots and grabbed hold of one of the porch posts.
The predation with which Arnold approaches Connie and the fact she is trapped by it, a condition that was brought on by the need for social acceptance, is what Oates critiques. Connie becomes a symbol for something larger in that progress and advancement cannot be evident when teenagers, children, face such threats as Arnold Friend. It is here in which sympathy is evoked for Connie, evident in her physical description, with "heart almost too big now for her chest" and "sweat breaking out all over her." The predator has become the prey.
There is an almost "Everyman" quality to Oates's description of Connie's world. It is no different than the life of what every teen might experience. When Connie and her friends decide to "hang out," they do so in a place familiar to millions of teens: "Sometimes they did go shopping or to a movie, but sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out." The suburban life filled with barbecues, children estranged from their parents, and a world in which kids are left home alone with music and their own idle condition is nearly universal. At the same time, Arnold's car is a source of social prestige, something emulated and replicated in the teenage setting. The house in which Connie lives is middle- class and nothing different than millions of others. It is in this aspect where Arnold's threat to "knock down" Connie's world is terrifying. The homogeneity and conformist nature of Connie's life, one that takes a certain sanctuary in doing what everyone else does, is something that Arnold is able to destabilize with ease. This reflects the illusory nature of such a world, one that promises security and safety if external expectations are replicated. Connie's parents believe they are keeping her safe and never envision that she might be in danger. Connie never imaged that her desire to be noticed would attract a person like Arnold. The world around Connie never saw such a condition as having visited their neighborhood. Arnold has the power to dissolve all of this, a reflection of both his cunning style and the lack of security in the "everyman" quality of the world in which Connie lives.
Arnold seems familiar to Connie because he is able to recognize "her type." He tailor makes himself to be more appealing to the average teenager. His initial "courting" of Connie is made through his car and music. He continues by reciting the names of friends and social figures in Connie's world. He uses these as his entry into her world. In this, Oates is making a statement about the condition of material culture and its influence on the youth. Oates is suggesting that a world in which individuals value clothing, social prestige, and material objects in such a manner is a setting where little real exists. This is why he is so "familiar" to her, as he is able to represent aspect of her being that are predicated upon external reality. He is able to construct himself as appealing to her because he bases who he is on what she socially embodies and to which she is attracted. Such a familiarity is jarring to the reader because it shows how youth culture can be permeated by anyone, especially those with malevolent intent. Arnold represents this existential threat, a reminder that all of us, old and young alike, must be more vigilant in the care taking of young people. A culture that is rooted in so much temporality and contingency can be permeated by anyone, including those with destructive intent. This is where Arnold's familiarity causes fear to both the reader and to Connie.