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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Write about Arnold Friend's car. What does a car typically symbolize to teenagers? What do you make of Friend's funky jalopy? What do you suppose the numbers painted on the side represent? What do you suppose will be the NEXT number in the series?

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In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates, Arnold Friend's car can represent a number of things. To teenagers, cars can represent anything from maturity to freedom to being 'cool'. To Connie, it initially represents the unknown as well as her own vanity:

It was a car she didn't know. It was an open jalopy, painted a bright gold that caught the sun opaquely. Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered "Christ. Christ," wondering how bad she looked. The car came to a stop at the side door and the horn sounded four short taps as if this were a signal Connie knew.

Throughout the story, Connie appears disoriented and does not seem to recognize the world around her. This could represent her journey from innocence and ignorance toward maturity and death; she is initially caught up in her own little world, focused on adolescent themes such as her looks, boys, and other teenage characteristics. By the end of the story, however, she has dealt with the prospect of abduction, rape, and death, and understands that though she "did not recognize" where she was going, she knew "that she was going to it."

For Arnold, the car could represent temptation as well as deception. His last name, "Friend," is used to lure his victims into believing he is something he is not. Though he wears "tight faded jeans stuffed into black, scuffed boots," Connie notes how muscular he looks. Additionally, the sunglasses he wears completely hide his eyes, reflecting the sunlight and preventing Connie from seeing where he is looking. Similarly, his car is clearly not pristine - the radio does not work, and the "left rear fender had been smashed." However, Arnold has had it repainted a "bright gold," presumably to mask the ugly nature of the car (much like the sunglasses hide his true nature).

As mentioned by the other responders, a common consensus about the numbers represent a biblical passage. This hypothesis holds up when you take the other references to religion into account. Connie and her family never "bothered with church," Connie "whispered 'Christ. Christ,'" when she first sees the car, and various descriptions of Arnold Friend make him appear demonic (or, indeed, as the devil himself). The idea of the numbers representing the ages of his victims is another plausible hypothesis, in which case the next number might be 15 - Connie's age. Other people have tried to ascribe different meanings to the numbers; however, as there is no clear indication of what they mean, Oates could have simply used the numbers as a way to further the mystery, danger, and deception surrounding Arnold's characterization. Just as Connie has frequent feelings of disorientation and foreboding, throughout the story the reader is increasingly left with the notion that things will not end up well for her.

For further study, you might want to look into the various bible verses that have been attributed to the numbers on Arnold's car. Related to that, you can also look at the descriptions Oates uses for him, many of which suggest that he represents evil and/or the devil. Finally, as the story was apparently inspired in part by the real life murderer Charles Schmid, investigating him might unlock more understanding of the story.

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Cars are often used to represent freedom (not only in literature, but you can probably think of movies and songs where cars are used to evoke that same concept). And it's true that teenagers typically associate cars with freedom. Getting a driver's license is a right of passage that comes with a lot more physical and emotional freedom than experienced before. Obviously Arnold is a sinister figure and the freedom implicitly promised by Arnold's car and the vague promises he makes are all traps.

There is no consensus about what the numbers on the side of the car mean. Like many aspects of the story, Oates seems to have chosen to leave their precise meaning elusive. However, most people agree that they reference the Bible in some way. The explanation offered by the other responder is one theory. Another is that, if you crack the "secret code," the numbers are rearranged to align to the devil's number, 666. Three plus three equals six; nine upside down is six; seven minus one equals six; and the remaining 1 is not necessarily out of place because another number used to reference the devil in the Bible is 616.

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When Arnold Friend appears in Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," he is driving a bright gold car with his name written in "tarlike black letters on the side, with a drawing of a round, grinning face that reminded Connie of a pumpkin, except it wore sunglasses." He has written a secret code on the side of the car: 33, 19, 17, and he expects Connie to respond to this code as he raises his eyebrows, but she doesn't grasp what it means. The left rear fender of the car has been crushed, and Arnold has written "DONE BY CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER" on it. The front fender bears another saying, "MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS."

A car often symbolizes identity to teenagers, and Arnold Friend, who is likely much older than his stated age, is trying to come across as a hip teenager (though failing). The code on the side of the car could mean several things. It could refer to his age and the ages of his victims. Connie is 15, so the next number on the side of the door might be 15. In addition, some readers believe the numbers refer to the Biblical verse John 19:17, "Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull." This verse refers to Jesus's crucifixion, and he was 33 when he was crucified. 

 

 

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