Of all Joyce Carol Oates’s stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has generated the most critical commentary and the most discussion. After it was originally published, Oates added the dedication to Bob Dylan for his song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” (where the title question occurs), a song she called “very beautiful, very disturbing,” and which recalled to her the legend of Death and the Maiden. The story itself moves from intense psychological realism to surreal myth.
The story starts innocently enough with a description of the fifteen-year-old Connie, who, like many adolescent girls, sleepwalks through life listening to music only she seems to hear. Connie and her friends frequent the mall, and she has begun some kind of sexual experimentation and has been with boys “the way it was in movies and promised in songs.”
The mythic journey begins one hot Sunday afternoon when Connie is home alone—having refused to accompany her family to a barbecue—and two boys in an open jalopy pull into her driveway. She recognizes one of them from the mall the night before, but she knows neither and, as she talks with the driver through her screen door, the scene becomes more and more dreamlike. The driver introduces himself as “Arnold Friend” and his passenger as “Ellie,” but something is wrong about both of them. For one thing, Arnold’s language—the rambling patter with which he assaults her—is out-of-date. In addition, although he wears the standard 1950’s dress of jeans and tight shirt, he has trouble walking in his boots, seems to be wearing a wig, and is older than he appears. He invites her to come riding with them, and Connie is mesmerized, dizzied by his incantatory words. He knows intimate details of her life that no stranger could know and threatens her family, and she feels helpless to resist him. She opens the door to a “land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”
On one level, Oates seems to be blaming the shallow Connie for her fate, and there certainly is a hint of criticism here for young people seduced by mass culture, especially music, and the “trashy daydreams” of teenage love. At a deeper level of the story, however, Connie and Arnold are acting out some mythic dance. “Arnold Friend” is a rough approximation of “An Old Fiend”—the devil, the Antichrist, Pan, and/or death. He draws an X in the air—a cross turned on its side—and both he and Connie exclaim “Christ!” The theme of Death and the Maiden, of a young girl seduced not toward sex but toward extinction, runs beneath this powerful and disturbing story. Beneath the superficial strains of popular music and adolescent culture, Oates warns, lurks the sexuality that leads, if not to death, then to a violent end of innocence.
Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories contains many of the author’s award-winning tales published between 1964 and 1977. This volume provides access to some of Oates’s best works from editions no longer in print. In the afterword, Oates reminds her readers that “writers are time travelers” whose fictions reflect the identities of the writers and create art from imagination and experience.
The volume contains seven sections representing six of Oates’s early compilations and two previously uncollected stories. The contents are organized chronologically, beginning with two stories from Oates’s first collection, By the North Gate (1963). The remainder includes works from Upon the Sweeping Flood (1966), The Wheel of Love (1970), Marriages and Infidelities (1972), The Goddess and Other Women (1974), and Night-Side (1977). The uncollected stories “The Molesters” (1968) and “Silkie” (1972) complete the volume.
Oates’s poetic prose style uses much sensory detail. Her characters endure the “hot smell” of the sun and “dream while awake.” Oates’s protagonists often experience anxiety and isolation—helpless pawns in a hostile world. The title story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is Oates’s most frequently anthologized tale. It features an adolescent, Connie, who is seduced and threatened by a symbolic tempter, Arnold Friend. The hostile forces that Oates employs to portray conflicts are societal and natural. In “The Edge of the World,” an eighteen-year-old faces death in an “unlucky” motorcycle race held in a junk yard—a rusty, metal cemetery symbolic of the young man’s fate in an mechanical age.
Oates employs psychological realism within the framework of experimentation. The story “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life over Again” utilizes twelve disconnected narrative divisions to reveal the plight of a suburban teenager searching to find herself. In “Unmailed, Unwritten Letters” a narrator recounts in imagined epistles the conflicts she endures with her husband, her lover, her family and herself. The stories from Marriages and Infidelities contain Oates’s reworking of classic tales by Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and James Joyce.
The stories often contain violent accounts of self-discovery or self-annihilation. Oates’s characters endure conflicts with social forces that reflect humanity’s evil, the corruption of political or religious systems, and the frailty of the human psyche. Fear is portrayed as an undercurrent of modern society, and the characters frequently confront death and violence.
The world in which Connie lives is dominated by Hollywood, popular music, shopping plazas, and fast-food stands. For Connie and her friends, evenings spent with a boy, eating hamburgers, drinking Cokes, and making out in a dark alley seem like heaven, filled with promises of love sweet and gentle, “the way it was in the movies.” Clearly, Connie’s parents do not understand the significance of her adolescent daydreams and activities. Her mother constantly nags at her for spending too much time in front of a mirror and for not being as steady and reliable as her twenty-four-year-old, unmarried sister. Her father appears as uninvolved in her life as the other fathers who drop off their daughters and friends at the local hangout never question their evening’s activities when they pick them up.
One hot summer Sunday, Connie chooses to remain at home alone while her parents and sister go to a barbecue at an aunt’s house. Suddenly “an open jalopy, painted a bright gold” comes up the driveway. Her heart pounding, Connie hangs on to the kitchen door as she banters with the two boys in the jalopy, who invite her for a ride. The driver, Arnold Friend, saw her at the drive-in the night before and had “wagged a finger and laughed,” saying “Gonna get you, baby” in response to Connie’s smirk. At first, Connie is tempted by his invitation; she “liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed: tight faded jeans stuffed into black scuffed boots, a belt that pulled his waist in and showed how lean he was.” His clothes, his talk, and the music blaring from his radio are all familiar to her. Then she begins to notice that he seems much older than her friends and that he knows too much about her, even where her parents are and how long they will be away from home.
As the story proceeds, Arnold moves closer to the porch but promises not to come in the house after Connie. Apparently, he wants her to join him of her own free will. His tone becomes more menacing, nevertheless, even as he promises to love her: “This is how it is, honey: you come out and we’ll drive away, have a nice ride. But if you don’t come out we’re gonna wait till your people come home and they’re all going to get it.” With this threat to her family, Connie begins to lose control; sick with fear, she calls for her mother and starts to pick up the phone, then puts it back on Arnold’s command. “That’s a good girl. Now you come outside,” he continues, and she slowly pushes the door open, “moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.”