Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

Oates's novel about urban life and murder, them, had won the 1970 National Book Award, so it was no surprise that her next collection of short stories, The Wheel of Love, which appeared later that year, received much attention. The book was widely reviewed, and "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was often identified as one of its greatest successes. Some critics were disturbed by the violence that marked the entire collection--a common criticism leveled against many of Oates's works—and by the extreme situations and emotions experienced by a central character in nearly every story. "Joyce Carol Oates," Robert Emmet Long wrote in Saturday Review, "is not really interested in people, only in mental states." Others recognized that disturbing readers was precisely Oates's aim. A reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review wrote that Oates had accomplished a goal "to record and communicate what do seem to be dominant tenors of life today," though shocking they might be.

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Though such reviews point to the common threads of subject, theme, and characterization that relate "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" to other stories in the collection, it is the story's convergence of these qualities that led some critics to single it out for special note. Richard Gilman, writing in the New York Times Book Review praised the story as one that ''create[s] a verbal excitement, a sense of language used not for the expression of previously attained insights or perceptions but for new imaginative reality." Echoing this sentiment, Walter Sullivan commended the story for its "imagery of life's deceptions and perils" and its ability to evoke terror through realism. The story began appearing in anthologies and textbooks, and Oates herself reprinted the story in her 1974 collection, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America.

Since then, the story has been frequently scrutinized by scholars, who often attempt to trace its sources; identify its patterns of symbols, images, and allusions; assess its psychological accuracy, and determine its relationship to Oates's work as a whole. In placing Oates's work in a wider literary context, many critics note the author's debt to such ''Southern gothic" writers as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor for her tendency to place believable characters in realistic settings and then subject them to psychological horror. Tom Quirk, in searching for information regarding the factual origins of the story, wrote in Studies in Short Fiction of the parallels between Oates's story and a 1966 Life magazine article on a Tucson, Arizona, serial murderer. Oates has since confirmed Quirk's theory but asserted that her story is more fiction than fact because ''I do recall deliberately not reading the full article because I didn't want to be distracted by too much detail."

Other critics concentrate on defining the symbolism of the story. Oates's allusions to music, and especially the story's dedication to singer Bob Dylan, have attracted much debate as writers attempt to determine Oates's position on the role of popular music in young people's lives and in American culture as a whole. Similarly, biblical references in the story draw critics' attention to the character Arnold Friend, who has often been described as an embodiment of Satan, or even of Christ. Several writers take to heart Arnold Friend's claim that the numbers painted on his car are a "secret code." They most often attempt to crack this code by turning to the Bible to find specific verses that correspond with the numbers in the story and that seem to apply to the story's situation and themes.

In analyzing the psychological aspects of ''Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,'' critics discuss topics related to teenage sexuality, emotional intimidation, and the process of identity formation. They also examine the psychological principles that underlie Connie's relationship with her mother and sister, as well as her rebellion, self-centeredness, insecurity, and sexual experimentation. Whether these critics perceive Connie's experience as an actual event or as a dream, a theory advanced in Larry Rubin's article on the story, they praise Oates's grasp of adolescent psychology. However, critics often differ in their interpretation of the story's ending. For some, Connie has moved from illusion to reality and from adolescence to adulthood when she gains enough insight to see Arnold and the world around her more accurately. Others assert that the story ends in psychological tragedy rather than triumph, because all Connie has learned is to deny her own will and submit to the desires of others.

Finally, as Oates's writing career has progressed, scholars have gained a greater understanding of ''Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?'' by tracing the relationship between this story and other fiction and nonfiction in her massive body of work. Elements common to much of Oates's work appear in the story, including a skepticism regarding modern American culture, the disintegration of the family, and the illusory nature of the American dream. The story's exploration of male and female relationships, as well as issues of power and violence, have been ongoing interests throughout Oates's career.

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