Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Essays and Criticism
by Joyce Carol Oates

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The Presence of Evil in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

(Short Stories for Students)

Since Joyce Carol Oates's phenomenal appearance on the literary scene in the mid-1960s, she has certainly been one of America's most prolific and talked-about writers. The author of more than twenty novels and numerous volumes of short stories, poems, plays, and essays, she has drawn the attention of readers and critics alike. Whatever one's opinion of Oates's work may be, it is not possible to ignore her importance as a writer, particularly one who chronicles life in twentieth-century America. Oates has been compared to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Honore de Balzac, and William Faulkner for her efforts to portray an entire culture of people. It is not surprising that she has been compared to these greats, for Oates also tries to explain some of the mysteries of life, believing that a ''writer's job, ideally, is to act as the conscience of his race."

In her essays on D.H. Lawrence and W.B. Yeats, Oates has expressed her interest in "the richness of pain and chaos." Certainly, these elements are apparent in Oates's own writing, and many critics have commented on the bleak nature of her fiction and on the many unpleasant things that happen to her characters. Oates has noted, ''People frequently misunderstand serious art because it is often violent and unattractive. I wish the world were a prettier place, but I wouldn't be honest as a writer if I ignored the actual conditions around me." These words apply particularly well to one of her best-known stories, which was based on the case of an Arizona serial killer who preyed on teenage girls. The prize-winning "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" depicts fifteen-year-old Connie, a "typical" American girl, who is seduced into what we assume will be her rape and murder. Oates mirrors reality in this horrifying portrayal, stinting only on the physical details while deftly exploring Connie's mental terror.

As with much of Oates's fiction, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" uses the technique of psychological realism, funneling the narrative through Connie's consciousness, along with elements of gothic horror, to chilling effect. The story has been subject to differing interpretations by various critics. It has been seen as an inverted fairy tale in which Connie is joined not with Prince Charming but with the Prince of Darkness. These readers have pointed out similarities between Arnold Friend and the devil: his disguise, his supernatural knowledge of the whereabouts of Connie's family, his ability to lure Connie to him against her will, even his very name, which is by no coincidence close to ''Arch Fiend.'' Others see it as a tale of initiation into evil, with the end depicting Connie's acceptance of the depraved American culture. Here Connie inhabits a world of moral impoverishment in which only the false and tawdry are revered. The loss of Connie to Arnold Friend is thus not only the story of one girl's fatal misperception of appearances but also a representation of a loss of innocence.

There are still others who read the story as a feminist allegory which suggests that young women of today, like the generations that have come before them, are headed into sexual bondage. When Connie, the innocent female, walks out of the house to meet what may be her demise, she also represents the spiritual death of women at the moment they give up their independence to the desire of the sexually threatening male.

In addition to reading ''Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" for its critical interpretation, it can also be enjoyed as a finely crafted story. Oates's control over her narrative is clearly evident as she introduces a protagonist who is familiar enough to earn the reader's empathy, yet still able to surprise. Connie, despite her shallowness, is ultimately likeable. She is suffering, not from a malicious desire to be cruel, but merely from romantic delusions in her search for a "sweet, gentle" love ''the way it was in movies and promised in songs.'' Connie's behavior, when she is in the...

(The entire section is 7,065 words.)