Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Analysis

Joyce Carol Oates

At a Glance

  • Oates characterizes Connie as a vain, self-centered teenager in the first paragraph, noting her habit of checking her reflection in mirrors. Connie "knew she was pretty and that was everything." Her world is superficial, narcissistic, and "trashy," and Connie wastes all her time daydreaming. And yet, at the end of the story, she makes a heroic gesture by sacrificing herself for her family.
  • Oates uses similes to liken Arnold Friend to a bird of prey. His nose is "long and hawk-like," and he has a "singsong" way of talking that masks his malicious intentions. These adjectives combine to paint an ominous portrait of Arnold Friend, whose entire appearance (his strange wig and stylish jeans) is designed to trick Connie into trusting him.
  • "Where Are You Going, Where Have You been?" is notable for its use of dialogue and colloquialisms. Much of the story consists of the conversation between Connie and Arnold, who gradually wears her down with his persistence and threats of violence. Both characters use words like "ain't" and "kinda" in everyday speech. Oates uses this natural dialogue to make the story more realistic. 

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Oates’s masterful mixing of literal and figurative, psychological and allegorical levels makes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” a powerful and fascinating story. This mix is particularly evident in her depiction of both Connie’s and Arnold’s double identities. Connie carefully pulls her sweater down tight when she leaves home: “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home.” Arnold stuffs his boots in order to appear taller and more attractive or perhaps to hide the cloven feet of his satanic self. In Connie’s action, the reader recognizes the adolescent beginning to break away from her family and to test the powers of her emerging sexuality. In Arnold’s, the reader sees the devil’s traditional role as arch-deceiver and seducer. On a still deeper psychological level, Arnold Friend is the subconscious nightmare version of Connie’s waking desires and dreams, erotic love as her sister June might suppose it, not “sweet and gentle” as promised in Bobby King’s songs. Allegorically viewed, Friend brings the vehicle that will lead Connie to the “vast sunlit reaches” of the future, a metaphor that expresses the vagueness of her dreams while also representing an unknown—attractive, perilous, and as inevitable as death.

Though the story is heavy with thematic significance and symbolism, it also reads quickly because of Oates’s skill in building suspense. Each stage of Arnold Friend’s unmasking and Connie’s resulting terror and growing hysteria is carefully delineated. When Arnold first arrives, Connie cannot decide “if she liked him or if he was just a jerk.” The reader becomes more suspicious than she does as she notices his muscular neck and arms, his “nose long and hawk-like, sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke.” Gradually, Connie realizes that all the characteristics she “recognizes” in him—dress, gestures, the “singsong way he talked”—do not come together the way they should. Her heart begins to pound faster when she questions his age and notices that his companion has the face of a forty-year-old baby. Worse yet, Arnold seems to possess preternatural vision to the point of describing all the guests at the family barbecue, what they are doing, how they are dressed. As he states more explicitly what he wants from her, Connie’s terror and the story’s suspense mount. When Arnold promises not to enter the house unless Connie picks up the phone, the reader may recall that the devil as evil spirit cannot cross a threshold uninvited. At this point, the end seems inevitable; in her presumed murderer’s words, “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out.”

It is no wonder that “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is the most frequently anthologized and critically acclaimed of Oates’s short stories. Its popularity is ensured by the famous Oates blend of violence, sex, and suspense; its place in the American literary canon by its thematic importance, Oates’s frightening vision of the contemporary American inability to recognize evil in its most banal forms.

Though many critics have complained about the gratuitous violence of Oates’s work and seem to distrust her extraordinary fluency (she produced more than thirty-five volumes of stories, novels, and literary criticism in her first twenty years as a published writer), this particular story demonstrates her ability to achieve tight compression and careful stylistic control. From the first line, “Her name was Connie,” to the last, “’My sweet little blue-eyed girl,’ he said, in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes,” this is a story in which every word counts.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Women's Movement
Interest in women's equal rights was a subject of great controversy during the early years of Oates's...

(The entire section is 727 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

This story was first published by the literary journal Epoch in 1966 and was included in Oates's 1970 short story collection, The...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
The first line of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"—"Her name was Connie''— signals that it is being...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The first line of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"— "Her name was Connie"—signals that the story will be told by a...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Interest in equal rights for women was a subject of great controversy during the early years of Oates's career leading up to "Where Are You...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1970: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 87 percent of American homes are headed by married couples.

1990s: With...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Read the 1966 Life magazine article, "The Pied Piper of Tucson," which inspired Oates's story, and compare the fictional and...

(The entire section is 74 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the crime of acquaintance or date rape, focusing on its presentation in the media, the stories of its victims, and its status in...

(The entire section is 56 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Daphne du Maurier's classic gothic novel Rebecca (1938) is a tale about the psychological manipulation of a young bride by her...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was adapted as a film, Smooth Talk, directed by Joyce Chopra and starring Laura Dern,...

(The entire section is 54 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

William Faulkner's novel, Sanctuary (1931), describes horrifying acts and their results in the American South, and probes themes of...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987, 224 p. A sympathetic biography of...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Gilman, Richard, Review or The Wheel of Love, in Ne w York Times Book Review, October 25, 1970, p. 4....

(The entire section is 355 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Pearlman, Mickey, ed. American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989.

Winslow, Joan D. “The Stranger Within: Two Stories by Oates and Hawthorne.” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 263-268.