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

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? book cover
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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Analysis

  • 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. 

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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...

(The entire section is 5,653 words.)