Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

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.

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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.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

Point of View

The first line of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"—"Her name was Connie''— signals that it is being told by a third-person narrator. This narrative voice stays closely aligned to Connie's point of view. The reader learns what her thoughts are, but the narrator provides no additional information or judgment of the situation. For instance, Connie's harsh appraisals of her sister and mother are discussed: "now [her mother's] looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie,'' but it is clear that this assessment is Connie's and not the narrator's.

Observing the story's events through a narrator who presents things as Connie sees them allows the reader to identify with her terror as she is transformed from a flirt into a victim. Arnold Friend is presented only as he appears to Connie; the reader learns nothing of his unspoken thoughts. This narrative "detachment" makes him less human and more ominous than if the narrator provided details that would allow the reader to identify with him. Maintaining the third-person narrative voice instead of telling the story in Connie's own words, however, allows Oates to use descriptive language that Connie would presumably not. It is through this language that much of the mood, imagery, and symbolism of the story emerges.

Setting

References to popular music and slang date the events in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" to the same period when Oates wrote the story in the mid-1960s. Oates sketches in few details of the town, which is meant to be a typical suburban landscape that includes familiar sights such as a shopping plaza and drive-in restaurant. This setting is further described in the reference to the newness and style of the three-year-old "asbestos 'ranch house'" Connie lives in. Such an innocuous setting is incongruous with the violence suggested in the story, and the contrast serves to heighten the reader's uneasiness. The lack of specific description of the setting serves to universalize the story's themes, which suggest that Connie's lack of identity is a legacy of modern suburban culture. Though the actual location of the story is irrelevant, the reference to the radio show Connie listens to, the "XYZ Sunday Jamboree," may be a reference to radio station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan, the area in which Oates lived at the time the story was written.

Structure

The structure of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?'' follows a familiar pattern. The first few pages of exposition acquaint the reader with Connie and her family, providing details about her character and lifestyle. The rising action begins when Arnold Friend pulls into the driveway and instigates a conversation with Connie. Her character, which has been carefully outlined, begins to interact with another force. This force presents a conflict for Connie: should she succumb to Arnold, or try to save herself? At the climax of the story, Connie's will is overtaken by Arnold and she acquiesces to his evil desires.

The most unusual aspect of the story's structure, perhaps, is its lack of resolution. The action abruptly ends as Connie walks towards Arnold. The fact that the reader does not find out Connie's fate further heightens the story's mood of violence, in which horror is suggested, but never shown. The only hint of the action's resolution is in the foreshadowing statements made by Arnold when he says he wants to "come inside you where it's all secret" and show Connie "what love is like," statements that hint at rape. Similarly, Connie laments that "I'm not going to see my mother again" or "sleep in my bed again," comments that suggest her murder. However, the lack of a stated resolution has been a point of major discussion in critical essays on the story, with some proposing that Connie is killed and others proposing that she is not. Some critics look outside the story, to Oates's factual source in the Arizona murderer she had read about in Life magazine, to find evidence of Connie's certain death. An additional interpretation of the story's resolution is provided by critic Larry Rubin, who interprets the entire encounter with Arnold as Connie's dream. By this reasoning, the story's unstated resolution involves Connie's awakening from one of her "trashy daydreams." The ambiguity of the resolution heightens the narrative's lingering mood of horror by prolonging suspense beyond its ending.

Symbolism and Imagery

Many critics have interpreted Arnold Friend as a symbol of some larger idea or force, such as the devil, death, or sexuality. Connie, also, has been said to represent many things: Eve, troubled youth, or spiritually unenlightened humanity. Such interpretations can be validated by Oates's initial title for the story, "Death and the Maiden," which she explains was chosen to suggest ''an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil)" for a young woman who is "seduced by her own vanity." Oates also points out, though, that as she revised the story her interest shifted toward a more realistic, rather than allegorical, treatment of her character and situation.

Several images are used to give readers insight into Connie's perspective in the story. These images frequently relate to popular music, which serves as a background throughout the entire story and takes on a near-sacred religious function for Connie since "none of them bothered with church." "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is subtitled ''For Bob Dylan," and at least one critic has noticed the similarity between Arnold's car and the "magic swirling ship" that Dylan wrote about in his 1960s song ''Mr. Tambourine Man.'' Connie believes that life and love will be ''the way it was in movies and promised in songs." This belief in the simplistic thoughts of popular music makes her unable to discern Arnold Friend's true nature until it is too late to escape. Arnold, too, relies on song lyrics to seduce Connie. In a "half-sung sigh" he calls her "My sweet little blue-eyed girl," a possible reference to the Van Morrison song "Brown-Eyed Girl." Connie, in fact, has brown eyes, and the misstatement is further evidence that Arnold is not what he seems.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

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 third-person narrator. This narrative voice stays closely aligned to Connie's point of view. The reader learns what her thoughts are, but the narrator provides no additional information or judgment of the situation. For instance, Connie's harsh appraisals of her sister and mother are discussed: "Now [her mother's] looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie." However, it is clear that this assessment is Connie's and not the narrator's.

Observing the story's events through a narrator who presents them through Connie's eyes allows the reader to identify with her terror as she is transformed from a flirt into a victim. Arnold Friend is presented only as he appears to Connie; the reader learns nothing of his unspoken thoughts. This narrative "detachment" makes him less human and more ominous than if the narrator provided details that would encourage the reader to identify with him. Maintaining the third-person narrative voice instead of telling the story in Connie's own words, however, allows Oates to use descriptive language that Connie would presumably not use. It is through this language that much of the mood, imagery, and symbolism of the story emerge.

The structure of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" follows a familiar pattern. The first few pages of exposition acquaint the reader with Connie and her family, providing details about her character and lifestyle. The rising action begins when Arnold Friend pulls into the driveway and instigates a conversation with Connie. Her character, which has been carefully outlined, begins to interact with another force. This force creates a conflict for Connie; should she succumb to Arnold, or try to save herself? At the climax of the story, Connie's will is overtaken by Arnold, and she acquiesces to his evil desires. The most unusual aspect of the story's structure, perhaps, is its lack of resolution.

The action abruptly ends as Connie walks towards Arnold. The fact that the reader does not find out Connie's fate further heightens the story's mood of violence, in which horror is suggested, but never shown. The foreshadowing statements made by Arnold when he says that he wants to "come inside you where it's all secret" and show Connie "what love is like," imply rape, but don't show him committing this act of violence against Connie. Similarly, Connie laments that "I'm not going to see my mother again" or "sleep in my bed again," suggesting that she knows she will be murdered. However, the lack of a stated resolution has been a point of major discussion in critical essays on the story, with some writers proposing that Connie is killed and others proposing that she is not. Some critics look to Oates's factual source in the Arizona murderer she had read about in Life magazine as evidence of Connie's certain death. A different perspective on the story is provided by critic Larry Rubin, who interpreted the entire encounter with Arnold as Connie's dream. By this reasoning, the story's unstated resolution involves Connie awakening from one of her "trashy daydreams." The ambiguity of the ending heightens the horror by prolonging the suspense until well after the reader has finished reading the story.

Many other critics have interpreted Arnold Friend as a symbol of some larger idea or force, such as the devil, death, or sexuality. Connie, also, has been said to represent many things: Eve, troubled youth, or spiritually unenlightened humanity. Such interpretations can be validated by Oates's initial title for the story, "Death and the Maiden," which she explains was chosen to suggest "an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil)" for a young woman who is "seduced by her own vanity." Oates also points out, though, that as she revised the story her interest shifted toward a more realistic treatment of her character and situation. Several images are used to give readers insight into Connie's perspective. These images frequently relate to popular music, which serves as a background throughout the story and takes on a near-sacred religious function for Connie since "none of them bothered with church." "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" is subtitled "For Bob Dylan," and at least one critic has noticed the similarity between Arnold's car and the "magic swirling ship" that Dylan wrote about in his 1960s song "Mr. Tambourine Man." Connie believes that life and love will be "the way it was in movies and promised in songs," and this belief in the simplistic messages of popular music makes her unable to discern Arnold Friend's true nature until it is too late for escape. Arnold, too, relies on song lyrics to seduce Connie. In a "half-sung sigh," he calls her "my sweet little blue-eyed girl," a possible reference to the Van Morrison song "Brown-Eyed Girl." Connie, in fact, has brown eyes, and his misstatement is further evidence that Arnold is not what he seems.

Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

This story was first published by the literary journal Epoch in 1966 and was included in Oates's 1970 short story collection, The Wheel of Love. Its acclaim was so swift and certain that, as early as 1972, critic Walter Sullivan noted that it was "one of her most widely reprinted stories and justly so." Along with the story's frequent appearance in textbooks and anthologies, Oates herself republished it in 1974 as the title story for Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America. This collection's subtitle points to Oates's ongoing interest in adolescence, especially the psychological and social turmoil that arises during this difficult period. Her preoccupation with these topics, along with her keen sense of the special pressures facing teenagers in contemporary society, is evident in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" This story is seen by many as one of Oates's best, and in the words of scholar G. F. Waller, it is "one of the masterpieces of the genre." Oates's realism often garners such praise; critics and readers alike have commended the presentation of the story's central character, Connie, as a typical teenager with whom readers may identify, dislike, or even pity. A similar believability is instilled in Arnold Friend's manipulative stream of conversation and its psychological effects on a vulnerable teenager. Critics also praise the story for its evocative language, its use of symbols, and an ambiguous conclusion that allows for several interpretations of the story's meaning. In 1988, a film version of the story was released, entitled Smooth Talk.

References to popular music and slang date the events in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" to the mid-1960s. The small-town setting reflects a typical suburban landscape that includes such familiar sights as a shopping plaza and drive-in restaurant. This setting is further described in reference to the newness and style of the three-year-old "asbestos 'ranch house'" in which Connie lives. Such an innocuous setting is incongruous with the violence suggested in the story, and the contrast serves to heighten the reader's uneasiness. The lack of specific description of the setting serves to universalize the story's themes, which suggest that Connie's lack of identity is a legacy of modern suburban culture. Though the actual location of the story is irrelevant, the radio show Connie listens to, the "XYZ Sunday Jamboree," may refer to radio station WXYZ in Detroit, where Oates lived at the time the story was written.

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