Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Analysis

  • Oates characterizes Connie as a vain, self-centered teenager, noting her habit of checking her reflection in mirrors. Her world is superficial, narcissistic, and "trashy," and Connie wastes her time daydreaming. However, 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 is designed to trick Connie into trusting him.

Analysis

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Joyce Carol Oates dedicated this story to Bob Dylan, and she explained her reasoning in the May 19, 2015, edition of The Wall Street Journal:

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The beauty of the song [“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”] is that you can never quite comprehend it. We know only that something is over: “The lover who just walked out your door / Has taken all his blankets from the floor / The carpet, too, is moving under you.” A powerful evocation of losing control, of losing everything.

Essentially, the song is about mortality. In my story, which was first published in 1966 and many times reprinted, the life that my teenage character knew is about to end.

Arnold Friend’s final spoken line is addressed to Connie, and he echoes the inspiration provided by Bob Dylan: “My sweet little blue-eyed girl.” This line is particularly insightful; Arnold Friend dismisses the fact that Connie’s eyes are actually brown, and this represents his determination to force Connie to conform to his will. While “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” helped to shape the character who would become Connie, a different context helped shape the character who would become Arnold Friend.

For that character development, Oates turned to a Life magazine article she read about a serial killer in Tucson, Arizona, named Charles Schmid. Schmid shared many of the same physical characteristics embodied in Arnold Friend. He was rather short, stuffed his boots to make himself taller (which would account for Friend’s wobbly steps), and wore makeup. Reportedly, Oates didn’t finish reading the Life article before trying to create her own story based on this new character who was already forming in her mind.

The numerical symbolism in the story is often widely interpreted, particularly this line:

“Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey,” Arnold Friend explained. He read off the numbers 33, 19, 17 and raised his eyebrows at her to see what she thought of that, but she didn't think much of it.

Starting at the end of the Old Testament and counting backward 33 books places one in the book of Judges. Chapter 19, verse 17, reads, “When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, ‘Where are you going? Where did you come from?’” Oates had her eye on this verse, weaving a Biblical thread into her story of evil. Connie invokes the name of “Christ” numerous times in the story, but by the time she realizes her fate, her invocation is “forced.” Arnold Friend arrives in a gold car, the color symbolic of greed and vanity, which are sinful. Connie listens to popular music in a drive-in...

(The entire section contains 734 words.)

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