illustration of a young girl, Connie, reflected in the sunglasses of a man, Arnold Friend

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Does the plot of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" fulfill the "unifying theory of two plus two"?

Quick answer:

The plot does fulfill the "Unifying Theory of Two Plus Two" because "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" focuses on the illusion of control that women in American society possess. It opposes women's power to the actual control and power that men have. Oates never uses the word "control" in the text, though she shows us how Connie slowly realizes that she lacks it. Connie starts as flirtatious and confident, but becomes obedient and submissive by the end.

Expert Answers

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The "Unifying Theory of Two Plus Two" suggests that readers like to work for their understanding of a story, that the best story-telling entails giving readers the pieces or parts they need to understand (the two-plus-two) without telling them what those parts add up to (the four).

In this story, Connie is a girl who has had several sexual encounters in which she has felt in control. When her family goes to the barbecue, Connie stays home and daydreams about some of these encounters:

her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was. . .sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs.

However, when Arnold Friend shows up at her door, Connie eventually realizes that she is not in control. At first, she feels as though she is by "let[ting] her hair fall loose over one shoulder" and "pretend[ing] to fidget," in short, acting coy and flirtatious.

However, as she realizes that Arnold is older, knows quite a lot about her, and has "marked" her before, she begins to feel light-headed and dizzy. She realizes her vulnerability and relative powerlessness.

He says that her house, her "daddy's house" is just a "cardboard box [he] can knock down any time." It doesn't keep her safeā€”it only gives the illusion of keeping her safe. Moreover,

She thought for the first time in her life that [her heart] was nothing that was hers, that belonged to her, but just a pounding, living thing inside this body that wasn't really hers either.

In short, Connie realizes that she isn't in control, and that as a woman, she never has been.

In the end, then, Connie "chooses" to go outside to Arnold, rather than allowing him to kill her family. Thus, her illusion of control is maintained, even in the circumstances. However, Oates never once uses the word "control" in the text. She allows us to do the math, so to speak, and figure out who has the power and control in the text. Women may have the illusion of control, believing that they are in control of their lives and choices, but their agency is only an illusion.

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