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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What is the significance of "boots" in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

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Arnold Friend, in Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" wears boots. Surprisingly, the reader may be able to glean important information by studying the author's descriptions of them, especially in terms of the theme appearance vs. reality.

Oates mentions Friend's feet when he first exits the car, making it a point to say how he lands:

He slid out...carefully, planting his feet firmly on the ground...

This seems to parallel Connie's first impressions of him: young, stylishly dressed, long, lean and muscular. She likes the way he looks. But this is what she sees without truly studying his appearance. In this context, he appears to stand firmly on the ground, just as—from a distance—he looks to be her age.

The author mentions the way Friend stands again:

He was standing in a strange way, leaning back against the car as if he were balancing himself.

Something is off in the way he holds himself, propped up against the car. Connie recognizes this, but doesn't know enough to be suspicious. When she looks at his feet, Connie also notices that his boots are scuffed. The car is a gleaming gold color, vivid in the sunlight, but the shoes are beat up. And yet again Friend's boots are pointed out, this time described as "greasy leather boots." The assessment of the boots now is that they are dirty—and not with clean dirt from nature, but greasy, nasty dirt.

Friend's movement in the boots changes drastically:

She looked out to see Arnold Friend pause and then take a stop toward the porch lurching. He almost fell, but like a clever drunken man, he managed to catch his balance. He wobbled in his high boots and grabbed hold of one of the porch posts.

When she threatens to call the police, he "wobbles" again. As the story progresses, the condition of his boots and his ability to stand firmly has deteriorated. In trying to balance himself, the author may be inferring that he is trying to appear mentally balanced, but as Connie resists, that balance begins to falter and he begins to "wobble."

As she tries to lock him out of the house, he continues his "kindly incantations," and tries to make a "mock bow, but again he almost lost his balance." It is at this point that Connie notices that his boots do not fit him properly.

He had to bend and adjust his boots. Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.

It is obvious that he is not very well adjusted; his shoes show his desire to seem to be something he is not—taller. (The murderer upon which the story is based did the same thing to give him added height. He was also described as "insecure.") Feeling and appearing taller may give Friend more confidence; the boots are only one aspect of the lies and disguises Friend has been passing off on Connie.

Arnold Friend['s face was] red from bending over or maybe from embarrassment because Connie had seen his boots.

The boots first give the appearance of standing firmly (being "grounded"); then they are greasy and dirty. Finally, they expose him for the fraud he is: relying on illusion to make him seem more powerful, lying about himself, and exposing his insecurity and embarrassment for being discovered—especially because he has insisted all along that he is in complete control always—and that nothing can stop him:

It's just a screen door. It's just nothing...Anybody can break through a screen door...specially Arnold Friend. 

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