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

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

The general meaning, purpose, and theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Summary:

The general meaning of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" revolves around the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The purpose is to highlight the dangers and vulnerabilities young people face, particularly young women. The theme includes the loss of innocence, the impact of external influences, and the struggle for autonomy in a threatening world.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the general meaning of the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"?

Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" is a wonderfully dark story. She perfectly captures the happy-go-lucky attitude of a teenager that undervalues her own family.

When readers are introduced to Connie, she has a general attitude that her family members are boring and tedious to deal with. She thinks they are not cool, and they don't remember what it means to be young and want to have fun. Connie is sick of her mother finding fault with her actions and attitude, so Connie desires more space and independence from her family.

Connie gets a bit of that chance when her family members leave her behind as they go to a social gathering. This is the moment that Arnold Friend makes his appearance at Connie's house. Connie is somewhat intrigued and maybe even flattered at the attention from a male; however, she quickly begins to sense danger about Friend. Her suspicions are confirmed, and Friend's advances are quite unnerving and threatening. Connie finds herself in a situation where she finally wishes that her family was there or that she had gone with them. Connie eventually has to sacrifice herself and go with Friend in order to keep her family safe. She has learned that she genuinely cares for her family and is willing to protect them; however, she learns it too late.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the purpose of the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"?

In Oates's story, Connie is a pretty and typical middle-class American girl of the 1960s. She feels alienated from her parents and older sister, though she senses that her mother loves her. Her father is emotionally distanced from his family, and her mother is naïve about Connie's activities, thinking she is hanging out at the local shopping plaza with girlfriends on weekend evenings.

In fact, feeling her sexuality and looking for excitement, Connie is hanging out on the weekends with teenage boys from a local drive-in. This brings her to the attention of an older man, Arnold Friend, who sees her there. His intentions are evil. He stalks Connie and her family so that he can approach her when the rest of the family is gone.

From the beginning of their encounter in the driveway of her house, it is clear that Arnold Friend is a disturbed, dangerous man, probably a sociopath, who is out to rape and hurt Connie. His eyes, when he takes off his sunglasses, are empty, reflecting light like shards of broken glass. His sunglasses reflect a "tiny metallic world" that symbolizes his own inner hardness and emptiness.

As they talk, Connie receives an initiation into the ugly realities of adulthood. Arnold mentions sexual intercourse, and it becomes clear that Connie's other encounters with boys have been innocent. She gradually realizes Arnold and his friend are older, and her sense of danger increases greatly as Arnold threatens to harm her family if she doesn't comply with his wishes.

As Connie drives off with Arnold at the end, the reader perceives that a girl's budding sexuality in American society can emerge within a warped, dangerous context of male violence and predation and also that flirting with danger can and does attract harmful consequences. Although the story was written more than fifty years ago, it is relatable because similar dangers exist today.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

A prominent theme in Joye Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is that of appearance versus reality. Consider how the narrator mentions that everything about Connie “had two sides to it.” Connie presents a sort of mask to society, using her physical appearance to get male attention outside of her home but still maintaining her childlike innocence at home.

Connie’s two-sided nature parallels that of Arnold Friend. Arnold initially makes Connie believe that he is just another boy and says that he is eighteen in order to get her to engage with him. Although Connie does not present an inauthentic version of herself to the world with malicious intent like Arnold, the way they both do it shows how common and potentially dangerous it is to do.

Another theme is the loss of innocence. Although Connie strives to be mature by presenting herself as older and trying to get male attention, her encounter with Arnold makes her realize that adult sexuality is a lot more complicated and dark than she previously understood. The theme of evil also overshadows the text, as Arnold Friend is a sinister person who terrorizes Connie. His actions are beyond the definition of cruel, and he embodies evil.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

The message of Joyce Carol Oates's story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is that actions have consequences and that playing with evil will only bring evil.

Connie is only fifteen years old, but she is a rebel. She spurns her parents' rules, sneaks around with her friends, and generally sets herself up for disaster. Connie is vain as well, always focused on her appearance. She scoffs at her responsible older sister whom her parents set as a role model for her and who has learned how to combine having fun with being sensible.

Connie is anything but sensible. She and her friends are supposed to be hanging out at the mall, but they often go over to the drive-in, where they meet older boys and try to be sexy and alluring. Connie even goes off by herself with a boy and spends some time with him in an alley. She is a very foolish girl who has developed no sense of self-control and no ability to sense danger. Connie also has not realized that actions have consequences. Her parents' rules seem arbitrary to her, and she fights against them through her behavior and in her thoughts, even wishing at one point that her mother were dead so she could do as she pleased.

But Connie's poor choices and dangerous games come back to haunt her when Arnold shows up at her door. She has seen him at the drive-in before, and now, he wants her to go with him. She is alone at home because she has refused to go with her parents and sister to a barbeque, thinking that it is beneath her dignity.

Now, Connie faces real evil, and she has no idea how to handle it. She is not strong enough to fight or even resist this older man, who actually symbolizes the devil. When Arnold threatens her family, Connie gives in and goes with him. The story ends on that note. The point is that when people foolishly play with evil and fail to develop their moral sense, their actions will come back to haunt them with highly unpleasant consequences.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

A number of different theses may be proposed for any work of fiction, because interpretation is subjective and each reader will have their own view of the author’s goals. One possible thesis for Joyce Carol Oates’s story is that affection for other people may make an individual vulnerable. Another applicable thesis is that a person may grow up quickly as the result of a single experience but that that epiphany may come too late to help them. Oates leaves her story’s ending ambiguous, so the reader does not learn what befalls Connie after she leaves her house. Because Oates has built up a portrait of Arnold Friend as a sinister, if not actually evil, character, it seems virtually certain that he will inflict harm on Connie. Whether he intends to kill her is not stated explicitly.

The first thesis above is based on looking at Connie’s final decision as an act of loyalty and generosity toward her family. Her name, short for Constance, may be associated with her intention. During most of the story, the teenager behaves selfishly and displays considerable hostility toward her mother and sister. In the end, however, Arnold is threatening her family, so her decision to go with him may be motivated by her desire to save them.

While the second thesis also derives from Connie’s immaturity, it connects more with her sudden understanding that Arnold is not who he seems to be. Rather than an attractive young man near her age, she recognizes the façade that a somewhat older man has donned. Suddenly seeing that she fell for his ruse, she further understands that she has taken unnecessary risks. Connie’s newfound maturity, however, comes too late to change the dangerous situation in which she finds herself.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", what is the theme of the story?

The central theme of the story is the dangerous period of adolescence where identity is still so unformed and malleable, which allows certain individuals the chance to manipulate and control such adolescents. This is shown through the central character of Connie, who is depicted very early on as a young girl who is trying to grow up and struggling to find her identity through becoming older and wanting to assert her independence. Note how the following quote describes her:

Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head...

It is this uncertainty and lack of surety that Connie displays about her personality and who she is that allows Arthur Friend to exploit her and to force her to come with him, and clearly face some sort of terrible fate. The central theme of this story then is the way in which adolescence is such a dangerous time of transition for young people, and how this period allows others to exploit teenagers who are going through this process of trying to work out who they are.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the major theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Readers will likely pick out more than a single major theme from this wonderfully chilling story. One theme that I really like to discuss with classes is the thematic interplay between freedom and confinement. You could call it independence instead of freedom if you like as well. Connie begins the story as a girl that clearly wants to establish some space and independence from a family that she feels stifles her and ruins her fun. What's great about this story is how quickly Arnold Friend rips that freedom from Connie. In a way, he is offering her freedom from her family, but the entire encounter feels more and more oppressive as Friend gains more and more control over Connie. For someone that desperately sought independence from her family, she suddenly finds herself deeply wishing and hoping for rescue from her family. Her freedom from Friend depends on her family rescuing her.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the major theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

The central theme of this chilling story is the way that the central protagonist is shown to be trying to establish her own sense of identity as she searches for who she really is. Connie, as a teenager, seems to be representative of this important stage that all teenagers go through as they move away from childhood and try to enter adulthood. She tries to push the boundaries placed on her by her parents, and deliberately creates an alternative self that she displays when she is with her friends:

Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head...

Connie is deliberately trying to search for her identity. Because she is so unsure about who she is, she bases her identity on how attractive she feels and whether or not she is able to make the boys in the diner look at her. The author makes the point that going through such a stage in one's development actually makes you intensely vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of a character like Arthur Friend, who is able to feed the vanity of such a character and force them into actions that spell their ruin and doom.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"?

One other theme that could be addressed is just what, exactly, is Arnold Friend?

There are clues sprinkled throughout the story that suggest that not only is he not a Friend, he may not even be human. Pay attention to his shoes/boots. Pay attention to the numbers on his car. And, when all is said and done, what exactly happens to Connie?

OK, I won't leave you in suspense; there's every indication that Arnold ("An old fiend") is the devil.

Dave Becker

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Please describe the theme of "Where are you Going, Where Have you Been?"

The beauty of such texts as this excellent short story by Joyce Carol Oates is that they leave themselves open to a number of different approaches rather than being strictly defined by one discrete theme. Thus it is that this story could be related to a number of different themes. However, from my perspective, one of its most interesting themes is what is says about identity and how we come to establish our own identity.

We are presented with Connie, who is an awkward teenager trying to find her identity in the world. Connie seeks to establish her identity by developing a rebellious side to her that acts completely differently away from home than she is at home. Note how this two-sided element to her personality is explored:

She wore a pullover jersey top that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing musinc in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out...

She is developed as a character who finds her identity in her own beauty and the effect that her beauty has on others. However, crucially, because of the instability of her identity and the way that it is still developing and not fully formed, she leaves herself vulnerable to the psychological manipulation of Arnold. He is able to recognise her need to be appreciated and to be flattered, and his repeated reference to her as "honey" and her beauty are designed to manipulate her unformed identity and make her comply with his clearly violent and potentially murderous desires. When he says, towards the end of the story, "...what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?", we get the feeling that Connie has no choice at this stage but to yield to Arnold, as she is relying on her partial identity to define who she feels she is. Thus one theme of this story is the way that, as we search for our identity, we can leave ourselves open and vulnerable to manipulation by others.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"?

One of the main themes of the story is the clash between fantasy and reality. Connie's at that age where she wants to act all grown up. She wants to be thought of as a woman, not as a girl. But the image that Connie presents to the world is nothing more than a fantasy. In truth, she still has a lot to learn about growing up. She thinks that wearing adult clothing and make-up and trying to act all mature is somehow enough to make her a woman.

But as Connie soon discovers, it's not quite as easy as that. The world of adult sexuality represented by Arnold Friend proves difficult for Connie to handle and almost single-handedly destroys the neat little fantasy world she's constructed for herself. It may well be the case that Arnold is a fantasy figure. Yet, ironically, his embodiment of adult sexuality makes him more real than Connie, who though undoubtedly real herself, lives in a fantasy world.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

The overall theme of this story, based on a true event, is to beware of strangers. Pretty teenager Connie, with her blond hair and pink lipstick, sneaks out to innocently explore and flaunt her sexuality, not having any idea how dangerous the world is.

She keeps secrets from her family, a family which, although it criticizes her, consists of basically decent people. She has been woefully unprepared for the idea that evil people exist, and while she can be deceptive in the ways teens are, trying on different and more sophisticated personas, she is essentially an obedient schoolgirl.

She is no match for the evil Arnold Friend, who arrives at her house when her family is out. Even when she begins to intuit the extent of the danger she is in, she has no adequate defenses against a murderer. She believes him when he says he will hurt her family if she does not do what he wants. Today we know she should have dismissed his threats, run, fought, screamed, and done anything but passively acquiesce to his demands, but she had no context for that response. She was insufficiently on guard against a stranger until it was too late.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on