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 a good thesis statement for "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Quick answer:

There are several possible thesis statements here. For example: That depends what you want to write your essay on.

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One interesting topic would be to examine the character of Arnold Friend. He certainly is a creepy character, and he seems to know more information about Connie than should be possible for a stranger to know. By removing the letter R from both names, you are left with An old Fiend. I think an interesting thesis could be an examination of how Arnold Friend is the incarnation of evil or Satan himself. A thesis might look like this: Arnold Friend is more than just an oddly eccentric personality and is instead the embodiment of evil. You could then examine two or three areas where Friend seems to be more than simply a bad man. Also important in this thesis would be those numbers that Friend reads off: 33, 19, 17. As it turns out, if you start at the end of the Old Testament and count backwards for 33 books, you land on Judges. Here is Judges 19:17:

When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, "Where are you going? Where did you come from?"

The religious symbolism runs deep in the story, so presenting Friend as Satan or evil could prove interesting.

Is Connie at all to blame for her fate? If she hadn't been quite so promiscuous, could she have avoided her outcome? Another thesis could examine Connie's actions and whether they directly led to Friend singling her out. A thesis might look like this: Connie is/is not to blame for her eventual death.

An interesting character development is that Connie offers herself as a sacrifice to save her family. Remember what Friend tells her near the end:

You're better than them because not a one of them would have done this for you.

In this way, Connie has undergone significant character transformation, now willing to sacrifice her life to save her family. And Friend, who seems to know the inner workings of people's minds, assures her that her family would not have done the same for her. It would be interesting to examine this character development, tracing Connie's superficial beginnings to her eventual sacrifice. A thesis might look like this: Although Connie begins the story as a self-absorbed teenager, she evolves into a complex character capable of self-sacrifice.

I hope these ideas give you an angle to work with for your paper. This is such a rich story, full of possibilities for a debatable and defendable position. Good luck!

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Joyce Carol Oates's story can be interpreted as an enactment of the familiar "rite of passage" theme in literature; moreover, Oates's story is influenced by the work of Arnold van Gennep, an early twentieth-century ethnographer and folklorist who posited that the rite of passage has three phases. These phases correspond with the trajectory of Connie's situation in "Where are You Going, Where Have you Been?"

Prior to the arrival of Arnold Friend, Connie dwells in the phase van Gennep terms "preliminary." She is experiencing the psychological rejection of the lives of her mother and sister and asserting her independence of them—and her friends—by sneaking off with boys when she is assumed to be at the shopping mall or movies with girlfriends. In this phase, Connie is preparing to leave the rituals of her childhood. Foregoing the barbecue is her final act of the preliminary phase.

The second stage is what van Gennep terms the liminal stage; here is the transition or threshold where one is in a brief period of a sort of limbo. In Connie's case, it is the agonizing moments when Arnold Friend stands on the other side of the door, alternately seducing and threatening her into crossing that literal and symbolic threshold.

The final phase of the rite of passage as van Gennep understood it is called the postliminal. In this stage, one has made the transition and is in some way marked by the experience. Oates does not elaborate on Connie's postliminal stage. Readers assume that walking through the door to join Arnold Friend will end tragically for Connie as she moves into the unknown.

To analyze Oates's story in this fashion, a defensible thesis statement could read:

While Connie's situation clearly represents the first two stages of van Gennep's conception of the rite of passage, Oates leaves undeveloped the final stage in the story's dark conclusion.

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Alluding to a former directionless high official, Henry Kissinger, statesman, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and former Secretary of State said,

"If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

It is interesting that part of the title of Joyce Carol Oates's story contains one of Kissinger's phrases: where you are going. For, Connie, the main character,certainly does not know where she is going at the story's end and she travels down a road--any road--to an unknown destination. Immersed in her "trashy daydreams" and lured by the music on the radio, Connie finds the lines between reality and her sensual reveries blurring until she is caught between the two worlds by Arnold Friend and is seduced by his music and lyricism into his car where he takes her away after telling her,

"Yes, I'm your lover.  You don't know what that is, but you will,"

One thesis statement that can be formulated, then, pertains to the character development of Connie, who does not seem to be aware of the paths that she takes. For, "[E]verything about her had two sides to it, one when she was at home and one for anywhere that was not home. But, each is as directionless as the other, for the parents are not actively engaged in the life of Connie. Certainly, the challenge of the question applies to them as much as to their daughter, as well. When they lead not their daughter, Connie knows not in what she is engaged, nor where she is headed as she is directed by sinister forces.

Lured by her trashy daydreams and lack of responsibility to her family, Connie finds herself on a path to which she knows not where she has been, nor where she is going, nor who she is.

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

As the other posts mention, a work of fiction doesn't have a thesis. Those are typically reserved for argument papers, which defend a particular position.

So, you're likely looking for one of two other things, and I'll try to help you with each.

Theme

The theme is a central idea that develops within a piece of literature. Often students think of this as an author's core message. Some themes that could apply to this short story include the following:

  • Key warnings of danger are sometimes overlooked. After all, Connie sees Arnold Friend when she is out with her friends. She realizes a strange car is pulling up to her house. She knows that Arnold Friend knows more than he should. Yet she continues to allow herself to be pulled into this horrific world.
  • Evil is pervasive. Arnold Friend is more than human. His knowledge is eerily omniscient, and he could be the embodiment of evil itself or even Satan. Could Connie have gotten away from him? Was it her fate to die this way?
  • We may seek to be rewarded for our willingness to sacrifice oneself for others. Connie only makes the clear decision to go with Arnold Friend when provides this line: "You're better than them because not a one of them would have done this for you." Connie offers herself as a sort of sacrifice, which her family would not have made if the situation had been reversed. Since she has always longed to be "better" than her sister, does this fulfill that goal in her mind—even if her family never knows it?

Thesis for a paper about this story

You might also be looking to write a paper about some aspect of this short story and are looking for a thesis to get you started. Here are some ideas for that:

  • Connie could/could not have avoided her fate with Arnold Friend. This gives you the option of deciding how much control you think Connie has over the outcome of her life.
  • The story echoes the themes of "Baby Blue" by Bob Dylan. Oates dedicated this short story to Bob Dylan. I'll link a short interview below where she talks about it. You could draw some interesting parallels between the words of the song and the story.
  • The story reflects the oppression and sexualization of women, including the devastating effects both can have. Connie is shallow, caring about little else besides clothes, her hair, and circumventing rules in hopes of meeting up with guys. When she avoids the barbecue with her parents, she sits outdoors, dreaming about guys, and Arnold Friend shows up to deliver this line:

I'm your lover. You don't know what that is but you will...I know that too. I know all about you. But look: it's real nice and you couldn't ask for nobody better than me, or more polite. I always keep my word. I'll tell you how it is, I'm always nice at first, the first time. I'll hold you so tight you won't think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you'll know you can't.

Friend thus comes to symbolize (under this thesis) men who think they have the right to do anything they want to women, especially if given any form of attention.

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

Joyce Carol Oates's short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” follows the life of a young girl named Connie in the 1960s. Seeing as it is a short story and not an essay, there isn’t a “thesis,” and any lessons or themes derived from the story are debatable and not definite.

So if you are looking for a central theme from the text, you might look at the actions that happen at the end of the story. Connie chooses to go with Arnold Friend, despite the threat to her life, without much of a fight. After he rushes into her house, she consents to go with him to her presumed doom. The story says,

Connie felt the linoleum under her feet; it was cool. She brushed her hair back out of her eyes. Arnold Friend let go of the post tentatively and opened his arms for her, his elbows pointing in toward each other and his wrists limp, to show that this was an embarrassed embrace and a little mocking, he didn't want to make her self-conscious.

The story has been interpreted in different ways. Some people see the theme as self-sacrifice in the face of danger to others because Connie doesn’t want Friend to hurt her family and that factors into her decision to go with him. Others have thought that Connie’s giving in to Friend is symbolic for women being forced to bow to the patriarchy in our male-dominated society—an interpretation that builds off the idea that Connie represents the sexual revolution and independence of women in the 1960s. Either theme makes sense and could be used to explain the story.

If you have to create your thesis statement about the story, then maybe focus on what you can argue—perhaps talking about what the different characters represent or why Connie suffers from Friend instead of her sister. Whatever you write about, a thesis should pose an argument.

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

Because it is a work of artistic fiction, rather than an essay or a purely didactic story (like a fable, which might have a clear thesis),   "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" does not have a specific thesis. It is not an argument. Instead, various themes are developed.


If we had to impose a thesis statement on the story, based on actions, we might try the following:

Because the world is not what it seems to be, you have to be careful, especially when you are young.  

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What would be a good argumentative thesis statement for "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

That depends what you want to write your essay on. Here are some ideas:

  • Joyce Carol Oates' story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" explores the theme of loss of innocence through character archetypes, with Connie as the young innocent and Arnold Friend as the Devil.
    In this essay you could talk about the history of these character archetypes (look into it; it's really interesting!) and how this story builds on that history to create a modern parable about sexual maturity and loss of innocence.

  • In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates, Connie navigates the world by judging appearances: her own, her mother's and sister's, and most importantly, Arnold Friend's. This allows Arnold to fool her and, ultimately, her superficial evaluations lead to her fate.
    In this essay, you could talk about all the ways that Connie judges herself and others by their looks (think of all the times she talks about how she looks and criticizes her mother and sister). Since she does the same with Arnold, thinking he is her age and not nearly as dangerous as he is, she engages with and talks to him at first, allowing him to charm/frighten her away from her home. 

  • In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Joyce Carol Oates portrays how the typical "all-American" family can isolate a young girl like Connie, making her more susceptible to someone like Arnold Friend. From her absent father to her nit-picking mother to her dowdy sister, Connie has no one to rely on or connect to in her family and so turns outward, to her doom.
    In this essay, you could discuss Connie's relationships with each of her family members and how each relationship is lacking and unfulfilling for her, making her easier prey for a predator like Arnold.

Don't forget that your thesis should be arguable (that is, it should make a point that is not obvious to the reader, a point on which someone might disagree with you). You should also avoid any "I" or "me" statements; state everything as if it were fact (like I did above). Finally, you should give some indication of what you'll be writing about in greater detail (for example, in the first thesis, I suggest that I will have a paragraph each to explore Connie and Arnold as archetypes, and probably a paragraph to explain how this makes the story a modern parable).

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