Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Themes
by Joyce Carol Oates

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Themes

The main themes of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" are appearance versus reality, the embodiment of evil, and self-sacrifice.

  • Appearance vs. reality: Both Connie and Arnold have two-sided natures, presenting an appealing self when necessary and withholding another. However, while Connie's public and private personas reflect the intersection of her adolescent naivety and burgeoning sexuality, Arnold Friend's stylish exterior masks a predatory interior.
  • The embodiment of evil: Arnold Friend embodies a greater source of malevolence than his initial impression suggests.
  • Self-sacrifice: Connie's growth as a character occurs through her decision to sacrifice herself for the sake of her family's safety.

Themes

Appearance vs. Reality

From the start, Connie is noted for her physical beauty, and she believes that part of the source of friction between her and her mother is that her mother “hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face.” Connie, who knows that she is pretty, therefore feels a sort of superiority over both her mother and her “plain” sister, enjoying catching a glimpse of herself in mirrors with a nervous giggle. Connie uses her physical beauty to attract boys like Eddie, whom she meets at the drive-in. She is careful with the details of her appearance, such as carefully crossing her legs at the ankles, to present herself as fully alluring. Yet it is also noted that “everything about [Connie] had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home.” While Connie presents herself as sexually alluring in public, at home she walks in a “childlike” manner and has “pale” lips. In public, she uses her carefully crafted appearances to mismiss boys from her high school whom she feels do not meet her standards.

Download Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Study Guide

Subscribe Now

It is Connie’s intentionally sensuous appearance that draws the attention of Arnold Friend, who first notices her at the restaurant. He tells her that he doesn’t like fat women but instead “like[s] them the way” Connie is. It becomes clear that Arnold also has a two-sided nature but in a different sense than Connie. When Arnold first arrives at Connie’s house, Connie believes that he is just another boy and only realizes later in the conversation that he is at least thirty, a fact he tries to camouflage with tight jeans, leather boots, and sunglasses. Arnold Friend will only admit to being eighteen. At this point Connie begins to sense that she is in real trouble. By the time Connie realizes that Arnold Friend’s “whole face [is] a mask,” her illusions about him have dissipated entirely.

Connie eventually realizes that the seductive appearance she has crafted has endangered her. As Arnold Friend’s initial—albeit odd—friendliness begins to fall away, Connie realizes that he intends to steal her away with mysterious purposes in mind. Although Connie has seen her beauty as a source of power, ultimately it is the source of her downfall in that it has drawn the “special interest” of Arnold Friend. In Arnold’s final spoken words, he calls Connie his “sweet little blue-eyed girl,” even though her eyes are actually brown, further blurring the lines of reality and appearance.

The Embodiment of Evil

At the very least, Arnold Friend is Connie’s abductor. Yet there are many clues throughout the story that Arnold Friend is something beyond human. Although Connie notes that she never shares her name with him, he already knows it. He also knows her sister’s name and that of many of her friends. But what makes Arnold Friend seem most otherworldly is his knowledge of what Connie’s family is doing at the very moment when he arrives to abduct her:

“Right now they're uh—they're drinking. Sitting around," he said vaguely, squinting as if he were staring all the way to town and over to Aunt Tillie's back yard. Then the vision seemed to get clear and he nodded energetically. "Yeah. Sitting around. There's your sister...

(The entire section is 1,016 words.)