“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is perhaps Joyce Carol Oates most widely read and anthologized short story, and, as one critic wrote, “justly so” (Gale 257). First published in the 1996 edition of the journal Epoch and later reprinted in the 1970 short-story collection The Wheel of Love, the story has remained a critical and reader favorite. Literary scholar G.F. Waller has called it “one of the masterpieces of the genre” (Gale 257). In 1986, director Joyce Chopra adapted “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” for the big screen, translating the perennially popular story into Smooth Talk, a well-received film. Even Oates herself, in a 1982 interview, admitted that among hundreds of short-stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” remained one of her favorites (Sjoberg 284).
In the story, Arnold Friend, an older man in teenage garb, arrives at the home of Connie, a 15-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood, to convince her to come for a ride in his golden car. When Connie refuses, Arnold Friend becomes aggressive, using manipulation and threats to force her to submit. The nature of Arnold Friend’s true identity remains ambiguous throughout the story and has encouraged broad critical speculation. The most popular interpretation holds that the story’s villain is the devil or death in disguise. In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” Joyce Carol Oates explores the cultural upheaval of mid-century America as well as themes of identity, will, and independence.
Inspiration for the story has come from a diffuse array of sources. Oates has always been “fascinated” by “the predicament of the young and of women;” as a young woman Connie’s character would easily fall within the author’s broader interests (Sjoberg 273). More specifically, Arnold Friend’s character was inspired by Charles Schmid, a man known as the Pied Piper of Tucson for his seduction and murder of several teenage girls (Oates). The structure of the story was influenced by Western European folk-tales about Death and the Maiden, where death personified seduces a young woman. Oates wrote that the story’s original title was in fact “Death and the Maiden,” but that she ultimately thought it “too explicit” (Oates). Finally, the tone and mood of the story were inspired by the 1965 Bob Dylan song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which Oates once called “hauntingly elegiac” (Oates).