In a New York Times review Joyce Carol Oates revealed that “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” was originally named “Death and the Maiden,” but she ultimately found the initial title “too explicit” (Oates). Death and the Maiden refers to a Renaissance art tradition which concerns the meeting of death personified, often depicted as a rotting skeletal figure, and a beautiful young woman, often shown partially clothed or nude. The scenes explore the connection between sex and death, as well as serving as a reminder that “earthly beauty must fade and decay” (Gilbert 249).
The roots of this artistic and literary tradition can be traced back to Greek mythology and the story of Persephone (Pollefeys). The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest, Persephone is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, while gathering flowers in a field. Because Persephone submits to temptation and eats pomegranate seeds while in death’s kingdom, she is sentenced to spend six months of the year in the underworld with her abductor. The myth, which is often referred to as the Rape of Persephone, explores the dynamic between sexuality and death; the young Persephone was associated with springtime and fertility, Hades with death and destruction.
The tradition also finds inspiration in Western European medieval depictions of the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, which portrayed a “skeletal Reaper [coming] for the archbishop and the servant, the judge and the doctor, the mother and the child” and forcing them to dance to their graves (Cornell University). Such works reminded viewers that death eventually summoned every man, woman, and child, regardless of their station.
As early as the 1500s, European artists were depicting the sexual meeting of Death and earthly beauty (Pollefeys). A particularly notable example, the 1817 German poem and song Der Tod und das Madchen, or Death and the Maiden, centers on Death’s sinister seduction of a reluctant woman. When his victim refuses his advances, Death replies,
“Give me your hand, you fair and tender creature;
I am a friend and do not come to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not savage,
Gently you will sleep in my arms” (Gilbert 250)
Given this exchange, one can easily see the similarities between Arnold Friend and the skeletal figures of European tradition.
As for Oates’ villain, what makes Death’s “wooing curiously plausible is the ‘maiden’s’ half-conscious complicity in death’s scheme” (Gilbert 250). Many paintings focus on the victim’s obsession with her own beauty, which distracts her from Death’s designs. Several even depict women dazzled by their own golden hair, which according to critic Christa Grossinger, “illustrates the dangers of looking into the mirror, and the potency of long, flowing hair, symbolic of pride and vanity, in calling up the devil” (Widmayer 6). Likewise, when they first encounter each other, Arnold Friend is a “mirror for [Connie’s] vanity” (Widmayer 9). Distracted by his attention and appreciation of her beauty, Connie remains ignorant of her suitor’s true nature. Like the maidens of yesteryear, the first thing Connie does when Death pulls into her driveway, is “[snatch] at her hair, checking it” (4).