Joyce Carol Oates begins by introducing Connie, a typical, if vain, 15-year-old girl with a habit of constantly checking her reflection in mirrors. Connie’s mother jealously scolds her for her primping, but she ignores her complaints, secure in her belief that being pretty is “everything” (1). Her mother compares Connie unfavorably to her older, matronly sister June. Connie’s father barely acknowledges his family, while her mother constantly criticizes her.
In the evenings, Connie’s best friend’s father drives them to the shopping plaza in town, where they spend time unsupervised. Once at the mall, Connie changes her persona, altering her walk, smile, clothes, and laugh; at home she is bored and sullen, while with her friends she is bright and flirty. Connie and her friends often cross the road to visit the drive-in restaurant, where they find music and older boys.
One night at the restaurant Connie sees a boy named Eddie and she leaves her friend to follow him to his car. As they exit the burger joint, Connie spies a boy in a bright gold car smiling at her. He playfully laughs, “Gonna get you, baby” as she walks away (2). Later, she meets her friend and they return home.
Connie spends much of her time daydreaming about boys and love in a general and vague way. Though she fights with her mother constantly, she suspects her mother prefers her to June because of her beauty. Connie’s mother spends most of her time roaming around the house in slippers and gossiping with her sisters.
The next morning, Connie’s family is leaving for a barbecue at her aunt’s house, but she decides to stay home and wash her hair instead, frustrating her mother. Connie lays in the backyard letting her hair dry and drifts off, dreaming of love. She wakes and is temporarily disoriented before heading back inside. She lies in bed listening to the radio and relaxing when she hears a car pull into her driveway.
Checking her hair, Connie goes down to investigate and finds the boy and the golden car she saw in the restaurant parking lot the night before. Connie walks out to the front-porch, where the boy asks her to come for a ride and tells her she’s “cute” (4). She notices he and his friend, who is seated in the passenger seat, are listening to the same radio station she was up in her room.
The boy introduces himself as Arnold Friend and shows her all the slogans painted on his car, including jokes and a secret code: 33, 19, 17. He invites her to come look at the other side of the car but Connie refuses, staying in the doorway. When he asks her to come for a ride again, Connie claims she has “things to do,” provoking his amusement (5). He laughs and tells her this day has been “set aside” for their ride together (6).
Connie likes the way Arnold Friend is dressed: like a teenager from the 1950s or 1960s. He seems vaguely familiar. Arnold Friend uses her name, arousing her suspicion, since she never shared it. Connie asks where he would take her and Arnold Friend seems amused by the idea of a ride having a destination. He tells her he not only knows her name, but that her parents are gone and how long they will be gone for, as well as the names of her friends. As he speaks, Arnold Friend sounds as if he’s “reciting the words to a song” (7).
Connie scrutinizes his car and sees the phrase, “MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS,” an outdated piece of slang, printed on the side. This disturbs her but she cannot pinpoint why. Arnold Friend shows her his sign, drawing an X in the air, explaining he flashed it at her when he first saw her. Connie looks carefully at her visitor and realizes that all though he seems like all the other boys she knows, there is something strange about him.
She asks his age, realizing he is much older than her, around 30. With a shock, Connie notices that Arnold Friend’s companion, Ellie Oscar, looks like a forty-year-old man. This realization makes her dizzy, as she understands the situation is much more serious than she initially thought.
Connie asks the men to leave, but Arnold Friend refuses to leave without her. She notices he is wearing a wig and is assaulted by another wave of dizziness. He begins describing Connie’s family at the barbecue, mentioning her sister’s blue dress and noting that her mother is shucking corn with a family friend. Arnold Friend is seemingly seeing events from across town.
Arnold Friend calls himself Connie’s “lover” and hints at his sexual intentions, disturbing and upsetting Connie. She backs away from the door into the house and Arnold Friend steps onto her porch. As he does, he almost falls, as his boots don’t seem to fit his feet. Connie threatens to call the police and Arnold Friend tells her if she does, he’ll be forced to come inside.
Connie attempts to lock the door, but her harasser claims he can break through anything. Arnold Friend suggests that if he set the house on fire she would come running out to him. She claims her father is coming back for her, but Arnold Friend knows this isn’t true. From the driveway Ellie Oscar offers to pull out the phone line, angering his partner.
Connie flees into the kitchen but is increasingly disoriented. Arnold Friend threatens to harm her family is she does not cooperate with him. Ellie offers to cut the phone line a second time and Arnold Friend warns him to back off. He repeats that she is endangering her family by refusing to leave with him. He mentions a neighbor of Connie’s who has died, pushing her into an even deeper panic.
Connie retreats further into the house and attempts to use the phone but collapses, feeling weak and lightheaded. The breath jerks in and out of her lungs “as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness.” When she recovers she finds herself sitting on the floor, with Arnold Friend still coaxing her from the screen door. On his direction, she puts the phone back on the receiver. Connie realizes she is “not going to sleep in [her] bed again” (13).
Arnold Friend reiterates that her house cannot protect her and tells her about his plans to take her to a field and “show [her] what love is like” (14). Connie feels that her heart and body are not really her own. He repeats his threats against her family and instructs her to come to him. As she heads towards Arnold Friend, Connie can see herself walking, dissociating from her body. Pleased, he tells her that her family would never have done this for her. Connie watches herself push the door open. Outside waits Arnold Friend and “the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going into it” (14).
Joyce Carol Oates begins “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” with a reference to Connie’s vain habit of compulsively checking her reflection in mirrors. This reflects the short story’s initial inspiration: Renaissance tales of Death and the Maiden, in which a skeletal death incarnate seduces a beautiful young woman. In these tales victims are often shown gazing into mirrors, admiring their own beauty, much like the teenaged Connie. “Long, flowing hair” was considered a particularly powerful symbol of vanity in the Death and the Maiden tradition (Widmayer 6). Like that of a maiden of Renaissance Europe, Connie’s long golden hair symbolizes her beauty and vanity. She misses a family event in order to wash her hair. Most damningly, when Arnold Friend, her own death personified, pulls into her driveway, Connie’s first instinct is to check her hair. Later her visitor will ask if she is reluctant to go for a drive because her hair will be blown around in the topless car.
Yet Connie’s obsession with beauty is neither atypical, nor isolated in “Where Are You Going, Where Are You Been.” She has absorbed the lessons of the culture she lives in. In her world, mothers prefer their prettiest daughters and being attractive is “everything” for a woman (1). Joyce Carol Oates does not condemn Connie for her vanity or suggest Arnold Friend’s violent and disturbing visit is a fit punishment, as a male Renaissance artist might have. Instead she empathizes with her character. In a New York Times review, the author writes that in Connie she “perhaps… saw, and still see[s], [her]self” (Oates). Self-absorption is the hallmark of teenagers everywhere, and Connie’s beauty-obsessed egoism a product of the time and place she inhabits.
That time and place remains vague, somewhere in mid-century suburban America. The very anonymity of the story’s setting allows it to communicate more universal themes about a country marked by sweeping changes. The 1950s and 1960s saw the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement and Sexual Revolution, which upended traditional forms of moral authority. Fittingly, Connie’s suburbia is a place without any clear source of higher authority. Her parents, a traditional source of guidance and limits, fail to monitor her behavior or institute any useful rules. Connie’s father barely acknowledges his wife and daughters, and her mother’s interest ends with her petty and jealous criticisms. Connie successfully hides a dual life—in which she experiments with boys—from her parents. Her friend’s father, like her own, never thinks to ask what the girls have done when he picks them up from the mall.
This marked lack of authority allows Connie to begin asserting her will and independence. She crosses the highway to rendezvous with older boys, lies about her activities, and stays home against her mother’s wishes. Connie even develops a second, more adult persona to complement her growing independence. At home she is a dreamy, sullen teenager; with her friends she is flirtatious and bright. Connie experiments with her developing sexuality, making tentative moves towards womanhood. By the story’s end her personal journey towards independence will be violently shortened by Arnold Friend, who forces her to leave her childhood and home permanently.
Much like her parents, religion, another traditional source of authority, is absent from Connie’s world. She, like everyone else in her family, does not attend church. Instead music serves as her secular religion. The fast-food restaurant where she listens to pop songs is a “sacred building” in her teenage imagination (2). Accordingly, she experiences something akin to religious ecstasy when listening to music in her bedroom; Oates mystical language describes how she lies, “bathed in a slow-pulsed joy that seem to rise mysteriously out of the music itself” (3).
Like his victim, Arnold Friend has an intimate connection to music. His speech is consistently described as musical. He talks as if “reciting the words to a song” (7); he “chant[s]” (7); he chatters is a “singsong way” (8); his words have a “slight rhythmic lilt” (11); and he speaks to Connie at the end in a “half-sung sigh” (14). Moreover, the music that plays behind him seems “perpetual” (8). When Connie first spies him, the parking lot is filled with music. Later, Ellie’s radio scores their entire conversation in her driveway. Their shared appreciation of the same radio station leads Connie to initially trust Arnold Friend, allowing him to lure her in. This is in keeping with the Death and the Maiden tradition, where instruments are “often pictured in illustrations of the dance of death” (Widmayer 16).
Because of his connection to music, at least one critic has suggested that Arnold Friend is in fact modeled off of Bob Dylan, to whom the story is dedicated (Gales 269). Like Dylan, Arnold Friend is a short man with wild black hair and a love of song. In this interpretation Arnold Friend is a musical messiah whose songs seduce children away from their parents and traditions.
Music connects Connie not only to Arnold Friend, but to a wider popular culture; her ideas about love and sex are derived largely from the songs she listens to. Connie yearns not for a particular boy but for a saccharine vision of romance; though she is becoming more aware of her own sexuality, she remains innocent about the particulars of sex. When confronted with Arnold Friend’s explicit language—he calls himself her “lover” and relays his plans to “come inside [her] where it’s all secret” (10)—Connie begins to panic.
Later, Connie experiences something akin to sexual assault when she collapses by the phone. Her breath jerks in and out of her lungs “as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness” (13). The nature of this episode is unclear. Oates may simply be using vivid, symbolic language to describe a panic attack or implying a sexualized, supernatural attack by Arnold Friend. Earlier, he threatens to come inside the house if Connie uses the phone. Perhaps the sort of mental rape Connie experiences is the result of Arnold Friend fulfilling his promise. Regardless, Connie’s innocence is shattered.
In his threats Arnold Friend promises to restrain Connie so she will not have to pretend to try to escape, insinuating she desires the explicit sex he is offering, but cannot admit it. This is a well-established motif in the Death and the Maiden tradition, where the maiden holds a dangerous attraction to her skeletal suitor. Indeed, Connie is curious about sex and initially flattered by the attention of what she believes to be an older boy. She finds Arnold Friend’s disguise—a tight white shirt, form-hugging jeans and black boots—attractive. Any initial genuine seduction, however, seems thoroughly dispelled when Arnold Friend reveals the sexual plans behind his dreamy smile. Connie is absolutely horrified, not intrigued.
Connie’s fate, to be undone by a male sexual predator, seems fitting for the sexist world she inhabits. Women are viewed as objects of beauty for male consumption. As Arnold Friend asks his victim, “what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” (14). Earlier in the story, Arnold Friend looks at her like a hawk might look at prey and Connie recognizes the expression as familiar. She has been seen through predatory eyes by many boys before Arnold Friend. His car, with its joke about female drivers, speaks to this wider culture, where only men are allowed the independence afforded by driving. Connie’s mother’s existence is limited to “scuffling around the house in old bedroom slippers” (3).
In this world women are still divided by the traditional Madonna and whore dichotomy. June serves as the matronly foil to Connie’s sexual character. Her mother compares the two constantly to Connie’s detriment. This bitter and petty approach typifies the female relationships shown in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” Connie and June are more rivals than sisters. Connie and her mother bicker constantly, to the point where Connie “wishe[s] her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over” (1). These toxic relationships extend beyond the protagonist: Connie’s mother and aunts complain endlessly about each other on the phone. Even Connie’s relationships with her female friends are weak. They remain almost entirely anonymous in the text; they only exist to accompany Connie on her evening quests for what really matters: boys.
Like his car, there is something off about Arnold Friend. The painted jalopy with outdated slogans represents the shoddily disguised nature of its owner. His face has been painted, his hair covered by a wig, his boots stuffed. What lies underneath the teenaged façade is a question that has plagued literary critics since the story’s publication in 1966. As mentioned above, one critic has likened Arnold Friend to the musical messiah Bob Dylan, arguing the character isn’t as malevolent as he might seem. Some have suggested that Connie never awakes from her mid-day nap and Arnold Friend is a figment of her imagination, a nightmare projection that reveals her inner desires and fears. Others have pointed out the similarities between Arnold Friend and Charles Schmid, who would come to be known as the Pied Piper of Tucson. Schmid seduced and killed several teenage girls in the 1960s. Like Oates’ literary invention, Schmid stuffed his boots and wore makeup to appear younger than he was. Arnold Friend, like Schmid, may simply be an earthly psychopath.
Yet the most prevalent and widely supported theories hold that Arnold Friend is a malevolent supernatural being, like the devil or death incarnate. When he first pulls up to her door, Connie involuntarily says “Christ. Christ,” taking the lord’s name in vain, perhaps hinting at her visitor’s unholy nature (4). Unlikely for an earthly psychopath, Arnold Friend seems strangely reticent to enter Connie’s home by force, something reminiscent of vampire mythology. Like the devil in many folktales, he comes in disguise and has seemingly unnatural knowledge. Arnold Friend knows Connie’s name without being told and, more disturbingly, seems able to see across town and into her aunt’s barbeque. One critic suggests the reason for Arnold Friend’s ill-fitting boots are his cloven hooves (Wegs 69). Others have likened the name Arnold Friend to Arch Fiend or An Old Fiend.
Given the story’s initial title—“Death and the Maiden”—one particularly convincing theory holds that Arnold Friend is Death. There is a sense throughout “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” that Connie is meeting her fate. Arnold Friend speaks as if the two have a set appointment, asking if he is late and later insisting the day has been reserved for their ride together. This supposed ride has no destination; Arnold Friend even seems amused at the suggestion that it could. His sign, a “X” drawn in the air, could potentially refer to “death’s power to cancel out a life” (Widmayer 14). Moreover, in many traditional depictions of Death and the Maiden scenes, death wears a mask or disguise (Widmayer 10). When she realizes his façade is just that, Connie is struck by the thought that Arnold Friend’s “whole face was a mask” (10). Finally, Arnold Friend refers to Connie’s dead neighbor, which suggests he was somehow involved in or has special knowledge of her death.
Much less speculation has been dedicated to the identity of Ellie Oscar, Arnold Friend’s passenger. Ellie Oscar reveals himself to be dangerous: when he senses Arnold Friend’s persuasive skills are failing he offers to cut the phone line, showing a willingness to use physical force if necessary. His “pale, bluish chest” is almost reminiscent of a cadaver or corpse and his dazed expression reinforces the idea of a zombie-like character. Ultimately, like Arnold Friend, Ellie Oscar is an ambiguous character.
When Connie begins to realize Arnold Friend’s teenage persona is a disguise, she is struck with waves of dizziness. The feeling resurfaces later when her malevolent visitor first threatens her and again when he reveals intimate knowledge of her family’s whereabouts and activities. Her dawning realization makes her increasingly lightheaded, until she backs into the house, completely disoriented, and then collapses by the phone. Connie’s physical reeling emphasizes her acute confusion and anxiety.
As Connie retreats into her home, she realizes how inadequate it is; she catalogues the curtainless windows and sticky tables, thinking that it isn’t “good enough” to save her (11). The screen door will not keep Arnold Friend out. As her tormentor explains, her home is “nothing but a cardboard box” (13). Like her father, it will not protect her now. Connie’s home represents her connection to tradition and her parents, a connection too weak to save her. If her house symbolizes her childhood world, then the outside can be understood to symbolize adulthood. Throughout most of the story’s action, Connie, a teenager, is fittingly situated in the doorway, a transitional point between childhood and adulthood. In traditional Death and the Maiden tales, doorways are often used to represent the transition from life to death, suggesting that Connie may be crossing over into not only adulthood, but an afterlife (Widmayer 21).
The story’s ending raises difficult questions about the protagonist’s free will. In a New York Times piece Joyce Carol Oates writes that ending features an “unexpected gesture of heroism,” supporting an interpretation that Connie willingly sacrifices herself for her family, who Arnold Friend has threatened several times (Oates). As she walks out to him, Arnold Friend praises Connie for making a sacrifice no one in her family would make for her, further bolstering this theory. Near the end Connie is troubled by a “pinpoint of light that kept her going and would not let her relax” (13). Perhaps this pinpoint represents thoughts of her family, and Connie cannot rest until she ensures their safety.
Yet the final passages of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” suggest Connie’s will and sense of self have been shattered. Her collapse when she attempts to use the phone demonstrates her inability to do anything that challenges Arnold Friend’s authority. It is at his direction that Connie places the phone back in its cradle and walks out to her fate. During this scene, Connie is so alienated from her body that she experiences an episode of dissociation: she watches herself walk towards the door, as if she were not in control of her body. Moreover, she reflects that her heart and even whole body feel like they are no longer hers. All this suggests that Arnold Friend, not Connie, is in control of her actions.
In the end Connie watches herself push open the screen door to onto a strange, sun-drenched land she does not recognize. This unfamiliar land could represent the afterlife, as Connie crosses through a spiritual threshold. Or perhaps she is simply dazed by the trauma of her encounter with Arnold Friend and the familiar now appears strange. As she exits into a new world, Arnold Friend comments on her blue eyes. Some have suggested this hints at her unearthly transition; as a ghost or spirit, her eyes are now blue. Others have interpreted it as an example of solipsism. Arnold Friend has a blatant disregard for Connie’s desires and emotions, perhaps too for the physical facts of her being. Connie has brown eyes, but Arnold Friend easily declares them blue, as he is not concerned with Connie’s reality. As with most of the story’s elements, the scene remains ambiguous.
Even the title itself, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” has inspired multiple interpretations. To some readers it is reminiscent of the questions a parent would ask their teenaged daughter, ironic because Connie’s parents are so uninvolved in her life. To others they pose queries Connie is asking herself as she attempts to transition into an adult with a full-formed sense of self. To others still they refer to Arnold Friend’s mysterious origins and plans. Towards the story’s end Arnold Friend taunts Connie saying, “The place where you came from ain’t there anymore, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out” (13), mirroring the title. Perhaps the title refers to all these things in different ways, proving so evocative precisely because it hides several layers of meaning. If so, it would fit Joyce Carol Oates short tale perfectly.