What is life like for women in Joyce Carol Oates' portrayal of mid-century America?
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is set in suburban American in the 50s and 60s, a world transforming with the sexual revolution, yet still fundamentally conservative. There is no solidarity between the women in Joyce Carol Oates story; they delight at criticizing and picking at one another. Women also lack significant control over their lives. In the story only men, never women, are seen driving, an activity widely seen to symbolize independence and control in American culture. The model for womanhood is still limited, depicted in the story by the dowdy and domestic June. Yet new cultural paradigms are opening up a much wider world with new horrors for young women like Connie. Arnold Friend comes from this new world but the threat he represents, that of patriarchal violence and control, is a much older one.
What role does music play in the short story?
Joyce Carol Oates often describes music in an almost religious sense in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” The restaurant where the girls go to listen to music is referred to as “the sacred building” (2) and the text mystically describes the “glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself” (3). Music functions as the major conduit for contemporary culture in the story: all Connie’s ideas about love seem derived from pop songs. Arnold Friend is able to exploit Connie’s intimate connection to music in order to win her trust; the fact that the same radio program she was listening to is playing from Arnold Friend’s car lulls Connie into a sense of safety and familiarity.
Explain the significance of the title “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.”
The title’s significance, like many of the story’s elements is ambiguous. It has been interpreted as questions a parent might direct to their child, highlighting through irony the absence of parental guidance and involvement in Connie’s life. The questions have also been seen to reference Arnold Friend’s disturbing lack of context; Connie gets a strong feeling that her harasser “has come from nowhere… and belonged nowhere” (9). Joyce Carol Oates manifests this idea in the text by offering absolutely no background information about Arnold Friend. Some critics have even interpreted the title as the questions Connie must ask herself as she attempts to become an adult with a fully formed identity.
Explain the significance of the story’s original title: “Death and the Maiden.”
“Death and the Maiden” refers to a Western European tradition of stories, plays, paintings, and poems depicting the meeting between death and a young woman, as well as her inevitable and sometimes violent seduction. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” functions as a modern parable reflecting this tradition. When death, here embodied by Arnold Friend, comes for the modern maiden Connie, she is initially curious, interested in the attention she is receiving from an older man. Yet she is reticent and ultimately terrified by the implications of Arnold Friend’s seduction; it is only through great emotional, and perhaps physical violence, that Connie acquiesces to death’s demands. This title strongly supports the reading that Arnold Friend represents death, the devil, or some other supernatural and malevolent being.
Is Joyce Carol Oates' portrayal of Connie sympathetic?
Though Connie is portrayed as somewhat vain and naïve, the story’s treatment of her is largely sympathetic. Connie is obsessed with her own beauty, flirts with young men, and spends her time mulling over “trashy daydreams” in her head. Yet Oates recognizes and empathizes with Connie’s excitement over her increasing freedom and entry into adulthood. Her seemingly duplicitous behavior is the result of growing pains: a young girl’s attempts to adjust to cultural expectations of womanhood. Her sins, those of vanity and perhaps ignorance, are those of every teenager in the country. For these sins, if they can be called sins at all, Connie pays a tremendous and horrifying price. Oates senses the tragedy in her fate, ultimately sympathizing with her.
Who is Arnold Friend?
This question has troubled critics of Oates’ story since its publication in 1966. Multiple theories exist. Some compare Connie’s harasser to a young Bob Dylan, a mystical, musical messiah who arrives to take children away from their parents and tradition. Others point to the similarities between Arnold Friend and Charles Schmid, the so-called Pied Piper of Tucson, who killed three young teenaged girls in the mid-1960s. Joyce Carol Oates has confirmed that an article on Schmid helped spark the initial idea behind the story. Because of this historical likeness, some critics argue Arnold Friend is simply an earthly psychopath skilled in manipulation. Still others hold that the man is simply a figment of Connie’s imagination and the entire episode a dream. Yet something like a critical consensus has built around the idea that Arnold Friend is the devil, a demon, death, or some other malevolent supernatural being.
To what degree does Connie exercise free will at the end of the story?
Nearing the end of their conversation, Arnold Friend tells Connie if she doesn’t cooperate he will harm her family. As Connie walks towards him, Arnold Friend tells her that her family would never “have done this for [her]," implying that she has willingly sacrificed herself to keep her family safe (14). Yet Connie does not seem to be fully conscious or in control of her behavior as she goes out to Arnold Friend. She feels as if her body isn’t “really hers” and watches herself walk out the door (14). This dissociation seems to indicate that she no longer identifies with or controls the actions of her body. Instead, Arnold Friend appears to be directing her, either through supernatural means or more earthly manipulation.
What function does June, Connie’s sister, play in the story?
June functions primarily as Connie’s foil; she is everything her sister is not. Where Connie is pretty, June is homely. Where Connie is irresponsible, June is reliable. Where Connie is flirty, June is matronly. The girls’ mother criticizes Connie for failing to live up to June’s wholesome example. Arnold Friend also compares the sisters, telling Connie her older sibling is “nothing like [her]” (9). Throughout “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” June serves as a reminder of what Connie is and is not, modeling a more conservative vision of womanhood.
Explain the significance of the story’s setting.
The setting of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is both specific and vague. The time and place remain ambiguous; critics have generally placed the story’s action in the late 1950s and early 1960s while the story’s location can’t be pinned down to anything more specific than suburbia. This ambiguity gives the tale a universal relevance. Yet a definite sense of place looms large in the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates describes in detail a new suburban, American youth culture; one with rites (trips to the sacred burger joint), hierarchies (the importance of beauty), and idols (brash popular music). The turmoil of mid-century America, with changing ideals about sexuality and gender, have disturbed traditional norms and opened up an exciting and terrifying world for young people. Arnold Friend’s predation happens within this new and specific context.
Offer two interpretations for Connie’s episode when she attempts to use the phone.
Critics have interpreted the incident as both an earthly psychological reaction to stress and a more sinister, perhaps supernatural attack. Connie attempts to use the phone and finds herself weak and dizzy. Oates writes that her breath is jerking in and out of her lungs “as if it was something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness,” raising the specter of rape (13). The passage could be interpreted as an oblique reference to Arnold Friend sexually assaulting Connie; yet a few sentences later the man is still at the front door, outside the house. Given Arnold Friend’s apparently supernatural powers—he appears to see Connie’s family all the way across town—some critics have suggested he is using psychic abilities to attack her. Yet the scene can just as easily be interpreted as a panic attack described in vivid and violent metaphorical language.