Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything.
Much of Connie’s identity and the core of her self-confidence are centered on her physical beauty. She draws criticism from her mother for constantly checking her reflection in mirrors. Even when an unknown car pulls into her driveway, her first reaction is not to lock the doors, but to fix her hair. Connie’s vanity contributes to her downfall: flattered by the attention of an older man, she allows him to lure her into a conversation that proves to be her undoing. A typical teenager, Connie’s ideas about the importance of beauty are a reflection of the culture she operates in, where mothers prefer their prettier daughters and social hierarchies are built around looks.
He didn’t bother talking much to them, but around his bent head Connie’s mother kept picking at her until Connie wished her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over.
Oates illustrates the deep dysfunction that marks Connie’s family, which should shield her from dangers. Her father is completely uninterested in his wife and daughters and her mother’s sexual jealousy is palpable. Neither parent is present or mature enough to be constructively involved in their daughter’s life; neither asks her where she is going or where she has been. Connie wishes for death to end her toxic family dynamic. The whole situation makes her vulnerable to outside predators like Arnold Friend, who can exploit her dissatisfaction and yearning for something different.
Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was, the back yard ran off into weeds and a fence-like line of trees and behind it the sky looked perfectly blue and still.
Oates describes Connie’s attraction to love as the dreamy state “promised” by popular culture, illustrating her innocence. Her daydreams, though “trashy,” are sweet and simple (1). Her sexual desires are expressed through a thoroughly naïve, romantic yearning. When Arnold Friend makes those desires explicit, Connie is shocked and terrified by the obscenity of his plans. Though in the process of becoming an adult, Connie is still a child. This passage also exemplifies Connie’s tendency to drift off and awake to confusion, which some critics have used as evidence for the theory that her encounter with Arnold Friend is a dream or hallucination.
And Connie paid close attention herself, bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest.
As she lies listening to the radio in her bed, Connie experiences a sort of quasi-religious ecstasy. The steady rhythm of her breath suggests a form of meditation and the building euphoria is reminiscent of mystical encounter. The airless little room refers to the claustrophobic nature of her home and, by implication, her home life. Music, which she worships religiously, is one of the few escapes available to her; it is a connection to the wider world. Unfortunately Arnold Friend is part of the universe outside her front door and is able to use the music she so loves to disguise himself and win her attention and confidence.
But all these things did not come together.
Connie watches Arnold Friend lean against his car in a pose of feigned relaxation and begins to run through all his familiar features in her mind. Though he dresses like the boys she knows and listens to the same music with the same expressions on his face, Connie does not fully recognize him. She realizes there is something strange about him. His disguise, though meticulously crafted, cannot hide his disturbed, perhaps even unnatural, character. Connie’s realization prompts her to question her visitor’s real age, triggering an increasingly horrifying turn of events, as Arnold Friend abandons sweet-talk for threats of violence.
Connie stared at him, another wave of dizziness and fear rising in her so that for a moment he wasn’t even in focus but was just a blur standing there against his gold car, and she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even the music that was so familiar to her was only half real.
Connie is hit by a spell of dizziness as she begins to realize that Arnold Friend is not who he says he is. The ambiguous nature of his character is physically manifested when he becomes an indistinct blur before Connie’s eyes. She is struck by the disturbing idea that Arnold Friend has no past and no roots; before he appeared on her doorstep, his entire life is a void. Joyce Carol Oates expresses this idea in the text by refraining from sharing any background information about Arnold Friend. Unlike Connie, whose history and thoughts are meticulously documented, Arnold Friend is not humanized or normalized, making him a mysterious and worrying character.
“Aunt Tillie’s. 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.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for Arnold Friend’s supernatural character, this quote demonstrates his apparent ability to see events occurring elsewhere. As his vision gets sharper he accurately describes June’s blue dress and heels, and informs Connie that Mrs. Hornsby, a family friend, is helping her mother shuck corn. While it is technically possible that Arnold Friend could have overheard about the barbecue or seen June leave in her blue dress, it does not seem likely, adding to the character’s mysterious and malevolent aura. The reader is left to wonder how the character could know these details, perhaps concluding, like many critics, that Arnold Friend is the devil or death incarnate.
She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness.
When she attempts to call for help, Connie collapses by the phone, crying and breathing heavily. The highly sexual language employed by Oates in this passage seems to suggest that Connie is being raped by Arnold Friend. Yet at the end of the episode, Arnold Friend is talking to her from outside her front door. Some critics have interpreted the scene as an earthly panic attack described in vivid and violent language. Others have suggested that Arnold Friend’s supernatural character could allow him to attack Connie without entering the house, triggering her collapse and/or assaulting her. Regardless, after the incident Connie’s will is broken and she is overcome with feelings of emptiness.
She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were back safe somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.
Completely undone by her collapse by the phone, Connie submits to Arnold Friend’s will and walks out to meet him. Under a tremendous amount of stress and terror, Connie dissociates from her body, feeling as if it isn’t hers. She watches her body go to Arnold Friend, seemingly no longer under her direction. Her out of body experience demonstrates her rapidly fading sense of control. In yielding to her strange visitor Connie has lost her identity and her will, suffering feelings of emptiness and alienation. Arnold Friend, whether through natural or supernatural manipulation, has gained control over her body.
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl," he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by 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 she was going into it.
Like much of the action in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” the ending is ambiguous. As Connie walks out to where Arnold Friend is waiting, the sun-soaked land looks unfamiliar and strange. She is leaving the home she knows to venture into an unknown wider world; Connie may be realizing, for the first time, the magnitude of this transition. At least one critic has compared the story’s ending to the scene in which Connie wakes in a daze from her afternoon nap, suggesting the entire encounter with Arnold Friend is a dream. In a review of the film adaptation, Oates refers to Connie “crossing over,” supporting the theory that something supernatural may have occurred (Oates).
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