Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Dizziness (Motif)

Dizziness marks Connie’s growing realization that Arnold Friend is not who he claims to be. The first wave hits her when she notices that both he and Ellie Oscar are much older, likely in their thirties and forties. The second wave comes when she tells the pair to leave but they refuse, revealing their less than benevolent intentions. As the narrative continues Connie becomes increasingly lightheaded until she finally collapses by the phone, emotionally broken. Oates uses these spells of dizziness to communicate Connie’s confusion and terror as a seemingly innocent situation spirals into something much more sinister.

Music (Motif)

Music forms the background of Oates short story: it constantly pours out of speakers and radios and restaurants. This “perpetual music” is described in mystical, almost religious terms. Connie listens to pop songs in a “sacred” (2) burger joint and experiences a kind of religious ecstasy lying by her radio; Oates describes the girl as “bathed in the glow of a slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself” (3). Music connects teenagers to each other and to a larger popular culture; Connie’s ideas about love and relationships are derived from bubble-gum pop songs. Arnold exploits music in order to appear connected to the younger teenagers he preys on.

The Car (Symbol)

In American culture and literature the car has long been a symbol of freedom and independence. In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” it is notable that men drive and women are passengers. When Arnold Friend offers to take Connie for a ride, he is seeking to gain control over her and her movements. As an instrument of control, his car stands as a symbol for his whole persona. Like Arnold Friend, the car is in disguise: it is painted gold and covered with teenaged slogans. And like its owner’s disguise, the car’s camouflage is imperfect, alerting Connie that something is amiss. Connie first questions Arnold Friend’s identity when she notices an outdated saying on his car.

The Home (Symbol)

The story’s major action occurs in and around the doorway of Connie’s home: first she stands tentatively on the porch steps, then she retreats back inside when Arnold Friend becomes increasingly aggressive, yet she remains by the door, reticent to move further into the house. Connie’s home symbolizes the world she has always known—a world of family and tradition—while her position in the doorway speaks to her transition from the home into the wider world. Ultimately her home, like her family, cannot protect her from the outside threat of Arnold Friend, who notably cannot actually physically intrude into the home sphere, only seduce Connie away from it.

Death and the Maiden (Allegory)

In European art, music, and literature, the Death and the Maiden refers to a persistent allegory in which death personified seduces a young, beautiful woman. These tales serve as a reminder that all, even the young, must die and explores the romantic appeal of death. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” can be interpreted as a modern version of these allegories; indeed the story’s initial title was “Death and the Maiden.” Death, here played by Arnold Friend, seduces Connie, a contemporary maiden, first through charm and then, when that fails, through violence. The allegory emphasizes Connie’s youth and vulnerability to sinister forces, as well as her initial, curious attraction to Arnold Friend.