Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Themes

Search for Independence

The story starts by describing Connie’s search for independence as she nears adulthood. She excitedly runs across a highway to a fast food restaurant filled with older teenage boys and popular music. Like many young people she experiments with her persona, adopting a different set of mannerisms when with her peers. Connie has begun to distance herself from her parents’ protection and control: she lies about going to the movies in order to see a boy and pretends to dislike a wild friend her mother is concerned about. During one of her surreptitious outings, Connie meets Arnold Friend, who will exploit her desire for independence and her yearning to leave her childhood behind. Through emotional and potentially physical violence, he forces her transition into the adult world, brutally severing her from the life she knows. Connie’s tentative teenage move away from her parents and towards independence has been unnaturally and disturbingly hastened.

Ambiguous Identity

The two central characters of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” Connie and Arnold Friend, have ambiguous identities. Oates writes of Connie, “everything about her had two sides to it” (1). Connie inhabits different personas depending on the context she finds herself in; at home she is one person, with her friends she is another. Likewise Arnold Friend’s identity is ambivalent. He presents himself as a teenage boy, but throughout the course of the story it becomes clear that his outward identity is a façade hiding something much more sinister. Just what his hidden nature may be has been the subject of intense debate among critics. Joyce M. Wegs argues in a widely cited essay that Arnold Friend is, in fact, the devil incarnate (Wegs 66). Mike Tierce and Larry Rubins have respectively suggested that he is a rock-and-roll messiah and a figment of Connie’s imagination (Gale 269, 272).

Blurring of Fantasy and Reality

Connie spends much of her time fantasizing, playing “trashy daydreams” over and over in her mind (1). Reality—her concrete experiences—fade into vague yearnings for love and desire. In her backyard and in her bedroom, she easily drifts in and out of dreams, lulled by the music she loves. With the arrival of Arnold Friend, the already blurred line between fantasy and reality becomes even more confused and disturbing. Their entire interaction is surreal, filled with secret codes, special signs, and apparently supernatural powers, prompting certain critics to brand the episode a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. Fantasy and reality become particularly confused during Connie’s collapse by the phone. The passage’s explicit language suggests a sexual attack, but a couple lines later Arnold Friend is back outside the house. The nature of the episode is entirely unclear, leaving the reader grasping for explanations.

Suburban America in the 1950s and 1960s

Mid-century America saw the massive growth of suburbs for the first time in the country’s history, and with it the rise of a new culture. In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” Joyce Carol Oates documents the intricacies of this way of life. Teenagers gather at strip malls to listen to pop music, increasingly alienated from tradition and their parents. During the same period, the Sexual Revolution began changing social attitudes towards sex, leaving young men and women to face a brave new romantic world. By 1960 the culture wars had begun in earnest, pitting conservative and progressive values against each other and undermining traditional sources of authority. All these forces shape Connie’s small, suburban world. The actual setting remains ambiguous, allowing Connie’s suburbia to comment on universal changes in Cold War America. The very common, unassuming nature of her surroundings lets readers imagine the story could happen anywhere.

Absence of Authority

At first glance, Joyce Carol Oates’ story may seem free of political context, yet its setting in mid-century suburban America speaks to a wider understanding. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw unconventional ideas about sex, love, power, and race undermine traditional sources of moral authority. This is well reflected in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” Connie’s parents don’t hold any true authority over their daughter. Her father is physically present, but mentally absent, while her mother scrutinizes Connie with a critical eye that doesn’t detect her simple teenage deceptions. Neither is in a position to provide guidance or protection. Similarly, religion, perhaps the most traditional moral authority in American history, is completely absent. No one in Connie’s family “bother[s] with church” (3). Instead of Christianity, Connie seems to worship at the altar of popular music. Connie’s world has no real centers of authority and this free-wheeling culture enables her deadly meeting with Arnold Friend.

Free Will

At the story’s beginning, Connie plays with asserting her will: she lies about her plans with friends and refuses to go to a family barbecue, upsetting her mother. As a young adult, she is beginning to exercise her freedom to do what she wants. By the end of the story, Connie’s ability to exert free will has been completely called into question by Arnold Friend’s manipulations. Elsewhere Joyce Carol Oates has referred to Connie’s “unexpected gesture of heroism” in the story’s final scenes, suggesting that she has willingly decided to sacrifice herself for her family (Oates). Yet Connie’s actions and perceptions don’t seem to suggest the exercise of free will. She loses control of herself, collapsing by the phone and later imagining that her body is not her own. In the end, she watches, disembodied, as her physical self walks through the threshold and out to Arnold Friend. Perhaps, as fractured as she is, Connie still retains the ability to decide to sacrifice herself for her family. Perhaps she is being controlled completely. The text is ambiguous.

State of Women

Connie’s world depends upon and revolves around men. She relies on her friend’s father to chauffeur her to the strip mall where she meets boys. When a sweet, if bland, young man named Eddie invites her to dinner, she immediately leaves her friend Becky. Her days are filled with vague, saccharine fantasies about boys and love. Her relationships with other women are weak or antagonistic. Becky, her supposed best friend, is a footnote in her life. She resents her matronly sister June and engages in constant, petty fights with her jealous mother. Bitter relationships between women extend beyond Connie: her mother and aunts spend hours on the phone complaining about one another. Connie finds her potential future reflected in her mother, a wife who spends the day “scuffling around the house in old bedroom slippers” (3). Connie’s is not a feminist world. In the end she is undone by male predation and violence, reinforcing her precarious existence as a young woman in a man’s world.