Analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’s Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Probably the most gifted—and certainly the most prolific—literary talent of the second half of the 20th century, Joyce Carol Oates continues to be prolific into the 21st century. She has published more than 50 books; won the National Book Award for Them, her novel published in 1969; received countless O. Henry Memorial Award citations; and has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Prize. Her most widely anthologized short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a chilling modern fable that uncovers the bleakness and emptiness of contemporary life and values. The story has become an American classic.

Oates’s grimly realistic portrayal of Connie, her adolescent protagonist, reveals the falsity of the Cinderella myth and the romantic stories on which young girls are raised. Connie, the rebellious teenager, is bored with and alienated from her middle-class family, preferring instead to spend her spare time trying on makeup, listening to rock and roll, and cruising through the shopping mall with her friends. At the mall she meets a sinister character named Arnold Friend.. Oates uses Magic Realism to suggest that Arnold is not all he appears to be; indeed, her third-person narrator suggests that he is not only obscene and slightly out of place but everywhere, knowing everything; in fact, he may be the devil himself, an identity many critics see inherent in his stumbling walk and his inability to balance in his boots: Cloven hooves may be the source of his difficulties.

© Dustin Cohan

When Arnold visits Connie at her house, he knows that her family is away and threatens to cause harm to them if she does not accompany him. Like the devil’s, his goal is to have Connie go to him of her own free will. Oates’s memorable building of suspense and horror is evident in the insubstantial screen door that separates Connie from Arnold and the insistently ringing phone, which Connie is powerless to answer or, later, to use to call the police. Volitionless, Connie moves toward Arnold as in a nightmare, and the final wording of the story suggests he will not only rape her in this world but take her with him to hell, whether biblical or earthly. In the pessimistic ending, the reader understands that Connie is gone forever and that her culture never prepared her to resist evil.

The title is from a line of a Bob Dylan song, and the story positions Connie in both the new world of rock and roll—presided over by the disk jockey Bobby King, a replacement for an earlier spiritual “king”— and the ancient world of the demon lover who spirits away his unresisting victim. The frightening contemporary parable that Oates has created resonates with the reader in deeply disturbing ways. The story was filmed in 1986 with the title Smooth Talk.

Bastian, Katherine. Oates’s Short Stories: Between Tradition and Innovation. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1983. Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Ungar, 1980.
Norman, Torberg. Isolation and Contact: A Study of Character Relationships in Oates’s Short Stories, 1963–1980.
G teborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1984.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Stories of Young America. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1974.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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