Nov. 17, 2020
“Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates was first published in 1966 in the Epoch Magazine. In this story, A young girl named Connie strives to be nothing like her mother. She does everything she can to rebel against what she fears is her fate, so she frequently crosses the boundaries set for her to meet boys and experience what she feels is the life she deserves. She crosses paths with Arnold Friend, a figure who poses as the ideal boy to a young girl who puts value in superficial objects. He tracks her down and corners her when she is home alone. Sadly, Connie fails to realize his disingenuity until it is too late. She tries and fails to escape him, leaving her victim as he drives her far away with plans to take her innocence and possibly her life. In “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Joyce Carol Oates presents a perturbing point of view on beauty versus reality that criticizes superficial culture and misguided youthful pursuits of love and sex.
Early in the story, it is made clear to the audience that Connie is extremely conceited and places much importance on the outer beauty of a person. Connie is gazing at herself in the mirror when her mother criticizes her and snaps, “You think you so pretty? (1)” To fully disclose exactly how Connie viewed this particular issue, Oates disclosed that “she knew she was pretty and that was everything.(1)” This particular phrase is vital to understanding how Connie has defined her own personal value and how she compares others to herself. Connie frequently makes statements regarding how ugly she thinks her mother and sister are and how she pities
them. With this perceived lack of beauty, Connie also criticizes their simple lifestyle, in which June, her sister, works at the local high school and has yet to find a long-term partner, or even a short-term one. Connie sees her mother’s life as wasted potential, as she claims that her mother was beautiful when she was young but is not anymore. It is clear that little other factors than outer beauty drive Connie’s judgments of other people. This is what ultimately dooms her fate to the palms of Arnold Friend.
When she first hears the tires of his car on her driveway, her initial reaction is described by Oates as the following: “Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, ’Christ. Christ,’ wondering how bad she looked. (4)” This reaction is not the typical reaction a teenage girl would have to a strange car pulling up to the house unexpectedly. Typically, there would be some element of fear and aversion to coming into contact with the person, but this is the opposite for Connie. Even when she opens the front door and realizes that she does not recognize the car or the people in it, she intentionally flirts with Arnold Friend even before she has fully evaluated whether or not she should trust him. She sees a young, conventionally attractive boy who appeals to her value system, so she bites, not knowing that his appearance is only bait, and as he gets closer, his outer beauty ceases to exist. He is revealed to be much older and is wearing over-the-top makeup to conceal his age. Because Connie trusted his youthful persona, it was too late before she realized that she was wrong.
This story is told in the third person but is limited to Connie’s point of view. The reader is made very familiar with Connie’s tricks to doing what she wants. Connie devises a plan where she can convince her parents and her friend’s parents that she is a sweet innocent girl, but in reality is using this false narrative to sneak off and make-out with boys in a fast-food restaurant parking lot. It is implied that she pulls off this plan frequently over the summer with a different boy every time. When she stays home from a family barbeque,
“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. (3)“
Through this passage, Oates is conveying that Connie uses music and entertainment media to fabricate romantic fantasies instead of creating her own ideas of how love should be. To further this point, Oates also includes this sentence in the paragraph before: “all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July.(p.3)” Through these statements, it is clear that Connie is exploring her sexuality as if she is chasing a specific feeling, perhaps love, but evading any kind of commitment or responsibility involved in a relationship.
This type of sexual exploration was a great source of controversy in the 1960s. short-term and informal sexual affairs were more openly explored and this was met with great pushback from the more traditional members of society. In this short story, Oates is criticizing these pursuits by portraying Connie’s experiences as naive and childish. She emphasizes that Connie is only chasing the feelings that are accentuated in music and other art forms. To show the influence of music on Connie, she presents multiple scenarios where Connie is overcome by song. One scenario in particular that demonstrates Oates’ perception of the music Connie listens to is when “She sat on the edge of her bed, barefoot, and listened for an hour and a half to a program called XYZ Sunday Jamboree, record after record of hard, fast, shrieking songs she sang along with.(p.3)” From the word choice in this sentence, Oates is making the statement that Connie is completely overcome with this music that Oates perceives as chaotic and unpleasant, judging by her description of hard, fast, and shrieking. The music playing is later revealed to be Bobby King songs, which are famous for being overtly sexual and appeal to the exact fantasy that Connie holds all of her sexual encounters to. Oates’ emphasis on the specific influence of music on the sexual environment surrounding this time and how such a perspective on sex can be dangerous reveals perhaps the purpose of this story: to criticize the sexual culture of the time and warn the youth of the dangers that could be lurking behind these fantasies.
In the early 1960s, a serial Killer in Tucson, Arizona emerged: Charles Schmid. He killed three teen girls in the span of one year. His first murder, that of Alleen Rowe, has a significant correlation to this short story and is widely regarded as Oates’ inspiration. Alleen Rowe was lured from her home to the desert where she was raped and murdered. Charles Schmid also has a disturbing correlation to Arnold Friend. Schmid was recalled to have dyed his hair black, used makeup to alter his appearance, and stuffed his boots with newspapers and crushed cans to appear taller. Connie observed that Arnold Friend wore mascara, a black wig, and seemed to be unable to walk properly in his boots. These correlations make the claim that Charles Schmid being the inspiration for this story almost undeniable. This connection adds to the significance that this story held when it was first published. Not only does it tackle the social/ethical dilemma surrounding sex culture, but it also references a fresh, real-life scenario in which a young girl is killed for being involved in the behaviors that are being criticized. Such a raw issue would have been highly emotional and disturbing for readers in the 1960’s. Even in the modern-day, this story has a profound effect on those who read it, especially young women. “Where are you going? Where Have You Been?” draws upon the fears of young girls that they will end up in the same situation as Connie, vulnerable, exploited, and alone as they are led to the final moments of their lives. Stories such as this one are told constantly as cautionary tales to daughters from mothers in an attempt to scare them into safety, which is what Joyce Carol Oates seems to be doing to the youth of the 1960s.
Joyce Carol Oates uses a retelling of a real-life story as a means to draw criticism upon the sexual revolution of the youth of her time and the false perception that superficial belongings and beauty reflect on a person’s value and character. Using references to popular culture and topical issues of the time, she is able to convey such a point of view. Through her highly specific detailing she is ultimately able to deeply disturb and terrify the reader into at least temporarily agreeing with her views on the potential dangers of a superficial, sexual culture that put young women at risk of being harmed by what most consider to be forces of evil, serial killers. She forewarns the readers that if they allow outer beauty to act as an indication of trustworthiness, they will be taken advantage of.
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