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“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” Literary Analysis

The appearances people put on for others and the true essence of their being are vital parts of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” A short story is a literary genre with distinct ways of conveying themes and messages concisely. Various authors utilize different elements to enhance and strengthen their writing. Oates uses unique tools to communicate the information to the readers, as her text is incredibly appealing and captivating. The story written by Joyce Carol Oates follows an unsettling encounter with a teenage girl and a man. Through the tone and description of the passages, both characters are relieved to be attempting to play a role with potentially sinister implications. The protagonist and antagonist both pretend to be someone who they are not either mentally or physically. The story’s theme is the conflict between appearance and reality, which is revealed through the devices of perspective, allegory, and symbolism.

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The story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” written by Joyce Carol Oates explores the clash of perception and truth. The plot centers around a teenage girl of fifteen, described in the opening paragraphs of the story as beautiful. Connie purposefully attempts to look older when going out. The text reveals, “She wore a pull-over jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it” (Oates 1). This outward maturity conflicts with her actual lack of life experience, culminating, presumably, in violence. In addition, the villain of the story, a mysterious man who calls himself Arnold Friend, is a clear example of appearance not being all they seem. Arnold attempts to appear like just another teenage boy, utilizing a wig and referencing popular music. On closer inspection, Connie notices these discrepancies and concludes that he must be in his thirties. This juxtaposition of a youthful look and his actual age reveals the dangers Connie was too late to recognize. By the end of the story, nearly every element of Arnold Friend is shown to be possibly a disguise, including his name. Ultimately, both characters utilize outward appearance for their own ends.

Point of View

The story follows Connie’s point of view, which underlies the central theme of facade versus reality. While Connie is not the narrator of the story, the audience does not get to see any other character’s perspective. This means the reader is just as blind to certain information as Connie. This creates a degree of tension, as Arnold Friend is only visible through her eyes and emotions, making him a more ominous and frightening character. The lack of insight into Arnold’s mind also supplements the idea that there is an inner world that can not be understood simply by appearances. Through this point of view, the reader can understand that much of Connie’s behavior, dress, and even worldview is simply an attempt to appear desirable to others. When regarding Arnold, Connie quickly becomes suspicious, identifying possible falsehoods in how he carries himself. She notices that “he sounded like a hero in a movie, declaring something important. But he spoke too loudly” (Oates 6). Furthermore, He repeatedly attempts to flirt, calling himself her friend and complementing her, yet his disguise indicates an underlying risk. Throughout much of their conversation, Arnold tries to be friendly, joking around, referencing songs Connie may have heard to make her less suspicious. This creates a feeling of tension, as Connie is shown to be in a state of distress, as she somewhat understands that she is in danger. Thus, the text uses perspective to allow the audience to identify with Connie while also revealing her thoughts and feelings.


Oates’s short story is particularly famous for conveying messages through the extensive use of allegory. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” portrays the conflict between appearance and reality; thus, presenting a comprehensive narrative about real-world issues. In particular, the account of Connie’s experiences represents a broader spectrum of topics, including the matters of what people project into the world versus who they are. Oates presents this complex idea through specific events, performances, and the depiction of music. Connie’s behavior with men in the restaurant is an attempt to project her independence and confidence, whereas, in reality, her actual mental state is not representative of her actions. The symbols presented by popular culture are another way a message is reinforced. It proposes ways people should act in society to fit in, regardless of their actual desires. Girls are continually being reminded of specific expectations that they have to follow to appear a certain way, “the music was always in the background” (Oates 1). Furthermore, the antagonist of the story, Arnold, always projects specific ideas about him into the world that do not correspond with reality to influence Connie. Thus, the events, characters’ behavior, and music portray an allegory of society’s constant desire to distort reality.


Lastly, symbolism is an essential literary element used in the story to represent its primary theme. In particular, Oates uses religious symbolism in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” to distinctly present the friction between illusion and reality. The protagonist view shopping malls and drive-in restaurants as religious places; thus, the author implies their church-like appearance. For example, Connie and her friends refer to the location as a “sacred building” (Oates 1). The fact that popular places are portrayed as religious symbols emphasizes the false display of their greatness. Girls find being there valuable, as a weekly church service that cannot be skipped, while, in reality, shopping malls are not designed to be as important to people. Therefore, the fake narrative that enforces the idea that popular culture is the most significant aspect of teenage life is represented through its grotesque religiosity. Additionally, the symbolism of youth revealed through the antagonist’s actions represents false assumptions about adolescence. For instance, Arnold’s wig and his fake tan create a false narrative of what being young is; on the contrary, Connie’s inexperience is a more accurate depiction. Overall, Oates’s symbols reinforce the message presented in the story that some life elements are not what they appear.


“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” depicts an account of the teenage girl and men’s unsettling encounter. The story’s central theme is the conflict between illusion and actuality. Oates uses numerous devices to convey the message of the text in an engaging manner. The story incorporates the point of view of a protagonist. Thus, the narrative is presented through a teenage girl’s infantile perspective, which dilutes the reality. Moreover, the author uses allegory to describe a complex societal issue of people’s relentless urge to twist actuality. Lastly, Oates’s use of grotesque symbols presents the idea that individuals are prone to developing illusionary thinking, which does not appropriately portray the truth. Overall, the short story skillfully uses literary devices to articulate the theme of the writing.


Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” Community Unit School District 200, 1966, Web.

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