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“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Review

“Where are you going, where have you been?” is a beautiful story written by Joyce Carol Oates. The author takes the archetypal theme of seduction and then presents it in the way he finds it today, particularly in America. The way she depicts the emotions of a 15 year old American girl, who is trapped between the demands of her body and her confused mind, is marvelous. The story can be read and studied in different ways. It has also attracted several literary interpretations from different angles. Though the story is mainly about a girl, Connie, undergoing sexual tensions, it is also a reflection of the decaying American culture, and its declining morality. The readers get a feeling of the American experience directly from the story. This paper takes a critical look at the story with a particular attention to the way it ends. What really happens to Connie is the focus of this paper. In other words, this paper is about the increasing awareness of the horrors of human existence and the awful inequalities of gender, power, and violence that teenagers experience in American society today, as they mature in their life.

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In a way, what happens at the end is not really important, because Connie, after a long dramatic tension in her life, has already changed her mind. “Changed” may not be the appropriate word here, as she had already set her mind to go with a boy, to go away from the influence of her parents in her life. Therefore, both realism and surrealism have equal share in the story. As expressed by Greg Johnson, “the stories move from what might be called realism to surrealism; there’s a bending of perceived reality toward the meaningful distortion of the unconscious” (Johnson).

What forced her to think in a risky line can be attributed to the moral impoverishment in the family. She has already experienced that her mother is not very affectionate. And her father is very indifferent. He is never present in the family. Her sister has her own ways and has been successful in getting their mother’s love and admiration. Only Connie is disliked in the family. Therefore, she has been turning her mind out elsewhere for a substitute, a boy who can love her. This yearning for a mate is nurtured by the physical demands of her maturing body. If looked at it from the Freudian angle, the story is about the libidinal force acting on an innocent teenage mind. As Mitchell points out, “In the end, Oates makes it clear that Connie, in capitulating to Friend, is not simply surrendering her virginal innocence, but bowing to absolute forces which her youthful coquetry cannot direct:

  • absolute forces over which she has no control” (Olesen). It is a powerful warning coming from the author to all ignorant or careless parents, particularly to the mothers. The sex cannot be suppressed under any pretext.

It is at this stage in her life that the father of Connie’s friend drives Connie out along with the other girls to a drive – in restaurant, “where older kids hung out” (Oates). The description of the social habits of this place and the initial responses Connie makes here at the site of a young boy are superb. Her sexual emotions reverberate throughout the story, backed by a popular music in the background. The imagery of music used in the story is central to the very rhythm of the story. “It is music

  • nstead of an apple which lures Connie, quickens her heartbeat; and popular lyrics which constitute Friend’s conversation and cadence”, says Marie Mitchell (Olesen). As Oates says, Connie has two selves, one for her use at home and the other to exhibit while away from home: “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” (Oates). The story, therefore, can be seen as Connie’s existential dilemma. It is at its height when she refuses to go with her family for the holiday picnic. It is precisely at this juncture the seducer in the name of Arnold Friend steps in. Connie’s role in choosing her own destiny can be seen when she rejects the established convention of moving under the protection of her mother. It is against the middle class norms as Linda puts it: “her whole struggle for autonomy has been against the middle-class values of her family (Linda). The tempter is always on the look out of such lonely Eves moving unprotected. Arnold finally gets the right girl he has been looking for. The climax in the story is when Connie wavers in her mind, to go or not go with Arnold. It is the twentieth century American dilemma, but it is also a universal dilemma which every girl confronts in her life. What hold her back are the traditional cultural restrictions, the values imposed on sex in her society, and what she is going to crush is her own secured life. The title of the story thus becomes very relevant here: “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been”.

Connie’s wavering conscience is the conscience of her race. Oates depicts in her story the actual social conditions found existing in her society. With her powerful narrative style she reminds the readers of the horror similar to the ones seen in old gothic stories. The effect of it on the readers is quite chilling. As Connie confronts Arnold, the readers understand that he has taken the absolute control of the situation. Like a Don Juan, he exploits the desire for sexual experience lying buried in a young girl: “I’ll tell you how it is; I’m always nice at first, the first time. I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t’ (Oates). These words with their phallic-like penetration tempt her. He reads her mind and continues: “And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me. Her heart was almost too big now for her chest and its pumping made sweat break out all over her” (Oates). It is a great realist portrayal of a delicate moment in a girl’s life coming from a female writer.

Arnold is portrayed with all the horrors of a devil. He is shown as an American devil. This enables Connie to earn sympathy, in spite of her loose moral character. Arnold tempts her with such a supernatural power that no girl of her age and sexual desire can escape from him. Most of the young female readers would have surrendered to him much before. He begins his seduction by appealing to Connie’s heart, but as it reaches its crucial point, his appeal goes directly to her womb. His approach is “that of the sexual psychopath who uses his knowledge of a person’s weaknesses to bring his victims to him” (Rena). The seduction finally ends up as a kind of conflict between Connie’s body and mind. The flesh wins at last. The ongoing tension in Connie is shown, according to Stephen Slimp, through the metaphor of breathing, a word repeated several times in the novel. “She has shown herself to be a fully breathing human being, one who has, in a moment, developed the spiritual life lacking in her former existence”, says Slimp (Stephen). Connie’s tension is a representation of a situation from which few American girls can escape.

Thus story is about the art of seducing an innocent female. Not only in the American context, but also in the universal context, it is realistic and mythical too. A very young girl, as her body develops into womanhood, is on the look out for her sexual mate without realizing that she is going to submit herself “to phallocentric culture, experiencing self-loss in the form of alienation, madness, and probable rape” (Wesley). Oates also depicts Connie as an American Cinderella. She has learned from others, particularly her mother, that a girl should have good looks in order to be attractive. She also learns that a girl is a sexual object, and she should appear in the best possible way. Therefore, she moves out exhibiting herself, to be picked by the best man. Connie is too immature to realize that in such circumstances only the devil will pick her up and that she should have stayed under her mother’s protection till the right man enters her life. She has not been trained to safely enter her life. It is the true reality of the girls in America, Oates realizes. The painful consequence of parental neglect and the consequences of “romantic delusions in her search for a “sweet, gentle love (Rena) is the essence of the story.

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The delay to say yes to Arnold is mostly caused by her fear, the fear emerging from her inner world about the honesty of the person tempting her. There is also the presence of another man as a witness which works against her female instinct. One version is that Connie is finally raped and murdered: “fifteen-year-old Connie, a typical American girl, who is seduced into what we assume will be her rape and murder” (Rena). The readers realize at the end that she would have opened her body to some Arnold as she had already kept the door of her mind wide open. This is the typical American situation, the horrible situation of an American female.

Does Connie go with Arnold or not is the obvious question lurking in the minds of the readers as they come to the end of the story. It is insignificant whether she goes or not. It is the drama which goes on in her mind that is important here. Could she have resisted more than she did is the central point for consideration in this paper. An answer to this lies in how one understands the power of Arnold’s temptation. Arnold says that “I took a special interest in you, such a pretty girl, and found out all about you” (Oates). In fact he has discovered all about her and it is an ample proof to support his desire to possess her. Moreover, his words and actions match Connie’s subconscious desire to go with him. Oates writes that “His smile assured her that everything was fine”. The words, “assured” and “fine”, here are particularly important. Arnold knows the most penetrating words a girl would like to hear. Therefore, he adds: “I’ll show you what love is like, what it does” (Oates). These persistent arrows in the form of words coming from Arnold have made her helpless, made her almost numb, physically and mentally.

What happens next is only anybody’s guess, the readers’ guess. The truth is that Connie’s conscious self has already left her. She is now floating, gripped by the fear and the seductive power of Arnold. “She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were back safe somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited”, narrates the author (Oates). Which self of Connie is watching “the door slowly open” is a million dollar question. If it is her triumphant self, it is the new American girl revolting against her parents. There is no need, then, for Connie to resist. If it is the seduced Connie, then it marks the fall of her self. Hence, the question whether Connie could have resisted is absurd.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a touching story. Connie becomes helpless to overcome the force of sex in order to preserve her identity in her society. The power of temptation is beyond the restrictions a teen aged girl can carry in her mind is the message emerging from the story. It is superbly handled by the author in the story. As Timothy says: “We certainly need writers who can show us the dark side and the many ways we cheat ourselves and others” (Schilling). That Connie could not have resisted anymore she could is a reality which Oates beautifully depicted in her story.

References

  1. Greg Johnson. Interview with Carol. Michigan Quarterly Review. Ann Arbor: 2006.Vol. 45, Iss. 2; pg. 387, 15 pgs.Web.
  2. Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Web.
  3. Schilling, Timothy P. “The shape of our despair: the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates”. Commonweal, Commonweal Foundation, New York, 132:13, 2005], p.21-23.
  4. Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Overview”. Web.
  5. Wesley, Marilyn C. “Reverence, rape, resistance: Joyce Carol Oates and feminist film theory”,
  6. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature ,Univ. of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 32:3, 1999, p.75-85.

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