Point of View
The first line of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—”Her name was Connie “— signals that it is being told by a third-person narrator. This narrative voice stays closely aligned to Connie’s point of view. The reader learns what her thoughts are, but the narrator provides no additional information or judgment of the situation. For instance, Connie’s harsh appraisals of her sister and mother are discussed: “now [her mother’s] looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie,” but it is clear that this assessment is Connie’s and not the narrator’s.
Observing the story’s events through a narrator who presents things as Connie sees them allows the reader to identify with her terror as she is transformed from a flirt into a victim. Arnold Friend is presented only as he appears to Connie; the reader learns nothing of his unspoken thoughts. This narrative “detachment” makes him less human and more ominous than if the narrator provided details that would allow the reader to identify with him. Maintaining the third-person narrative voice instead of telling the story in Connie’s own words, however, allows Gates to use descriptive language that Connie would presumably not. It is through this language that much of the mood, imagery, and symbolism of the story emerges.
References to popular music and slang date the events in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” to the same period when Gates wrote the story in the mid-1960s. Gates sketches in few details of the town, which is meant to be a typical suburban landscape that includes familiar sights such as a shopping plaza and drive-in restaurant. This setting is further described in the reference to the newness and style of the three-year-old “asbestos ‘ranch house'” Connie lives in. Such an innocuous setting is incongruous with the violence suggested in the story, and the contrast serves to heighten the reader’s uneasiness. The lack of specific description of the setting serves to universalize the story’s themes, which suggest that Connie’s lack of identity is a legacy of modem suburban culture. Though the actual location of the story is irrelevant, the reference to the radio show Connie listens to, the “XYZ Sunday Jamboree,” may be a reference to radio station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan, the area in which Gates lived at the time the story was written.
The structure of”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” follows a familiar pattern. The first few pages of exposition acquaint the reader with Connie and her family, providing details about her character and lifestyle. The rising action begins when Arnold Friend pulls into the driveway and instigates a conversation with Connie. Her character, which has been carefully outlined, begins to interact with another force. This force presents a conflict for Connie: should she succumb to Arnold, or try to save herself? At the climax of the story, Connie’s will is overtaken by Arnold and she acquiesces to his evil desires.
The most unusual aspect of the story’s structure, perhaps, is its lack of resolution. The action abruptly ends as Connie walks towards Arnold. The fact that the reader does not find out Connie’s fate further heightens the story’s mood of violence, in which horror is suggested, but never shown. The only hint of the action’s resolution is in the foreshadowing statements made by Arnold when he says he wants to “come inside you where it’s all secret” and show Connie “what love is like,” statements that hint at rape. Similarly, Connie laments that”I’m not going to see my mother again” or “sleep in my bed again,” comments that suggest her murder. However, the lack of a stated resolution has been a point of major discussion in critical essays on the story, with some proposing that Connie is killed and others proposing that she is not. Some critics look outside the story, to Dates’s factual source in the Arizona murderer she had read about in Life magazine, to find evidence of Connie’s certain death. An additional interpretation of the story’s resolution is provided by critic Larry Rubin, who interprets the entire encounter with Arnold as Connie’s dream. By this reasoning, the story’s unstated resolution involves Connie’s awakening from one of her “trashy daydreams.” The ambiguity of the resolution heightens the narrative’s lingering mood of horror by prolonging suspense beyond its ending.
Symbolism and Imagery
Many critics have interpreted Arnold Friend as a symbol of some larger idea or force, such as the devil, death, or sexuality. Connie, also, has been said to represent many things: Eve, troubled youth, or spiritually unenlightened humanity. Such interpretations can be validated by Dates’s initial title for the story, “Death and the Maiden,” which she explains was chosen to suggest “an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil)” for a young woman who is “seduced by her own vanity.” Dates also points out, though, that as she revised the story her interest shifted toward a more realistic, rather than allegorical, treatment of her character and situation.
Several images are used to give readers insight into Connie’s perspective in the story. These images frequently relate to popular music, which serves as a background throughout the entire story and takes on a near-sacred religious function for Connie since “none of them bothered with church.'” ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is subtitled “For Bob Dylan,” and at least one critic has noticed the similarity between Arnold’s car and the “magic swirling ship” that Dylan wrote about in his 1960s song “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Connie believes that life and love will be “the way it was in movies and promised in songs.” This belief in the simplistic thoughts of popular music makes her unable to discern Arnold Friend’s true nature until it is too late to escape. Arnold, too, relies on song lyrics to seduce Connie. In a “half-sung sigh” he calls her “My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” a possible reference to the Van Morrison song “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Connie, in fact, has brown eyes, and the misstatement is further evidence that Arnold is not what he seems.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Joyce Carol Oates, Published by Gale, 1997.