Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been? is a suspenseful and thrilling story. I found some aspects of it interesting while others superfluous. The following passages will lay out my critical interpretation of the story.
Firstly, the characterization of the two main characters is very impressive. The mental makeup of Connie, who is brought up by a mildly abusive and critical mother, is spot on. Her eventual decision to take a huge risk and go away with the dangerous suitor Arnold Friend shows both daring and weakness. She perhaps opts for this course of action as she subconsciously realizes how the prevailing circumstances in her home are not very positive. Hence, by taking a chance with a dangerous (yet attractive) stranger is a calculated gamble. Similarly, the mental make-up of the wild and macho young male – Arnold Friend – is also impressive. The heightened sense of machismo exhibited by him impresses Connie at some level. Otherwise she would not in the end accede to his demands. The words uttered by the brutish Arnold is so constructed by Oates that they carry a powerful sense of seduction.
Another aspect of the story that is meritorious is the element of suspense throughout the narrative. In other words, I found the story to be quite a page turner. Initially my preoccupation was with how Connie will liberate from her oppressing mother. Later, as the meeting between Connie and Arnold unfolded, the primary concern became the safety and wellbeing of Connie.
A facet of the story that I found difficult to accept is the brutish masculinity of Arnold Friend. While this sort of machismo is attractive in a way, it is far from civil. This total lack of chivalry on part of Arnold Friend can be a little hard to come to terms with. Even from a didactic point of view, the story is sending a message to readers that ‘might is right’ and ‘bullying is an effective strategy’. This could be both misleading and misinformed. While the fate of Connie after she parts with Arnold is untold, the free license to bullying carried around by Arnold goes uncontested by the author. This sets a bad example to young readers like myself, who look to derive values and virtues from the literature read. In this sense, the story is lacking in moral content, which is disappointing.
The story has many apt symbolic references, which accentuate the overall effect of the narrative. For example, the fashionable yet gaudily painted car of Arnold Friend symbolizes his attraction and hazard associated with him. That he has a subordinate sidekick in the form of Ellie further appends to the power of his personality. The power equation between Connie and her mother is also skewered toward the latter. Hence, the trapped situation she finds herself upon Arnold’s persistent advance has parallels to her the helplessness she’s experienced in dealing with her mother. In this sense, the story can be said to have recurrent motifs and analogous layering.
Overall, the experience of reading the story is one of engagement, suspense and dramatic denouement. At its centre is crude romance, although its effect is eroded by the tension and danger unfolding in the course of the story. The lack of censure of Arnold Friend’s uncouth behavior would remain a main source of detraction.
Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been? first published in Epoch, Fall 1966.