Fifteen-year-old Connie exhibits the confusing, often superficial behavior typical of a teenage girl facing the difficult transition from girlhood to womanhood. She is rebellious, vain, self-centered, and deceitful. She is caught between her roles as a daughter, friend, sister, and object of sexual desire, uncertain of which one represents the real her: “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home.” She is deeply romantic, as shown by her awareness of popular song lyrics, but she is interested more in the concept of having a boyfriend than the boyfriend himself. She sees the boys who exhibit interest in her primarily as conquests who “dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea.” All of these traits make her vulnerable to Arnold Friend’s manipulation. At first she is flattered by his attentions, unable to realize that he is in fact a menacing force. Connie’s superficiality leads her into a situation in which she becomes powerless over the forces to which she is naively attracted.
A more complex reading of Connie’s character, one that includes a glimmer of hope for reaching beyond her own self-centeredness, can be found in an article by Joyce Carol Gates. In speaking of the ending to the story, Gates points out that Connie is “capable of an unexpected gesture of heroism” when she believes her compliance with Arnold will prevent him from harming her family.
Connie’s mother frequently nags her youngest daughter and often makes comparisons between her and June, her well-behaved oldest daughter. However, she also feels a closeness with Connie that makes them “sometimes, over coffee … almost friends.” Connie’s mother “had been pretty once too,” and therefore may prefer Connie (or so her daughter believes) to the more matronly looking June. The mother is uneasy with her daughter’s behavior, most likely because she realizes that Connie’s actions and manner of dress are more promiscuous than that befitting a fifteen-year-old girl. But when the mother tries to discipline her daughter, Connie believes the conflict stems from her mother’s resentment of her youth and beauty. Nevertheless, the mother tries her best to trust her daughter, and that trust is interpreted by Connie as “simplicity” because she thinks her mother believes her lies about “where she’s going” and “where she’s been.” Nevertheless, the mother has managed to form a deep connection with her daughter. Near the end of the story, Connie “[cries] for her mother” and thinks “I’m not going to see my mother again,” demonstrating that Connie’s rejection of her mother is a product of teenage defiance.
Initially portrayed as “a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold” who notices Connie at the drive-in restaurant, Arnold Friend assumes many identities throughout the story. He is the sweet-talking suitor, whose appearance Connie approves of because of his “familiar face.” He is also a potential rapist and murderer who uses psychological manipulation to appeal to Connie’s vanity and her need to be liked by men. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Arnold Friend is that he blends elements of romance—”I took a special interest in you, such a pretty girl”— and violence—”We ain’t leaving until you come with us”—in order to appeal to a young woman unsure of who she is. Arnold Friend’s name is a dark joke, alternately A. Friend, or without too much transformation, A. Fiend. Many critics have suggested that Arnold Friend is the devil in disguise. He has trouble balancing on his small feet—hooves?— and the make-up on his face makes him look younger than he really his. He tells Connie that he’s eighteen, although she estimates that he must be at least thirty. He calls an “X” he draws in the air”his sign,” and knows that Connie’s family is away for the afternoon at a family barbecue and recites their whereabouts in astonishing detail.
Connie’s responsible older sister, June, is twenty-four years old, works as a secretary at Connie’s high school, and lives at home with her parents. Described as “plain and chunky and steady,” she conforms where Connie rebels, serving as the standard to which Connie’s own behavior is always compared and found wanting. Connie believes she is better than her sister because she is more beautiful.
Arnold’s brown-haired, red-faced cohort, Ellie Oscar initially seems to be a silent and harmless hanger-on, content to listen to his transistor radio as Arnold speaks with Connie. Later, he becomes a more ominous figure with a violent potential, as he offers to “pull out the phone” and prevent Connie from calling for help, then produces a weapon, prompting Arnold’s order to “put that away.” Connie’s changing perception of Ellie mirrors her changing perspective on Arnold. Furthermore, Ellie’s status as loyal follower and accomplice demonstrates Arnold’s power to fascinate.
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.