The tale of an insecure, romantic teenage girl drawn into a situation of foreboding violence,”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” presents several themes that arise from the interaction of sharply drawn characters engaged in psychological manipulation.
Appearances and Reality
Connie prides herself as a skilled flirt who has never been in a situation she could not handle. She feels confident when Arnold Friend arrives at her door while she is alone in the house: “Who the hell do you think you are?” she asks. Mistaking him for the type of boy she frequently attracts, she thinks she recognizes him from the sound of his car’s horn, his clothing and physical appearance, and the line of banter with which he attempts to lure her into his car. Both Arnold and Connie contribute to these erroneous first impressions. Arnold assumes a role as a teenage Romeo although he is much older, and Connie accepts his facade because of her fondness for the “trashy daydreams” her mother accuses her of subscribing to.
Because the story is told from Connie’s perspective (although she is not the narrator), readers see the gradual dismantling of these first impressions through her eyes. She realizes that Arnold’s hair may be a wig, that his tan is the result of makeup, and that his boots “must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.” Though the veracity of these observations is never proven, they reveal Connie’s realization that Arnold is not what he seems. His romantic words are not original but taken from popular songs, and his manner is that of “a hero in a movie.” Nothing about Arnold Friend is genuine, except his violent intentions and his skills of psychological and physical intimidation. By the story’s end, Connie realizes that she is not the confident flirt she thought, but a powerless pawn in the hands of a dangerous individual.
Identity and the Search for Self
Connie is vulnerable to Arnold Friend’s manipulations because she has no clear identity of her own. As a teenager, she is neither a child nor a woman. Connie attempts to establish her identity by testing the boundaries her parents set for her, assuming a different persona at home than she does with her friends, and seeking validation of her attractiveness from the boys at the drive-in restaurant. Connie identifies her worth as a person with her physical beauty, a factor that causes her to disparage her sister, fight with her mother, and engage in the “habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.”
Connie’s behavior is typical among teenagers searching for identity. Though Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend is extreme, Gates devised the situation to illustrate how an unstable identity can make an adolescent—especially a girl—susceptible to exploitation by someone who knows how to feed a vain, unsteady ego for his own interests and desires. Connie is practiced in acting out the stereotype of being a pretty girl. By the time Arnold asks her, “What else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” she feels she can do nothing but comply. Trusting in her incomplete identity to the end, she is led to ruin.
Victim and Victimization
Connie’s unstable identity provides her with a mentality that makes her a perfect victim for Arnold’s sexual, perhaps even murderous, designs. In the presence of a true villain, Connie’s propensity for flirtation becomes a fatal character trait. Unfamiliar with the logic and reasoning that comes from having a strong, centered identity, she becomes prone to Arnold’s psychological manipulation, and thus a willing victim.
Connie believes that because Arnold looks and acts like other boys she has known—those she believes she has handled so adeptly in the past—she has nothing to fear from him. She is drawn in by his flattery, intrigued by his claims that he has “found out all about” her. By the time his violent intentions become apparent, Arnold has gained a psychological hold over Connie that he maintains with a blend of threats, romantic language, and a hypnotic tone that Connie perceives as an “incantation.” He strips her of the little selfhood she possesses by telling her who she is: a nice girl who is sweet and pretty and does what he says. By the time she surrenders to Arnold, he has so undermined her sense of personal will that she perceives that her body is no longer her own.
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.