A Summary and Analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ is a 1966 short story by the American writer Joyce Carol Oates. It is regarded by many critics as Oates’ best story, and is widely studied and praised for its treatment of some of the darker aspects of early 1960s America.

First published in the literary journal Epoch in 1966, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ was inspired by a series of real-life murders and dedicated to Bob Dylan, whose song ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ was another inspiration on the story.

Before we offer an analysis of this story’s ambiguous meaning and Oates’ use of symbols, here’s a brief summary of its plot. You can read the story, which takes around thirty minutes to read, here.

‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’: plot summary

The story is about a rather rebellious fifteen-year-old girl named Connie, whose mother constantly berates her for obsessing over her appearance and not being more sensible like her older sister, the rather plain-looking June. Connie often goes and hangs out at a drive-in restaurant with her friend Betty, and one evening she is befriended by an older guy, named Eddie, who has a car.

After she spends a few hours with him he takes her back to her friend and then she goes home. To keep her mother from suspecting about such behaviour, Connie tries to present a different self at home, pretending to be more ‘steady’ and sensible than she actually is.

The next day is a hot July day, a Sunday, and the rest of the family go to Connie’s aunt’s for a barbecue, but Connie declines to go and so is left home on her own. While she is sitting in the sun outside the house, a car drives up and two older men, who call themselves Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar, try to persuade her to come for a drive with them.

Although Connie doesn’t know them, there is something familiar about the appearance of Arnold, and he knows her name. Then she remembers she had seen him at the restaurant the night before.

Connie is reluctant to go for a drive with them, and is suspicious when Arnold reveals how much he knows about her life and friends. He claims to be the same age as her, but when she expresses incredulity, he claims to be a little older: eighteen. When she catches a glimpse of Ellie, who is listening to music inside the car, she realises that he is also much older, and has the face of an immature forty-year-old man.

Arnold becomes more persistent and intense in his desire for her, but that only makes Connie more nervous and suspicious, until she threatens to call the police.

Arnold agrees not to come into the house, where Connie has retreated while she talks to him. However, he threatens her, suggesting that something will happen to her ‘people’ if she doesn’t come with him. He repeatedly encourages her to come with him so he can show her what ‘love’ really is.

Although she goes to phone somebody, Connie is talked out of doing so and eventually agrees to come out of the house and go with Arnold and Ellie in the car. The story ends with her glimpsing at the sunlit land behind Arnold which stretches out like an unknown new land, a land she is heading towards.

‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’: analysis

Joyce Carol Oates was inspired to write this story after she read an account in Life magazine of a young man who had managed to entice and then kill several young girls in Tucson, Arizona in the early 1960s.

However, the ultimate fate of fifteen-year-old Connie is left open for interpretation at the end of ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’, and thus the story becomes almost a modern myth about the rite of passage of adolescence, crossing from the safety (and oppressiveness) of childhood towards the broad, ‘sunlit’ (but also dangerous and unnerving) lands of adulthood.

In this connection, the story’s title points up the threshold on which Connie stands, looking back to where she has been (childhood) and where she is going (adulthood). Oates reinforces this liminal status of Connie by having her literally spend most of the story on or near an actual threshold: the door of her parents’ house.

The ‘two sides’ to Connie’s identity which the third-person narrator of the story mentions early on are also significant here: she is caught between being daughter at home and free-spirited woman (or woman-in-waiting) outside of the family home. Once again, the boundary or threshold between ‘home’ and ‘not home’ (to use the narrator’s words) is marked with significance.

The meaning of that title, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’, is hinted at again towards the end of the story, when Arnold Friend tells Connie that the place she came from doesn’t exist any longer, and where she had intended to go is also no longer an option. Her father’s house is something he can easily destroy (an allusion to the Big Bad Wolf from the famous children’s tale about the three little pigs).

But it is not clear what he means by stating to her that where she ‘meant to go’ is no longer an option for her. Arnold – whose very surname signals his (supposed) identity as her friend rather than her foe, but in a way that perhaps underscores too heavily, and suspiciously, his so-called ‘friendly’ nature – paints himself as someone who has arrived in her life in order to help her across this threshold towards a new land she could not find alone, or that she would be unwilling to embrace without encouragement.

It is important that the decision to cross the threshold at least be made to look like her own, even if it is only the result of extensive coercion.

The mysterious origins of Arnold and Ellie, and the extent of Arnold’s knowledge of Connie and her family – he even claims to be able to ‘see’ what is going on at the family barbecue across town – suggest that the two men are almost supernatural visitants who possess more symbolic and mythic force than they do existence as real people.

It is as if Arnold is a variation on the incubus, the male demon supposed to visit sleeping women and have sex with them, but a modern-day incarnation of this figure, in tight jeans and sunglasses. Alternatively, we might even regard Arnold Friend as a devil in disguise: Friend is only one letter away from Fiend.

All of this is not to suggest that ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ is literally a tale of the supernatural. It is a realist story with dialogue and characterisation which reinforce the authenticity of the characters, who operate in a world familiar to us as our own.

But the symbolism of Arnold Friend is nevertheless of a mythic kind: he seems to represent all young men who are viewed by teenage girls as their induction into the world of adult relationships, including the realities of sexual intercourse and the dangers that can pose (not least to teenage girls in the 1960s).

Connie’s age is also significant: at fifteen she is legally still very much a child, although her body is obviously changing and maturing, her hormones giving her mixed signals about what she wants. Early in the story, Oates’ narrator implies that Connie is more in love with the idea of having a boyfriend than anything else: all the boys she has met, we are told, ‘dissolved’ into a single face that was more an idea than a real person.

And in this regard, Connie’s encounter with Eddie the evening before the arrival of Arnold and Ellie (whose name even echoes Eddie’s) acts as a symbolic foreshadowing of the events that follow on the Sunday: it is as if Connie is now ‘ready’ to be tempted by the strange devilish figure who arrives on her parents’ front drive, and here the fact that both Eddie and Arnold arrive in cars, a symbol of adulthood and independence, is of significance.

In the last analysis, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ is a powerful – one might almost say archetypal – exploration of the confusion, uncertainty, and hesitation that attend on adolescence, as young people, and especially young girls in this regard, negotiate the difficult path from girlhood to womanhood.

We might call this ‘rite of passage’ or ‘coming of age’, but Oates’ story, given the dark true events that inspired it, is unsettling because it implies that coercion and threats are not only usual but perhaps even necessary, at least in a patriarchal society, to wrest indecisive young girls over that threshold.

Discover more from Interesting Literature

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading