Joyce Carol Oates, “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where are You Going, Where Have you Been.” 40 Short Stories:

      A Portable Anthology, Third Edition. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Summary of Work
Connie is a young high school girl who is obsessed with her looks and with going out with friends and boys. It is summer vacation, so she has to spend a lot of time at home and with her mother, who she dislikes because she is always harping on her to care less about her looks and more about being responsible and preparing for the future like her sister June. Her sister is not as pretty as she is and is a bit overweight, 24, and lives at home while she works as a secretary at the high school Connie attends. She feels like her mother actually does secretly like her better than June, but just can’t say so and that’s why they are always arguing and getting on each others’ nerves.

One thing that Connie’s mother does let her do is go out to the mall with friends because June also does that. One evening, when her father drops her and her friend off at the mall to go see a movie, they go over to a dirty restaurant instead and she meets a boy, Eddie. She enjoys his company and tells her friend to leave her and meet her at eleven so they can get picked up together to go home. When the boy is walking her back to the movie theater, she sees a boy in a black convertible with gold detailing, and he looks at her and smiles; she is slightly unnerved and looks away, but gives a glance back and he smiles at her and tells her he’ll come to get her, that she’ll be his. However, the boy doesn’t go after her and she quickly forgets him as she meets her friend and asks about the movie so she can lie to her parents and sister about it.

The next day is Sunday, and she gets up in the late morning and washes her hair. When her family gets ready to go to a barbecue and asks her if she wants to come along, she declines, and it angers her mother, but her mother allows her to remain home. Connie watches them leave in the car together, the mother still angry and June far too dressed up to be going to a barbecue, and then she lays in a lawn chair to let her hair dry outside. It gets too hot, however, so she goes inside and starts listening to a radio show. Then a car drives up. It is the same convertible she saw the night before, with the same boy in it, and he is with another boy. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend, and the other boy as Ellie. She goes down the stairs and he tells her he’s come to take her for a ride. He knows her name and everything about her and where her family is. Afraid, she backs into the kitchen and locks the screen door, which he says is silly because he can just break in, but he won’t. The longer she looks at the boy, she realizes that he is much older than he looks; he is wearing a wig, and his shoes have things stuffed in them to make him look taller than he is. His friend also is a lot older than he initially looked.

She threatens to call the police, and he says that he will come in the house if she does that. Ellie offers to cut the phone lines, and Arnold tells him to shut up and not do anything, that Connie is going to come willingly. He threatens to hurt her family if she doesn’t come out and be with him, be his girl. He tells her, in much more flattering words that he is going to rape her. Panicked and not knowing what to do, she reaches for the phone and picks it up and has a fit of hysteria. She doesn’t call anyone, and Arnold convinces her to put the phone back on the receiver, to forget her previous life, and come with him. She walks out the door, and he drives her away to the countryside in his car.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is a suspense/thriller, even though it does not seem that way upon its beginning. Family relations dominate a large portion of the theme, with the young teenage girl regularly sassing her mother and causing trouble as she comes of age, the older sister who seems always better than her somehow, and the nagging mother and aloof father–the average American family life in the suburbs. The cunning nature of kidnapping and criminality are a theme/narrative that runs in the scene with Arnold Friend, who has elaborately disguised himself to get what he wants, and who seemingly knows everything about Connie, her family, friends, and all their routines. It could also be seen as a warped Bildungsroman story, where Connie, a child in many ways, is forced into a bleak reality as she feels she has to choose between her own defilement and saving her family. Her fantasies about herself and her life are wrenched from her as she comes face to face with the illusion that Arnold Friend has created around himself. Forever she wanted independence, and that was further ripped from her as her choice before her would likely lead to the same end no matter what she chose.

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