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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, 1970

by Joyce Carol Oates, 1970

Known as a fascinating and prolific short story writer, Joyce Carol Oates has became one of the most productive of America's contemporary fiction writers, with more than 50 books published since her first novel in 1963. She won the National Book Award in 1969 for Them, a novel of inner-city Detroit, and she has won many other prizes, including a number of O. Henry citations. A Guggenheim fellow, she is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and other prestigious organizations. It is for her hundreds of moving and technically innovative short stories, however, that her audience is widest.

Nominated frequently for the Nobel Prize in literature, Oates has continued the work of Sinclair Lewis, who mapped life in America throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Unusually prescient about national culture, Oates writes a socioeconomic history of the times. She also cares about gender differences, but because her portrayals of women are often bleak, her fiction has seldom been championed by feminists. Little promise exists for Oates's lower-and middle-class women characters, trapped as they are by lack of money and education or by sexual misuse.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is representative of Oates's realistic and mythic approach to narrative. Underlying her realistic portrayal of the 15-year-old Connie, who yearns to be beautiful and sexual, is the paradigm of traditional heterosexual romance. Cinderella-like, Connie separates herself from her family and waits for a prince—any prince—to rescue her from mundane small-town life. She has prepared for the role by learning to use makeup, by going to the mall and hanging out where older boys congregate, and by playing a game of flirtation that suggests she is more sexually aware than she is.

Connie, whose name places her in the 1960s, as does Oates's dedication of the story—"For Bob Dylan"—has accepted the entire package of young women's roles. Unlike her plain and dull sister, she is the pretty one, the one most like her mother. She has the promise of catching a good man. Instead, in Oates's parable of the sex-conscious times, Connie finds herself facing the frightening consequences of her behavior.

Oates's brilliance in the story is to have the reader see events through Connie's eyes. The man who comes for her, calling himself Arnold Friend and pretending to be her age—though even she can see that he is years older and is weird—has the enigmatic, shadowy quality of a young girl's love object. She overlooks his misshapen feet (cloven hooves?) that are crammed awkwardly into boots, and she paints him as she wants him to be, even denying that the slogans on his car are out-of-date. She tries to believe his representation of himself. In short, Connie wants the romance.

If it were not that Connie's perspective is so convincing, the reader might be angry with her for her obtuse and dangerous behavior. All she has to do is to lock the door and phone the police. Instead, she cringes toward the maniac waiting for her outside the house, and she drives away with him and his macabre friend to a fate Oates does more than suggest. Yet Oates traps the reader within the tapestry of Connie's fear, which is sexualized since the men in the story are responding to the behavior she has so consciously learned and practiced.

Oates's dramatic irony leaves the reader in complete sympathy with Connie, who is the victim not so much of Arnold Friend as of her culture and its expectations for young women. The inevitable climax of the tale is that Connie will voluntarily open the door to Arnold, and one reads the whole story as a metaphor for the fact that Connie will also, just as voluntarily, open her body to him. In the culture that privileges male sexual power over honesty and love and a woman's virginity over most of her other qualities, Connie will have lost whatever value she has developed, but she will finally know what sexuality is.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is a line from a Dylan song that juxtaposes two legends: that of the modern rock hero, as the dedication suggests, and the tale of the ancient demon lover. Tantalized by his difference, Connie is unable to resist the wrong that Arnold Friend represents, for her whole struggle for autonomy has been against the middle-class values of her family. The sexual is only one part of her defiance. What Oates manages to show is not that innocence is a danger, for if Connie had been completely innocent, Arnold Friend would have held no attraction at all for her. Her Achilles' heel, her weakness in social interaction, is her naïveté. She believes everything her culture has taught her about herself as a young woman, as a sexual object, and as a person questing for adventure. She defines "adventure" only in sexual terms. Therefore, her acquiescence before the predatorrapist is predictable. Oates reverses the traditional formula for a happy ending for a Cinderella plot: girl charms older boy, who comes to "rescue" her from her conservative and protective family.

The violence that both Arnold Friend and Connie anticipate and that Friend threatens her with—violence to both herself and her family as well as to a neighbor—again represents Oates's clear prescience about her culture. What act is repeated again and again in the media world of today except violence? If violent behavior is not a valid currency for social interaction, why does culture credit it with value? Part of Connie's poignant naïveté is that she accepts all of the assumptions Arnold Friend uses, and when he threatens her with violence to her family, she feels that she must go with him. She never questions how he expects to harm her father or other family members, for she is gullible about this as about everything he tells her. The travesty of power the story builds makes it more than a sexual parable.

Oates's story was first published in 1967 and collected in The Wheel of Love in 1970. It has been reprinted many times and was filmed, as Smooth Talk, in 1986.

—Linda Wagner-Martin

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