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

An examination of the trappings of choice.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates is an allegory for moral choice in modern times. The main protagonist, Connie, faces the end conclusion of her shallow ways when she is approached by evil in human form. Written at a time of change in American culture and dedicated to one of America’s biggest cultural catalysts, Oates makes this piece an examination of the struggle between traditional values and modern superficial pursuits.

Connie is clearly a girl of two minds. The first is the standard life of a bored teen in what appears to be the traditional post 1950’s home; the second is as a teenager on the cusp of attachment to music, cars and sex. Connie must be one person at home while another when she is out. Connie wore clothes that “looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home” (153).

Home life seems empty to Connie and she ventures out in search of fun. Oates uses this starting point as a table to bring forward a picture of America culture at a time when America has found emptiness in the slow simple life of the nuclear family and is being tempted by the trappings of modern decadence. The moral implications of this struggle are highlighted by Oates frequent introduction of religious undertones in this story.

Connie’s first adventure into the world brings here to a burger place that she sees as a “sacred building” (154) with music in the background “like music at a church service” (154) and rich with all the worldly trappings that she has dreamed of. Connie sinks deeply into the “immorality” of this scene and it is here that she has her first brush with evil, Arnold Friend. Connie doesn’t see Friend again until one fateful Sunday in the future.

Connie sleeps in as the family doesn’t “bother[ed] with church” (155) and decides to stay home from a picnic the rest of them attend leaving Connie at home alone. Connie’s sleepy day of lying out in the sun and listening to music is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Arnold Friend.

At first, Connie’s curiosity brings here to question Friend about his intentions, however, she soon finds that Arnold Friend is no friend of hers. Oates’s uses Arnold Friend as a representation of the Devil, who seems to have come to claim a soul that belongs to him.

Many of the physical descriptions of Friend are highly indicative of evil such as his eyes of black glass, his strong neck muscles, and the way he slides out of the car, all of which seem to point towards a sort of reptilian appearance. Friend also provides a very cryptic code which seems to be both a tribute to the religious nature of the story as well as a warning to Connie. Friend tells Connie a series of numbers that he claims are “a secret code” (156).

This code of numbers, 33 19 17, is the most illustrative example of Oates’s use of religion in this story. As Mark Robson points out in “Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?””, this sequence of numbers has biblical significance. Robson points out that counting backwards from the end of the bible yields Judges as the 33rd book, wherein chapter 19 verse 17 reflects the title of the short story itself (Robson 230).

The passage reads “And when he had lifted up his eyes, he saw a wayfaring man in the street of the city: and the old man said, Whither goest thou? and whence comest thou?”(Jud 19.17). Furthermore, Robson indicates that if numerical values are assigned to each letter, the book of Genesis is the only book whose letters total 33(Robson 230) which, if combined with the same chapter and verse(19:17) contains a warning from God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for over-indulgence.

To point out further intriguing occurrences, using the same numerical valuation system above, Robson indicates that “’Connie’ ads up to 33, while “loves” is 19, and “God” is 17” (Robson 230). Additionally, averaging the values created by applying this system to the words “Arnold” and “friend” yields the number 33. This eerie code sets the stage for what Arnold has in mind.

Immediately, Arnold begins his quest to lure Connie into going for “a ride”. The more Connie talks with him, the more she starts to realize that Arnold is not just some fun loving teenager but something far more dangerous. She begins to see the way that Arnold talks in a “singsong” (158) manner, that his hair may be a wig, and that he may be wearing makeup to appear young.

None of these observations ring home until Connie realizes that Arnold is not 18 years old but, much like his companion, an older man with depraved intentions. Connie is rocked by “a wave of dizziness”(159) and the façade of Arnolds youth begins to crumble away as Connie begins to see features of Arnold that are clearly meant to create the impression of youth.

Although she can sense the danger, she seems frozen in the conversational headlights of Arnold Friend. His nature becomes more threatening and his power over Connie takes hold. Connie is so dazed that she doesn’t notice when Arnold seems to display the ability to see across town to the very picnic her parents are attending.

Despite Connie’s further attempts to gain control of her own consciousness, she eventually is drawn into Arnolds trap. Arnold convinces her that, not only is her life at home pointless, but that he would harm her family if they where to return and find him there. Connie eventually gives herself to Arnold even though she seems to know that it will spell death for her.

Connie’s journey down the path of worldliness eventually leads her to a place that she clearly did not intend. It is unclear if all of the religious indications in this story are intentional but it is clear that Oates makes great use of religious and demonic undertones to make the point that although our idea of comfortable tradition may be gone, the superficial future that we are heading for may not lead us in the right direction.

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22 Comments
  1. bethany
    Posted May 31, 2008 at 9:39 am

    i thought this story was kinda confusing when you think about symbolism
    can you please help me im doing a skit for this in english 2
    email me at
    HAPPY_HIPPIE73@hellokitty.com

  2. jargonghtor
    Posted November 5, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    This could possibly be the worst analysis I’ve ever read.

  3. Avantgardener
    Posted November 10, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Yeah, this is sloppy. The significance of the code is interesting, though.

  4. MM
    Posted January 12, 2009 at 12:08 am

    I don’t think it’s at all accurate to say that the choice Connie faces is between “traditional values and modern superficial pursuits” or that she lives in a “traditional post 1950’s home.” Her father hunches over the newspaper, doesn’t talk to the rest of the family, and is only briefly seen each night; her sister is 24 and still lives at home (not a success, in other words); and her mother does nothing but rag on Connie and backstab her sisters over the phone. That doesn’t spell out “ideal nuclear family” to me.

  5. MS
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Fascinating theory, but i have to agree with MM about the family part.

  6. MW
    Posted March 11, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    This is a bunch of crap

  7. love
    Posted April 7, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    this helped me with my essay

  8. me
    Posted April 27, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Glad you all liked it :) Aside from everyone who’s name starts with M of course.

  9. bb
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    This helped in me in my AP lit class.

  10. CaNaAn
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 12:54 am

    Its an ok review, but thats expected because it would be very hard to get into depth. I personally think Arnold is Satan himself, his powers are consistant with a demons but he has control over his friend waiting in the car showing his higher status. I also think when it says he fits in his shoes awkwardly that he might have rams hooves (symbolic of old pictures of the devil and demons). Also to say that Arnold is a murder can’t be true because of his uncanny super powers. This includes his influence over the phone, second sight of the picnic, and when he draws the x in the air that seems to hang there. He also maybe could be a vampire. All the makeup to block the sun, he would be very old, and smooth. He would also need permission to enter, along with having uncanny powers. Very hard story to go into detail about without writting a book.

  11. =)
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I actually thought the end of the story was a little confusing and completely off with the realistic tone that the story was portraying from the beginning. To be completely honest, i started to wonder if Arnold had actually used some sort of substance or drug to make Connie obey to all of his requests.
    I know it\’s stupid but that\’s how lost i was haha
    Then i realized that Connie\’s last attitude was a very dull representation of the human tendency to fall into \”temptation\”. (This i found a little ridiculous)
    I am personally not a very religious person and to describe human reality (or adolescence at least) in terms of \”evil\” and \”falling into temptation\” seems boring and superficial.
    Another aspect i found annoying was the pointless and exagerated description of every single detail in almost all of the scenes… i mean this is ok if the description is going to actually help develop an important element of the story, but to over use it is to risk the story from falling into cliches. (with it did, at certain times)
    The characters also could have been more developed, and in my opinion the dialogue between Connie and Arnold was too repetitive.

    but what do i know..

  12. =)
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I actually thought the end of the story was a little confusing and completely off with the realistic tone that the story was portraying from the beginning. To be completely honest, i started to wonder if Arnold had actually used some sort of substance or drug to make Connie obey to all of his requests.
    I know it\\\’s stupid but that\\\’s how lost i was haha
    Then i realized that Connie\\\’s last attitude was a very dull representation of the human tendency to fall into \\\”temptation\\\”. (This i found a little ridiculous)
    I am personally not a very religious person and to describe human reality (or adolescence at least) in terms of \\\”evil\\\” and \\\”falling into temptation\\\” seems boring and superficial.
    Another aspect i found annoying was the pointless and exagerated description of every single detail in almost all of the scenes… i mean this is ok if the description is going to actually help develop an important element of the story, but to over use it is to risk the story from falling into cliches. (with it did, at certain times)
    The characters also could have been more developed, and in my opinion the dialogue between Connie and Arnold was too repetitive.

    but what do i know..

  13. Autumn
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    If you take out all the R\’s in Arnold Friend, you are left with \”An old Fiend\”. This might also place the character under a gloomy,
    \”evil\” trance.

  14. You're kidding, right?
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 11:25 am

    What a pathetic waste of time.

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  16. Kanisa Regan
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    I am reading this story for my english class. I have only one question. Where’s the ending. I am confused.

  17. Patrick
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    This is a very gripping story, very well written by Oates. If you search well enough and can think deep there are many Arnolds out there today. It may surprise you to think how suttle these kinds of people are. I am a father of two boys and after reading this was compeled to inform the young people of these preditors. Connie was missing a valuable ingredient at home, love and nurturing. The ending was great and left you in awe, wanting to reach out to Connie.

    Best Regards Patrick

  18. kia
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    hey i am writing a paper on this story could somebody help me out on how she moved from the world of innocence to experience. i understand the story and all that good stuff. i just can\’t find a way to word it. THANKS.

    please email me any ideas at kiabopthajoint09@yahoo.com

  19. Kendall
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you for this. I am writing a research paper for my Advanced Literature class, and this is very helpful to me. In my paper, I am trying to show the importance of family in Connie’s life. In my opinion, her family is partially to blame for her fate. It has been a bit of a challenge because clearly Connie is not a saint, to say the least, and has brought the consequences on herself. However, if her family was a bit more involved in her life, didn’t just accept her behavior, and actually asked her the questions in the title, “Where are you going?” and “Where have you been?”, Connie’s future might look a little brighter. I do have a question, though. About the “code” that you talked about, how did he come up with that? I counted out the letters of the alphabet and added the numbers up for each letter of the word, but it didn’t work. That was all I could think of. I would also like to say, except for a few grammatical errors, I thought this was a very well written paper. I’m sorry about the rude comments. I find it funny that as they criticize your work, they can’t manage to capitalize sentences, use punctuation, or spell correctly. Just a thought. Thanks again! :)

  20. kim
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    the story is kinda messed p

  21. Posted April 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    the story is kinda messed up

  22. Posted April 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    the story is kinda messed up

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