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.