Joyce Carol Oates’ takes you inside the harsh realities of what it means to be a girl transitioning into adulthood. At this impressional age, you think you know everything: about boys, so, therefore, you know men, about your life, so, therefore, you know everyone’s life. But there’s this distinct moment that every girl faces; perhaps every living person faces when they realize they are no longer children. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been explores Connie’s journey and introduction into the adult world.
Trigger Warning: The mention of the triggering acts of rape/sexual assault/domestic violence may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.
Oates gives us a mirror to hold and display the harsh realities of what predators look like amongst their prey. They look like you or me, but if you look a little closer at first glance, looks can be deceiving.
Let’s discuss what girlhood is all about in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been Synopsis
If you haven’t read the short story, stop everything, and read it now. It’s possibly one of my favorite pieces of literature.
Connie is an ordinary fifteen-year-old girl who just wants to have fun in the sun. She lives with her overly critical mother, emotionally-absent father, and prudish older sister. When the three go to a family barbecue, Connie gets a visit from a stranger, a “teenager” named Arnold Friend, and his companion, Ellie. Arnold wants Connie to take a drive with him, and as the conversation progresses, it’s heavily implied that Arnold isn’t from around there, nor is he a teenager—rather an adult trying to appear younger than he is.
He resorts to verbally sexually explicit words, eventually persuading Connie to leave her house and run away with him when he threatens to murder her entire family.
Joyce Carol Oates’ Inspiration
Is it really a shock that Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, was inspired by something sinister? On May 31, 1964, Charles Schmid murdered and raped a teenage girl. It was believed he chose Alleen Rowe specifically because she refused to partake sexually with him. Schmid asked his girlfriend, Mary French, to persuade her to come out to the desert with him and his acquaintance John Saunders. Once there, Schmid raped and eventually murdered her, all while French listened to the radio. He and the two bystanders buried Rowe that night.
Schmid later went on to murder the Fritz sisters. He dated teenager Gretchen Fitz, who one can say matched his psychotic energy. When Schmid revealed to her what he had done to Rowe, she used that as leverage to not break up with her. That didn’t last too long, as Schmid eventually strangled Gretchen and her sister Wendy who was thirteen years old.
Although the plot aligns with Allen Rowe’s murder in many ways, Bob Dylan’s song also inspired Oates; “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” is a haunting melody about loss.
“The vagabond who’s rapping at your door / Is standing in the clothes that you once wore / Strike another match, go start anew / And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
It’s also worth mentioning that Bob Dylan’s visual and personality traits reflect the antagonist Arnold Friend; of course, the latter displays the darkness of a sexual predator.
Upon first reading Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, I was sickened and struck by how progressively grotesque the story unfolded. From the start of the narrative, the reader has no idea what to expect.
At the age of 15, Connie is right on the cusp of adolescence toward adulthood, where looks, appearance, and impressions matter. Oates wanted to display not only the fun parts of growing up, lying to your parents, staying out late, or kissing a boy you shouldn’t, but also the violent and sexually explicit nature of being a young girl in a sea of men who choose to take advantage of you during this transitional period.
What should be important to note is Connie didn’t have a choice—nor was she asking for this attention. At first, she is intrigued by Arnold Friend’s presence, but she never indicates this is usual, and therefore enacts the lack of choice from a woman, even when Arnold feigns as if she does.
Life Imitates Art
Most, if not all, predators hide in plain sight. Arnold Friend—hence his last name chooses a facade of being younger than he is to lure innocent unsuspecting girls.
Life imitates art in many ways through this tale of sexual exploitation. In the real world, you see age gaps and barely legal relationships among celebrities. The most popular one is Elvis and Priscilla Presley. The two met when Priscilla was only fourteen, although they didn’t marry until she was twenty-one. A similar couple faced the same issue. Prince became his soon-to-be wife Mayte Garcia’s legal guardian when she was seventeen. But like Elvis, Prince waited until she was of legal age. In recent years, Leonardo Dicaprio has been on the hot seat when dating younger women. It’s alleged that he doesn’t date anyone under twenty-five.
The most consistent phrase heard from an older man preying on a young girl is, “They are mature for their age.” To get close to these girls, the men must placate the facade that they are young at heart. Once these girls are perceived as older, and the men are shown to “have” a young soul, it’s morbidly accepted.
Grooming is a real issue and still happens in every sense of the word. To conjure this method of manipulation stems from the act of deception. And instead of a modern tale of a grown man finding a young girl over the internet, you can visually see it through the eyes of Connie. Arnold Friend uses every method in the book of predatory behavior. Not only does he try to wear makeup to make himself look younger or dress a certain way, but Arnold goes out of his way to figure out the new lingo that teens use to assimilate to their culture.
Connie is merely separated by a thin mesh door, symbolizing how easy it is for Arnold to capture her and take what he believes is his.
She rushed forward and tried to lock the door. Her fingers were shaking. “But why lock it,” Arnold Friend said gently, talking right into her face. “It’s just a screen door. It’s just nothing.” One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle. “I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all, and specially Arnold Friend.”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been
Many readers have questioned why Connie didn’t try harder to get away from the situation. What they fail to understand is the incapability of recognizing danger until it’s too late and how easy it is to manipulate a girl in that vulnerable state of mind.
Arnold looked like any other boy she’d come across, and that’s because of his mimics and the facade of blending into the normality of Connie’s world. It is not until Arnold begins to speak and unveil his nature his true intentions are apparent.
Arnold Friend completely embodies Bob Dylan wholeheartedly, and at the height of his career, he was considered an otherworldly figure. And for that reason, Arnold placates this ability. This is why he knows everything—or appears to within the crowd of youngsters. Does this character exist?
Oates takes several liberties, not fully disclosing what certain symbols mean. Like Arnold’s car, freshly painted in a gold color. It’s, of course, not real gold, but it doesn’t need to be to trick a child.
33, 19, 17
Another symbol worth mentioning is the numbers 33, 19, and 17 painted on Arnold Friend’s car. There have been many theories of what these numbers could mean. In a biblical sense, if you count backward in the Old Testament to the 33rd book, you will find yourself in the book of Judges. Going to chapter 19, line 17, depending on what translation you have, the reading goes as follows:
And when he raised his eyes, he saw the traveler in the open square of the city; and the old man said, ‘Where are you going, and where do you come from?’
Coincidence? Maybe, or maybe not. Oates is clever like that—or deviant, depending on how you see it.
If you count these three numbers together, there could be another meaning.
The last idea: 33 is Arnold’s actual age, and 19 and 17 are the ages of his previous two victims. Connie is 15, so if that’s the case, Arnold could be skipping by two. The reader doesn’t need to know the true intentions of these numbers, but I think that’s what makes it terrifying.
The Reality of Girlhood
All teens, at one point or another, face this dilemma of growing up too quickly while still maintaining innocence. That’s why it’s so jarring to see Arnold talking to Connie in such a perverted and predatorial way.
This short story was published during women’s sexual liberation—which contradicts this concept, considering the lack of consent. She has control at the story’s beginning when she’s with Eddie.
But that doesn’t last long, now does it?
Transiting from girlhood to womanhood is a jarring journey. One look of sweet handholds can transcend into a world of trouble, especially in the hands of predators that lurk for pieces of you.
It’s the first drop of blood, the first untouched face, hand, or anything that has daunted this label of maturing.
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