Character Development in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” Essay
Character Development in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”
Both Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” explore the characters of young women coming of age. In Oates’ story, Connie is a vain girl only interested in her own physical looks, and the story ends with her in a vague though clearly dangerous situation with an unknown men. Indeed, the interests of Connie coincide perfectly with her ending: just as the reader knows nothing about the character of Connie, there is no information about her assailants or the ultimate results of her encounter with them. In Tan’s story, though, the unnamed narrator struggles with her own development as a person, constantly fighting to not let her mother turn her into something that she’s not and attempting to establish herself as the person she truly is. This complexity allows the reader to read the story as a complicated journey of personal development, and all of the background information that the reader gets about this narrator further creates a fully-shaped person in the reader’s mind. In both stories, the complexity of the character is essential to the story’s message: Connie’s initial flatness demonstrates both her vanity and the broader statement the story makes about superficiality in general, which is somewhat subverted by the highly dramatic and selfless end which Connie faces, while the “Two Kinds” narrator’s complex struggles illustrate the difficulties of fulfilling the conflicting wishes of her mother and maintaining her own identity.
Oates’ Connie is an initially flat character: throughout the story, she is critiqued by her mother as being simple and vain, and she consistently obsesses about her image. When Arnold Friend’s car pulls up, which is the beginning of her troubles, “Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, ‘Christ. Christ,’ wondering how bad she looked” (p. 3), further indicating her immediate vain reactions to situations. Indeed, Oates doesn’t provide any other information about Connie: there is little background information about her, and the only background included is arguments with her mother regarding her vanity. This makes even more sense in the context of the story’s ending – the men who come to her house are completely anonymous, and the reader never discovers Connie’s ultimate end. Arnold Friend does expand on Connie’s flat character, though: he tells her to “Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” (p. 13). Here, her flatness is essential to the story because her simple vanity is exactly what got her into the situation that she is in with Arnold Friend: he is at her house because of her flat characteristics, and she plays into the vaguely dangerous situation because of her vain concerns. Further, she changes her flatness at the end of the story when she is selfless for the sake of her family and genuinely upset. If Connie were more rounded, this situation never would have occurred and the commentary the men give on her simplicity wouldn’t exist either.
The narrator of Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” is much more complicated that Connie. The story traces her mother’s journey from China to the United States of America and provides intensely personal information about the deaths of her children and her struggle for the “American Dream.” Indeed, this is exactly where the narrator comes in: she is a part of her mother’s quest for a better life, and therefore her mother attempts to make her into a child prodigy. The entire time this is going on, though, the narrator resists: she states, “I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not” (p. 2). The fact that she will not allow her mother to severely alter her also shows that she has a significant enough personality that there is in fact something to change. Her resistance to her mother’s wishes demonstrates just how complex a character she is – she asks her mother “Why don’t you like me the way I am?” (p. 2) and states that she “was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different” (p. 3), thereby showing intense pride in who she is. Because she does have an established identity, the story’s ending is complicated and heart-wrenching. When she states, “I was aware of eyes burning into my back. I felt the shame of my mother and father as they sat stiffly through the rest of the show” (p. 4), her pain at the talent show is significant to the reader, and her ongoing struggles with her mother’s approval are the most pervasive theme of the story. This theme would be entirely irrelevant if the narrator wasn’t a complicated and rounded character, and the root of the story is based in the narrator’s depth. Connie’s struggle with her mother is one-note and insignificant in light of the struggle she faces at the end of her narrative because of her flatness while Tan’s narrator describes an insightful and psychological struggle with identity development and her personal relationship with her mother.
The degree of depth of a story’s characters effectively determines the themes and plot of the narrative. This is exceedingly apparent in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “Two Kinds” – indeed, the flatness and roundness of the characters also determine the degree of depth in the story. In Oates’ narrative, the superficiality of the main character Connie is also reflected in the lack of information present throughout the narrative and the vagueness with which the story ends. Connie ends exactly where she should: the two relatively unknown men whisk her off to an unknown fate, thereby completing a story that doesn’t delve deeply into any issue. The narrator of “Two Kinds,” however, is much deeper – her discussion of her mother’s background and the internal struggles she faces in realizing her mother’s “American Dream” complete a complicated narrative of her own thoughts regarding her own identity development. Because the narrator is complicated, the story is able to explore identity more deeply than Oates’ broad statement about superficiality.
Oates, J. C. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Retrieved from
Tan, A. “Two Kinds.” Retrieved from http://www.angelfire.com/ma/MyGuardianangels