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Literary Analysis of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”

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    Katie McElreath, in a blog post, entitled, Dear Teenager: Why These Years Are the Most Important Years of Your Life, states, “. . . the teenage years are the most important years [of one’s life] because they are the preparation years for everything that follows.” It is a time where parents help lead their growing children in the right direction for success, but if mistakes happen along the way, irreversible consequences may follow. In the short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, Joyce Carol Oates’ use of the theme of family demonstrates the importance of a stable, supportive, and loving family in a young adult’s life as they transition from childhood to adulthood and she makes her message come to life by possibly taking inspiration from a once nationally-known serial killer.

    From the beginning, Oates introduced readers to a fifteen-year-old girl named Connie. Connie has an older sister named June and lives at home with her mother and father. One would expect her, like most ordinary teens, to have a loving, supportive, and stable family. For the most part, however, this is not the case and Connie resists her family. To her parents, June is the model child that any parent wishes their children would be. June, although she is nine years older than Connie at twenty-four and still lives at home, has a job, takes care of the many chores and responsibilities of the house, and behaves appropriately. Connie however, is the opposite. Instead, “Connie can’t do a thing. Her mind was . . . [always] filled with trashy daydreams” (Oates 2204). To make matters worse, her mother always pesters her for not being like her sister. As a result, Connie wishes that her and her mother were dead. Furthermore, to her friends, she complains, ‘“She [Connie’s mother] makes me want to throw up sometimes”’ (Oates 2204). One would think that only her mother was not very nice and supportive of her; her father is not either, but in a different way. Instead of being nit-picky, the father does not actively participate in Connie and June’s life. He “was away at work most of the time and when he came home he wanted supper and he read the newspaper at supper and after supper he went to bed. He didn’t bother talking much to them [Connie and her family] . . .” (Oates 2204).

    Due to Connie not having a decent home life, she seems to spend most of her time out of the house during the summers since she is not at school. Connie’s mother and father only minimally care about who she hangs out with or where she does and seems to have never taught her of any dangers. Consequently, Connie preoccupies herself with people and in places that are not of good influence on her. Her and her friends tend to go to a rough drive-in restaurant to interact with some older boys. These older boys may flirt and mess with her because she is quite pretty. In his article known as ‘“Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’: The Identity of Ellie Oscar, Reconsidered.”’, author Anthony Ellis, speaking of one of Connie’s guy friends, Eddie, explained:

    Oates makes it clear that Connie never sees Eddie very clearly – and never cares to. Connie’s joy that night [A night Connie was having dinner with Eddie at a restaurant], we learn, ‘had nothing to do with Eddie’ (120), to the extent that he remains featureless to her: ‘all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face, but an idea, a feeling’ (121). In short, Eddie/Ellie’s ruse works because Connie cares less about the boy she is with than the fact that she is with some boy, almost any boy, far away from her humdrum and restrictive family. (57)

    As Ellis pointed out, Connie, using no caution, did not care of what boy she hung out with, as long as she was with a boy and far away from the family she despises. It was as if Connie thought that her parents may be pleased that she is spending so much time with these boys to show that she can handle it, is maturing, and looking for a potential boyfriend in them, but is not ready for it because she is too young and does not quite understand her feelings. On the contrary, Connie might just be exercising her “bad girl” side and fulfilling her constant daydreams. After Eddie asked Connie to come have dinner with him, she followed him through the parking lot outside of the bottle-shaped restaurant. In the process, she stopped to admire a handsome-looking man. The man stared strangely at her and before she departed, he said, “Gonna get you, baby . . .” (Oates 2205). Little did she know, Connie had met a creepy and manipulative man whom one could expect to find at the type of drive-in restaurant where she and her friends often snuck out to visit. Before long, Connie found out that this man, Arnold Friend, meant what he said. In the end, he showed up at her house unexpectedly along with his friend Ellie, mentally raped and manipulated her, and presumably took her somewhere to murder her.

    According to Tom Quirk in his article, ‘“A Source for ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’”, the character of Arnold Friend “was derived from the exploits, widely publicized by the Time, Life, and Newsweek magazine during the winter of 1965-66, of a real killer from Tucson, Arizona” (414). The real serial killer Quirk discussed was Charles Schmid, where he, along with mentioning other points, compared Schmid’s physical characteristics, odd habits, and possessions to that of Arnold Friend, along with people involved with Schmid’s heinous crimes to those in Oates’ short story. Quirk noted that Oates most likely based her short story on Schmid’s life, but changed some details to make her story unique. Quirk never mentioned why Oates may have grounded her short story off the life and people involved with Charles Schmid, but she most likely had various reasons. Perhaps Schmid provided Oates with a real-life example of a predator who preyed on young people if they did not watch their backs and she decided that his life story could feed her short story by allowing her to write the events with high accuracy and make it come to life, which in turn makes the truth of her story and message even more frightening to her readers.

    All in all, if Connie had a normal home life with a supportive and caring family, she would have not felt the need to avoid her family to the extent that she did, hang out with older guys for certain reasons, and make unsmart choices. Furthermore, if Connie’s circumstances were different, she would have never ended up at the rough drive-in restaurant that one night in the first place where she met Arnold Friend and where her life ultimately changed forever. Oates’ theme of family shows how a young woman (or any young adult) should have a stable, supportive, and loving family to help lead them through the tough teenage years, argumentatively the most important years of one’s life because they lay the groundwork for years to come and during this time, parents guide a young adult to proper directions and set them on the path to success. Connie’s outcome demonstrates what can happen to a young adult if parents do not guide their children correctly and they become negatively influenced by friends and get into places where people may take advantage of their innocence, youth, and ignorance. Oates’ message and story, while disturbing and eye-opening, and likely inspired by a real-life serial killer, is widely needed in the world today.

    Works Cited

    1. McElreath, Katie. “Dear Teenager: Why These Years Are the Most Important Years of Your Life!” The Ministry Mom, 31 Mar. 2016,
    2. Ellis, Anthony. “Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’: The Identity of Ellie Oscar, Reconsidered.” Short Story, vol. 10, no. 2, 2002, pp. 55-61.
    3. Oates, Joyce Carol. ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Norton, 1996, pp. 2203-2214.
    4. Quirk, Tom. “A Source for ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 18, no. 4, Fall81, p. 413, EBSCOhost, url= =ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 18 September 2018.

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