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Symbolism in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”

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    The time that changed America. The sixties were historical time and those alive at that time and beyond would have learned about it first hand and from the pages of history. Most headlines were grim, full of fear, dread, and sent the nation into a panic. A different type of music style was emerging at that time and though older folks thought it was too sexual and risky for the younger ones, they listened, danced and enjoyed it anyways. What a time to be alive and to be a part of an emerging culture. In understanding where men and women stood on different ends of the spectrum, the story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? By Joyce Carol Oates gives insight into the struggle.

    Symbolism is an important part of understanding literary stories and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Is full of symbolisms. Symbolism is an important part of understanding characters, moods, settings, plots, and answering the who, what, when, why and how questions. Connie is the main character in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? And throughout the story her struggles, decisions, happy times, inner conflicts, and why she is the way she is. Music, the title, numbers and the reference to Death and The Maiden are symbols present in the text. Music is like prayer for Connie, it is her saving grace. The title as a symbol highlights the struggle between mother and child and the decisions made thereafter. Numbers are sacred and can be tied back to religion, the past, represent the present and give an understanding of the future. Death and the Maiden which was supposed to be the original title, leaves a strange and frightening feeling behind.

    Connie is a teenager and she involved typical, normal teenage behavior. In thinking about the title Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? These are questions parents normally ask their teenage children especially girls. It is an important symbolism that helps in understanding where the rest of the story goes. Connie is the black sheep of the family and the dynamic of the mother child relationship is damaged. The way the mother addresses Connie and the things that comes out of her mouth regarding her shows anger on the mother’s part and shows that she sees herself in Connie. The father is there but he is not there he is only occupying space and cares little for his children and wife. He has clearly checked out on life and has left his wife and daughters to fend for themselves. The parent child dynamic between Connie and her mother and father has shifted her thinking and actions in a way that has opened her to scrutiny, criticism and a life on the edge with hidden dangers. She starts going any and everywhere with her friends, shopping, the movies, the drive-in restaurant they escape to after being dropped off by of the friend’s dad to hang around the older kids.

    As stated in the story (Oates 1996) “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home” being away from home is her escape to a place or place she no longer feels suffocated by those that claimed they loved her but show little regard for her existence. Her laugh, the way she dressed, and her walk was different when she was out, and it made her happy. Having no one to answer to is a lot of teenager’s dream, but is it always the best thing? No, it’s not but no one was saying anything to oppose her and she carried on. Whatever Connie said was believed without further questioning, inquiry and that is not how it is supposed to be, but actions has consequences and the consequences came in the most unexpected way. Connie is a rebellious teenager and her rebellion stems from being constantly beaten down, pushed to the side, not cared for to trying to find her own path. A path that can only lead to destruction because she was going where she wanted to go and not where she has been.

    Music is represented from the very beginning of the story. According to Caldwell (2018), “the ‘Jingling’ of the girl’s bracelets, to the music at the drive-in restaurant, that made everything so good”. And, it did make everything good Connie and her friends did enjoy the feelings they had getting to hang out with the older kids. The music made Connie feel empowered, though it fits into the background. It is their saving grace their answer to prayer especially Connie who gains a confidence whenever music is because of the internal struggles she is faced with. She needed the music to get through what she was about to indulge in. It was exhilarating for her and gave her the freedom she needed to release her inhibitions. As she was walking out the drive-in restaurant, she was looking at all the faces of those around her she noticed a boy a nice shaggy boy in a gold convertible jalopy, she looked at him and was mesmerized that she couldn’t help looking back at him. It’s as if he knew exactly where she was going to be at the exact moment and what she was going to do because he was ready for her even though she was not ready for him. The music and the loudness gave her a boost.

    Connie was at the restaurant with Eddie for a couple of hours and then down an ally way and came back in time to be picked up by her friend’s father. What was happening in the alley way? Was there music there? There had to be because if there was none, she would not have had the confidence she had to go to the alley way with Eddie. Connie found the time to day dream about the boys she had been with and it caused her to have conflicting feelings that she could not describe without referring to music. Connie was scared when the car pulled up in front of her house and from her responses it is clear she was uncomfortable. She did not appreciate Arnold Friend being there and wanted him gone. After she told him “Look I don’t even know who you are,” Arnold said to Connie “Hey, Ellies’s got a radio” and Connie then begin to hear the music, after that she was more at ease and seemed to enjoy Arnold Friend’s company. He knew exactly what to do to make her respond to him and he was getting exactly what he wanted out of her.

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    Symbolism in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”. (2021, Nov 23). Retrieved from

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