The characters in Oates' story are so brilliantly crafted that critics and scholars have had created enormous volume of literature about those characters. Some critics have suggested that Arnold is the devil and that Connie, the protagonist, is the devil's target. And this certainly can be justified by looking closely at the descriptive elements surrounding Oates' narrative descriptions. Thesis: Oates has crafted a story that embraces dramatically juxtaposed characters, not just to set the good against the bad, but to paint a bigger picture that allows the reader to identify with any number of compellingly familiar traits and motives in the characters. Those characters that Oates presents also mirror other characters in literature, like Cinderella and the devil.
Setting the Stage for "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"
Critic Brian Wilkie asserts that Joyce Carol Oates' fiction is so "various" in its tone and its subject it appears as though the author set out to craft the stories "that it is impossible to write" (Wilkie, 2006). The characters that Oates brings to life are "attractively trampy, sinister, or delinquent adolescents from underclass or well-to-do backgrounds," and in the case of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" The characters seem to match up to Wilkie's description (Wilkie, p. 1). Indeed, Connie, at fifteen and pretty, could fit that "attractively trampy" woman and Eddie certainly qualifies for the "sinister…delinquent adolescent"; and Wilkie notes that the great majority of Oates' short stories have a "terrible intensity" in which the "torrent of life" can overwhelm a reader, most often in a "frightening way" (Wilkie, p. 1).
Moreover, the "great mental power" that Oates exhibits in her narrative is illustrated through the "sheer explosiveness of her work" -- and in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" this explosiveness creeps up on the reader when Connie first meets Arnold. Connie "threw her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive," which is a way for a young woman to show off her breasts. And soon in that same paragraph, a cute boy in a gold-colored car stared at her, "his lips widened into a grin" and Connie couldn't resist looking back at him even after she "slit her eyes at him"; Arnold wags his finger in a scolding kind of motion (like a parent would warn a child), and said, in an obvious foreshadowing, "Gonna get you baby" (Oates, p. 1).
A bit later in the story Arnold is trying to coax Connie to get into his car, and wags his finger again. Her cheeks actually were "warmed" remembering how she had showed him her physical charms back that first day she met him by sucking in her breath. Getting warm physically by remembering how she caught his eye with her breasts is explosive writing, and Oates follows that up with a description of Arnold -- his eyes were "like chips of broken glass that catch the light in an amiable way" (Oats, p. 4). By showing the reader Arnold's eyes were like broken glass, and that he had on "tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks" and a "tight shirt" with a "sleepy dreamy smile" -- these are titillating descriptive facts that paint a picture that a 15-year-old pubescent girl responds to in a sensual way. It goes downhill from there in terms of Connie's safety; her immaturity opens the door for this evil thing to happen to her.
Oates Dramatizes the American Culture
More than creating believable, interesting, fascinating characters -- and great tension -- in this short story, Oates' ability to create a theme through setting and cultural activities is extraordinarily powerful. The "squalid hamburger joint" is very much a cultural image; and the blaring of Ellie's radio also contributes to the theme of sleazy boy out to pick up a girl for his own pleasure (Slimp, 1999). And as Oates' brilliant narrative continues, the reader can sense a "tightening of the stomach and a quickening of the pulse" as the story leads the reader to fully understand exactly what Arnold is up to. Slimp points out that Oates believes that America has in many ways become a "cultural wasteland" and that Connie is caught up in it because she is "shallow and vapid"; Connie's superficiality is shown by the mere fact that she believes the "height of human suffering is the annoyance" she experiences when her mother chides her (Slimp. P. 1). Moreover, Oates lets the reader know that Connie is simple when Connie says she would rather die than continue as is. The simplistic life that Connie leads -- within a cultural wasteland that an evil but charming boy can seem to shine in -- has of course been her path to her ultimate demise, and give Oates credit for bringing these personality traits out so perfectly.
Creating a Powerless Character
The traits given to Connie show how lacking in power she really is. Meanwhile, Oates is well-known as a writer who can bring characters to a point of realism that is stark. Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski writes that Oates has shown the reader how powerless Connie is "from the outset" of the story (Urbanski, 1979). Members of Connie's own family know that Connie is naive and powerless. She is attractive, and her sister and her mother are not attractive, but that doesn't make Connie safe or smart. Connie may be powerless but she can reject her family, and she does by refusing to go to a family picnic. The reader knows Connie is hooked on music, and in fact it is music, "instead of an apple," that lures Connie and causes her heart to beat a bit faster. By pointing this out in the narrative Oates shows that a young girl so impressed with music and a beat that she is taken with Arnold in the same way she is seduced by the music.
The music theme is present in the description of Arnold: "He spoke in a simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song," and this fits in with the rapture that Connie experiences when the music hits her just right (Urbanski, p. 1). The music "from her radio and the boy's blend together," Oates writes, and this is a sexually suggestive line when again brings the reader into the consciousness of seduction. Connie hears Arnold say, "Don't you know who I am," which Urbanski suggests is Oates' way of creating a demon of a boy. Urbanski goes on to suggest that in encountering a slick devil like Arnold, Connie is mesmerized. Arnold "slid" out of the car rather than just stepping out, and his "muscular neck" also suggests something "reptilian" -- and one of his boots was at a "strange angle, as if his foot wasn't in it" (Oates, 201-02).
This power that Arnold shows is partly designed to show how vulnerable and naive Connie really is, and Oates goes to great lengths in that regard. "What else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in," Arnold says. And it is clear that Connie is not just "surrendering her virginal innocence, but bowing to absolute forces which her youthful coquetry cannot direct -- absolute forces overt which she has no control" (Oates, 202).
Connie in fact is so powerless that she isn't really a 15-year-old pretty girl at all in the big picture of Oates' approach. She is just the "personification of the female" that Arnold has chosen to pounce on with all his corrupt experience and phony charm, Urbanski asserts. Clearly Arnold is presenting a fiction devil in this story, but Connie is not the angel juxtaposed to the devil. She is just the "morally vacuous girl-victim" who gets caught up in the devil's strategy (Urbanski, p. 2).
Connie -- A Complicated, Believable Character
Is Connie's escape anything like Cinderella's escape? Critic Stan Kozikowski suggests that while Connie rebelliously escapes going on the family picnic -- and with that act Connie believes that there will be a pleasurable resolution -- but it ends tragically, quite differently than. Cinderella, who of course escaped the misery of her mean spirited sisters and she did find a pleasant ending. According to Kozikowski, an American girl just wants to "feel good," to get attention from those around her, and "to be cherished" -- which she begins believing she can achieve from early childhood on. This is the Cinderella motif in storytelling, Kozikowski continues, which is used by American merchandizing in terms of the "flashy, readily consumable" commodities that sell feminization. And along comes Connie, who is simple but clings to a kind of Cinderella hope that cannot possibly be manifested for a 15-year-old girl who is entranced by the beat of music and by the power of a boy's voice and appearance.
In fact Connie is pretty, fairly good natured but not comfortable in her…