“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” : Exploring Realistic Connotations
Except for extreme cases of insanity, humanity acts in the confines of its reality; save fantastical imaginations, the bounds trapping people within reality limit their behaviors. These bounds include various means: physical limitations keep humanity from flapping their arms and rising off the ground, while mental limitations keep humanity from discovering String Theory or why life exists. Reality, or the rules governing these limitations, helps ground humanity as a species: by essentially “humanizing” and keeping people flawed, reality allows humanity to learn to live within their means. In realizing humanities’ limitations and flaws, authors often exploit them to create situations in which characters undergo extreme hardships. Whether heart-wrenching, humorous, or chilling to the bone, these stories touch the heart most effectively when taken in the form of extreme realism. Reading Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” as a case of realism provokes readers to take measures against such cruel and frightening events occurring in their own lives. If readers explained away the situations and characters in the story as imaginative, symbolic or fantastical (in other words, unreal), then the severity of the circumstances surrounding the story diminish greatly. Stories dealing with gruesome events, such as the abduction of the protagonist Connie in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” lose their effectiveness when readers and critics explain away the events. Only by accepting the story as realism can the story shine out as a warning against the same events occurring in the real world. Though several critics and literary analysts have attempted to explain away the identities of all three main characters of Oates’s story, I will attempt to debunk their arguments. I will attempt to prove that realism wins as the most effective lens through which Oates’s story portrays the issue of child abduction and abuse.
A deeper look into the definition of realism and its applications will aid in understanding Oates’s story and its effectiveness when defined through realism. According to the Handbook to Literature text, realism is “fidelity to actuality in its representation” (Harmon 432). Simplifying the fancy wording, realism is a genre which stays true to real-life rules. Creating stories out of real-life events, without fantasizing any elements, effectively depicts realism. As a genre, realism drives faster, hits harder, and stays remembered longer. Authors of realistic stories derive their characters, situations and worlds from real life; authors employ real life rules, such as gravity or a cause-effect flow of events, and therefore allow readers to sink deeper into their stories than if they had written fantasy, science fiction or any other unrealistic piece. Readers feel comfortable in the worlds of realistic stories, because the settings seem so similar to the reader’s own world. When stories capture their readers in their worlds, taking them for the whirlwind ride of their plots, they hit the reader harder than any other genre of story, since they have so effectively imprisoned them in their worlds. Stories which hit their readers hard oftentimes stick with the readers for a long time to come. If realistic stories strike reader’s thoughts and affect their being, they stand a greater chance of sticking with the readers.
The characters of Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” continually undergo fantastic analyses, though by far the character with the most literature on him is the antagonist, Arnold Friend. In an essay by Joan Easterly, titled “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” Friend is depicted as a mythological satyr, a being half man and half beast. Easterly takes the character of Arnold Friend and whittles him down, subtracting the letter “r” from his name, to “An Old Fiend” (Easterly 538). Easterly determines the characterization of a satyr based upon this generalized name. Diminishing the character to a symbolic homage to a mythological creature defeats the purpose of Oates’s story. Diverting the focus from the frightening events surrounding Connie, onto the characterization and supposed symbolism surrounding Arnold Friend, effectively erase any and all frightening elements from Oates’s story. Easterly assumes many things regarding Friend. His physical appearance, according to Easterly, represents a satyr:
Friend wears a wig to hide his pointed ears and horns. His feet do not go all the way down into his boots… because they are really hooves. He wears sunglasses because his eyes… reflect direct light like those of an animal. He is short, with the muscular upper body, black hair, and long, hawklike nose often depicted on satyrs. Although he does not have a beard, his face is covered with stubble. To complete the physical details usually associated with such creatures, Friend could be hiding a satyr’s hairy tail in his tight jeans… (Easterly 538)
The associations with a satyr may seem at first glance plausible; however, when focusing upon the story’s effectiveness in terms of shock value, these physical assumptions drown in the sea of realism in which Oates’s story thrives. By giving Friend attributes of a mythological creature, Easterly excuses his immoral behavior. The inherent nature of fantastical satyrs, wooing and seducing or else forcibly raping nymphs of the forest, becomes an excuse through which readers deem Friend’s acts against Connie acceptable, and the antagonist escapes judgment. Arnold Friend loses his antagonistic effectiveness when belittled to a fake, made-up creature.
Easterly, in her article identifying Friend as a satyr, backs up her argument by noting the numerous mentions of music Oates makes. Easterly accounts these mentions as “a leitmotif to [Friend’s] almost supernatural ability to dominate Connie. [S]atyrs were feared in ancient myths for their power to seduce unwary women through music” (Easterly 539 (brackets mine)). While Friend does have the capacity to overpower Connie, his manipulative skills are by no means supernatural. The music theme prevalent in Oates’s story allows for an easy, melodic flow of events which end in a crashing symphony of a climax. Possibly the only unrealistic and intangible facet of Oates’s story, the theme of music throughout simply serves to outline the story itself and provide flow. Mike Tierce and John Michael Crafton also extrapolate upon the theme of music to argue Friend as a literary representation of Bob Dylan, the rock legend of the time in which Oates wrote her story. In “Connie’s Tambourine Man: A New Reading of Arnold Friend,” Tierce and Crafton also use Friend’s physical appearance to further their argument. The article states:
That Oates consciously associates Arnold Friend with Bob Dylan is clearly suggested by the similarities of their physical descriptions. Arnold’s ‘shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig,’ his ‘long and hawklike nose,’ his unshavened face, his ‘big and white’ teeth, his lashes, ‘thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material’ and his size (‘only an inch or so taller than Connie) are all characteristic of Bob Dylan. Even Arnold’s ‘fast, bright monotone voice’ is suggestive of Dylan, especially since he speaks ‘in a simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song.’ (Tierce 221)
In order to accept Arnold Friend as a symbolic effigy of Bob Dylan, readers must accept
Connie’s fate as a necessary step in her maturation from teenager to young adult. If readers accept Connie’s abduction, rape, and murder as necessary, they take away from the chilling and realistic nature of the entire series of events. If Oates’s main purpose of her story was to glorify Bob Dylan, I doubt her story would have contained child abduction, rape and murder as a frame around which Dylan’s influence on the generation living during the time of Oates’s story. In order for the abduction, rape and murder enveloping Connie for the duration of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to effectively affect audiences, Friend must be taken at his most base value: a real human being, making his own decisions and realistically following a chain of events to their logical end. Arnold Friend manipulating Connie with his own God-given talents of persuasion frightens much more than Arnold Friend manipulating Connie as a representation of Bob Dylan turning teenagers into matured adults, or as a mythological satyr trapping a nymph in its clutches.
The Tierce and Crafton article share similarities with an article by Alice Hall Petry titled “Who is Ellie? Oates’ ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” While Tierce and Crafton compare Arnold Friend to Bob Dylan, Petry compares Ellie, Arnold’s sadistic sidekick, to none other than the King, Elvis Presley. The quiet, calm and somewhat boring Ellie Oscar undergoes stripping of his realistic characteristics by Petry as she attempts to prove his symbolic significance. Reducing the character to his mere physical attributes, not considering whether he has a unique personality of his own, Petry ties the links between Ellie and Elvis together, straining the connections:
Consider Ellie’s appearance. The first things Connie notices about him are the lock of hair ‘that fell onto his forehead’ and his ‘sideburns,’ both of which call to mind Presley, whose trademark appearance was much imitated by his ‘cool’ male admirers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Equally significant is Ellie’s attire: ‘His shirt collar was turned up all around and the very tips of the collar pointed out past his chin; further, his shirt was ‘unbuttoned halfway to show his chest’ – elements which even years after Presley’s death in 1977 are still immediately associated with ‘the King.’ (Petry 155-156)
Petry fails to take notice her own words when she states Elvis’ “trademark appearance was much imitated by his ‘cool’ male admirers in the late 1950s and early 1960s” (Petry 155). If Ellie is instead viewed as his own person, rather than as an iconic representation of Elvis Presley, Petry’s own words work against her. Even if Ellie does share physical characteristics with the King, though the characteristics described in the story seem vague and generalized and could quite possibly fit many types of people, he could very well have chosen to mimic the King, showing an influence of Elvis upon the culture of the United States during the time of Oates’s story. Ellie’s quiet nature, though quiet in this case shares no qualities with benevolence, realistically portrays his personality. His lack of conversation exudes an extremely creepy air about him, though nothing supernatural or symbolic can come close to generating the same intensity of fear than if readers take Ellie at face value. Petry’s final argument in her article asks: “What more forceful way to suggest the dangerous illusions and vacuousness generated by ‘the romantic promises and frantic strains of a brand of music sung by… Elvis Presley’ than to have an Elvis-figure participate in the rape and murder of an innocent 15-year-old girl?” (Petry 157); however, a more effective argument of Ellie’s participation in the story deals with the realism of his character. What more frightening way to illustrate the dangers facing adolescent young women than to realistically provide a situation in which grown men manipulate and overtake a fifteen year old girl?
When dealing with the relative effectiveness of Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in terms of shock value, a realistic lens gives Oates’s characters the most merit. Perhaps in an attempt to keep the story from bothering readers, tugging at their heartstrings, literary analysts tear apart the story into barely comprehensible pieces. Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski determines Oates’s story exists to feed the movement of existentialism. Labeling the story as “existential allegory” (Urbanski 200), she argues Connie’s ordeal as a necessary step in realizing her overall future path. Urbanski recognizes the realistic element of Oates’s story, but explains it away as a veil through which the existential allegory “renders a contemporary existential initiation theme – that of a young person coming to grips with externally determined fate” (Urbanski 200). In an essay entitled “Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Were Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ as Pure Realism,” A. R. Coulthard argues the opposite opinion of Urbanski. Coulthard establishes “Where Are You Going…” as a purely realistic venture. Coulthard believes that “Oates should have been content to let ‘Where Are You Going?’ stand on its solid realism” (Coulthard 505). Both essays present provoking arguments; however, in discussing the fear factor of Oates’s story, Coulthard’s article presents the most effective analysis. While Urbanski argues that “the images which overtly suggest religious allegory while more subtly supporting the existential theme, are interspersed throughout the work” (Urbanski 201), Coulthard counters by arguing that “absolutely nothing occurs that can’t be explained in purely literal terms or that isn’t best explained so. Like all good stories, ‘Where Are You Going?’ resonates in the mind, but its style is realistic, not allegorical” (Coulthard 506). Upon reading Urbanski’s argument, the “interspersed” details she mentions seem nothing more than coincidence. Even she herself states, “the recurring use of a twentieth-century symbol of irony – the false smile – further veils the existential meaning in realistic narrative” (Urbanski 202). Digging through the realism to find the allegorical connections throughout Oates’s story seems an unlikely stretch, and indeed many assumptions are made in creating the existential allegory. Urbanski finds it “apparent that Friend represents the devil who tempts the chaste yet morally vacuous girl-victim” (Urbanski 202), though as a devil Friend lacks the realistic similarities to the readers themselves he has as a realistic character. As a human, Friend’s kinship with all people gives him the credence as a convincing antagonist, and therefore, “Arnold Friend is simply the sick killer who is going to murder [Connie]. He doesn’t ‘represent’ anything, except the kind of creep a girl like Connie (or even a girl unlike Connie) might have the bad luck to attract” (Coulthard 508). Connie herself undergoes an existential carving of her character into “the active part as Everyman experiencing the inevitable realization of her insignificance and powerlessness” (Urbanski 202). If Connie really represented all humanity in Oates’s story, then it stands to reason to believe Friend’s seduction, manipulation and destruction of Connie’s willpower represents life itself, bearing down upon individuals until their eventual deaths. Attempting to generalize Oates’s story so much, however, creates a broad idea which cannot hit home with its readers. Only through the base, literal, realistic reading of the story can audiences see Connie’s plight as a young woman taken from her home into the arms of a pedophiliac monster of a man, and feel the terror for her they would not otherwise feel if the story lacked its realistic connotations.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” explores the frightening concept of child abduction, realistically portraying the victim, the perpetrators, and most especially the emotions engendered by the contact between the two. Coulthard, in his article “Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ as Pure Realism,” rightly states that “Connie’s psychological reaction to her impending death is realistically detailed and completely believable. Allegorizing it into a mere bad dream not only strains the text but takes the edge off the genuine horror of Connie’s fate” (Coulthard 508). Creating fantasy from reality simply crumbles in the end; the rules governing reality are too strict to allow for other possibilities to enter into the equation. In the most terrifying representation of Oates’s story, Connie is a young, naïve girl who faces circumstances beyond her control and which, due to her naivety and inexperience, eventually overcome her. Arnold Friend is simply a man posing as nearer to Connie’s age, requiring a more elaborate costume, so he can seduce her into leaving the comfort of her home and following him to her “destiny,” at least in his eyes. Ellie Oscar is an accomplice to Friend’s crime, and his stolid nature generates a realistic, yet entirely frightening reaction from readers. Coulthard points out that “to reduce ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ to a teen-age dream and to raise Arnold Friend to a superhuman Symbol is to rob the story of its elemental power. Arnold Friends do exist… and the evil they do is not safely confined to the literary dreamworld” (Coulthard 510). Indeed, child abductions occur everywhere in the world, and “the fear and confusion unleashed by the abduction stories can’t be expressed as math. Its power is primal, as gripping as an empty crib. Journalists know this: Imperiled children mesmerize. There aren’t many stories with villains so wholly evil and victims so absolutely undeserving” (Kirn). Taking Oates’s example as a realistic scene which could very likely occur even today, the terror emanating from the depths of the story’s soul galvanizes audiences to seek answers to the problem of child abduction. Focusing on the issue depicted, rather than upon the existential allegories, mythological satyrs, or rock legends symbolically depicted in the piece, could help to offer children “in danger’s path – harmed and neglected in a thousand ways” (Kirn), “a chance” (Kirn). In cases of child abduction, “children must first exist, must be cherished by someone, cared about” (Kirn), and as seen in Joyce Carol Oates’s timeless story, children left alone and neglected can sometimes be caught up in terrible situations. Oates’s gives a realistic voice to the children never noticed before their abductions, and has proven that children must not be forgotten.
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