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Commentary on 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' by Joyce Carol Oates

A Cultural-Historical Perspective

Joyce Carol Oates wrote Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? to be set in the Southwestern United States during the 1960's. Connie, the main character, is transforming from a teenager into an adult and lives in a rural area, possibly in Tucson, Arizona. This era was a time of consistent breakthroughs of liberal freedoms, hence the splurge of social movements and experimentation with new lifestyles that many hadn’t had before. One event inspired Oates to write this horrifying story of an individual forced to make a life or death decision in an increasingly unpredictable society that would lead to a crucial decision of trust. Trust, for Connie, whirls her life toward a tragic end.

The inspiration for this story was Charles Schmidt, a thirty-two-year-old man whose characteristics of charm, false charisma, and trickery run parallel to Arnold Friend, Connie’s intruder. Schmidt was an orphan with a low self-esteem and couldn’t satisfy himself until he found a notorious hobby. He was responsible for four girls went missing shortly after approaching them. Schmidt’s helpers eventually confessed to the police, and the three were sentenced for a number of decades, with Schmidt having the longest number of years on trial. People like Pied Piper took advantage of the free will the youth of the sixties had while parents and teachers weren’t watching. The menaces blended into the crowds, cunningly drawing away young girls from the comfort of what they understood and into a mysteriously dark fantasy they were to initially believe was heaven. When the spectrum of freedoms in society broadened, neither the youth nor many adults were aware that liberty let the sociopaths walk the shadows of a rather strange reality; and this time was certainly where realism meets romanticism with some ugly consequences.

In the sixties, two types of enlightenment happened: peace protests and the “baby boom.” It was a time of individualism and nativism in a time where American immigration skyrocketed the economy. A growing middle class moved into the suburbs, which separated towns from cities, splitting up countercultures, even those as malicious as the mafia. Not everyone conformed to the American Dream, however. For example, two major shocks sparked revolts such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Another detachment from conforming to American culture was the way music and media changed the stereotype of adolescence, which meddled with the average individual’s search for identity.

Things that were kept underground for a long time (such as politics, belief systems, wealth, sexuality, and rituals) became part of what was wanted as part of the individual’s identity. Much of these building countercultures were underground, and many underground problems went unnoticed. When problems go unnoticed, lunatics take this as an advantage to do as they please. This is what was the case for Connie’s situation in Oates’ story.  

Young adults like Connie are faced with taking responsibilities of realities more maturely; she is threatened by Arnold that her family will get hurt if she does not follow him into his car. She grabs the phone but is intimidated and confused while Arnold watches her through the window of her house, taunting and mocking her fright. It sounds like her parents and sister will not be home soon, and with him waiting with only a glass door separating them, it's an intimidating, indescribable situation of trauma. It is also ironic that the author dedicates this story to Bob Dylan, who is yet another parallel to Arnold Friend because of his “otherworldly” attitude that Connie is both fascinated with and afraid of.

Connie goes about town with her friends through the night. Her father seems uninvolved, and when her mother is involved, she is being compared to her sister. “Who do you think you are?” she would demand when Connie wants approval of her appearance. She seeks it into the faces of strangers. And what she desires, Arnold promises. Because of her relationship at home, Connie furthermore sees opportunity, and gives in because he uses her negative family bonds as his strength to draw her toward him. He is acting omniscient, like those admired icons of the 1960's that Connie fantasizes about, like Bob Dylan. Plus, his sociopath personality is hidden under charm as he coaxes, “Come on Connie, my beautiful, blue-eyed girl....”

To escape reality, Connie fantasizes. Her reality seems to have a sour effect on her impulse. When this promise of her dreams is answered, she is pressured to make a choice between her life for her family’s, as Arnold’s threat. In conclusion, Connie represents the transformation of an individual from adolescence to adulthood. The desire to feel accepted and the pressures of Arnold's taunts outweigh the cost of her safety. Her social relationships and her relationships at home are static and she can possible fix the issues in time, while her final decision of following Arnold is permanent and beyond her control.

Work Cited:

Jazzlizzle. “The 1960s Youth Movement.” Teen ink magazine. Published 2014. Web.

N/A. “Oates’ Where are you going, where have you been and Smooth Talk.” PDF. Web. Acessed March 14, 2015.

Bouson, Mara. “Pied Piper of Tuscon: Twisted killings of Charles Howard Schmidt Jr.” Special to the News. Dec 9, 2009.

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Commentary on 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' by Joyce Carol Oates
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