Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
by Joyce Carol Oates
Signs that a guy might be trouble:
1. The first words out of his mouth are "Gonna get you, baby."
2. He stuffs his boots so that he looks taller, even though it makes him walk like a drunken pirate.
3. He has a picture of himself spray-painted on the side of his car, a picture that makes him look like a "pumpkin." (Pumpkin + smile = jack-o'-lantern, get it?)
4. He seems to be around 30 (maybe even old enough to be your father), but he tries to look like a teenager. You'd pity him for trying so hard, except that he's also threatening to abduct you.
5. His friend is even older.
6. He admits to stalking you and finding out all kinds of details about you from your so-called friends.
7. His idea of flirty banter is threatening your family with bodily harm.
Ah, if only Connie spent less time listening to the radio and more time reading Shmoop. (Sorry, couldn't pass up an opportunity for shameless self-promotion.)
As Connie tries to get a handle on Arnold, she realizes that "[a]ll of these things did not come together" (77). Arnold is a "blur," and every attempt to see him for what he really is only generates "dizziness" rather than mental clarity (94).
That's because Arnold Friend is a blend of some familiar types from literature and pop culture. He's the Matthew McConaughey character from Dazed and Confused, the guy who still hangs out at high school waaaay after he's graduated. But he's also got qualities that a long literary tradition associates with evil – like Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost or Dostoevsky's devil in The Brothers Karamazov.
Like these great literary bad guys, Arnold can zero in on the weaknesses and desires of those around him – in this case, Connie's romantic fantasies. And like these incarnations of evil, Arnold's greatest tool of manipulation is a forked tongue. He's a travesty of morality, the "Friend" who isn't a friend. He keeps his promises, but his promises are all threats. Coming from his lips, the word "love" loses all of its idealistic connotations and becomes a violent and obscene thing. No matter what Connie says or does, Arnold keeps talking – and yet he reveals nothing about himself. He never physically coerces Connie to join him, but his words have the same force and pull as the actions he only threatens to take.
Death or evil incarnate posing as an ordinary man: this is the mess of contradictions that makes Arnold Friend so terrifying and so unforgettable.