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Here's the spooky fact: it's pretty hard to get through even an Intro to Lit college class without coming across Joyce Carol Oates's eerie "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" And once you do, it's downright impossible to forget.
Maybe you'll be blown away by the psychological depth of the main character. Maybe you'll be forever creeped out by the unforgettable antagonist. Maybe you'll be puzzling over the hidden meaning—what do the numbers on the side of Arnold Friend's convertible mean? Or maybe you'll just be steamrolled by the bleak-yet-transcendent ending.
Another option? Being—like us—affected by all of the above.
First published in 1966, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" became an instant classic. It's regularly included in literary anthologies of great fiction, and was even adapted into a popular 1986 film, Smooth Talk, starring Laura Dern.
According to Oates, the story was inspired by a Life magazine story about the serial killer Charles Schmid, who, like the story's villain, was an older man who preyed on adolescent girls. So what prompted Oates to pen this little tale? Was she fascinated by the twisted psychology of murderers?
Nope—not exactly. What stuck with her was "the disturbing fact that a number of teenagers—from "good" families—aided and abetted his crimes" (Source).
Part of what makes Oates's story so deeply affecting is that it deflects most of the attention away from the would-be killer—who is still rendered as being totally terrifying—and directs attention to the victim, Connie, and her humdrum suburban existence.
The story is set in 1960's middle-American, and the ideological turmoil of the times simmers just below the surface. You know about the 1960's—it was a decade when moral and social conventions were being challenged left and right, and the rush of American optimism and materialism after World War II was being questioned. This was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the birth of the hippie counterculture, and the wild popularity of rock bands like the shaggy-haired Beatles. Issues such as feminism, sexual freedom, and adolescent sexuality were hot topics.
In other words, it was a time of great, controversial upheaval.
And, like the 1960's themselves, this story has generated tons o' controversy since its publication. Oates has described Connie's actions at the end of the story as an "unexpected gesture of heroism," a decision to sacrifice herself so that her family would remain unharmed. But not all critics are convinced. Some read the story as an anti-feminist allegory: Arnold Friend is Connie's punishment for having sexual feelings for boys. Others read the story as a feminist critique of a male-dominated society: the ending is essentially tragic, Connie's submission to Arnold Friend standing for the ways women are oppressed in a patriarchal society. Some even read the last scenes as evidence of Connie's psychosis: there's no ennobling act here, just a fragile psyche falling apart (see Showalter's "Introduction" for a broad sketch of the debate).
Multiple, conflicting interpretations—that's the risk the story takes in leaving the ending hauntingly open-ended. The "vast sunlit reaches of land" that dazzle Connie at the end of the story may as well be a stand-in vast array of interpretations that generations of readers bring to it...which is one reason why the story continues to captivate us, concern us, and haunt our dreams.
Here's the hard, cold truth: horrible things happen to ordinary people.
We're guessing you're familiar with that fact. You're canny; you know about stranger danger, fearless investigations, shocked witnesses, and grieving family members. It's the kind of thing that our society is fascinated with—a citizen, minding his or her own business—is struck down by evil forces that have been lurking nearby the whole time. You've read the news articles/watched enough local TV/ binge-watched show like Twin Peaks, Law & Order: SVU, The Killing, and True Detective.
In fact, you might be a little sick of hearing about how horrible things happen to ordinary people. And if that's the case—especially if that's the case, you should read "Where Are You Going, When Have You Been."
Because it's very rare that a story of small-town abduction is told from the point of view of the victim.
Disclaimer: this story ain't easy. In fact, it may be one of the most upsetting stories we've ever read...despite the fact that it contains no blood, no physical violence, and no weapons. We think that's because we're so closely inside the victim's head in the moments leading up to her abduction that we start to feel like her.
She goes from bemused and flattered that a guy she met once has showed up on her doorstep to feeling icked out that he's obviously lying about his age to terrified that he's speaking like a deranged lunatic to near-hysterical as he threatens to beat down her door and harm her family. And we experience these emotions even as she does.
But don't get the wrong idea: this isn't comparable to shouting "Don't go in there!" at a movie screen as a character moves slowly towards a basement door. We don't know more than our protagonist. We're not feeling even remotely smug or cozy. We're there in her head, empathizing.
Even if you read this story with an eye towards the abstract—and believe us, there are so many juicy ways to analyze this story that it unpacks like a Fiat holding a thousand clowns—you're still going to come away unsettled, rattled, and Googling "what's the best home alarm system."
And we think that's both a testament to Joyce Carol Oates writing prowess and the fact that there's nothing as powerful as deeply empathizing with a character.
Oates Home Page
From the University of San Francisco. Lots of good stuff here, including the full texts of some of her pieces.
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"
A full-text version of the story, from an authorized Joyce Carol Oates website.
Oates was inspired, in part, to write this story as a result of the actual murder of teenage Alleen Rowe by Charles Schmid. You can read about Schmid here. He even stuffed his boots to make himself taller.
In this Google Books preview, you can read Elaine Showalter's introductions to Oates's story and an essay from Oates on her story and the film, Smooth Talk.
Smooth Talk Review
The NY Times review the 1985 movie based on Oates's story.
Roger Ebert Review
Ebert's review of the movie – he gave it 3.5 stars.
"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
Lyric's to Bob Dylan's song, which was one of Joyce Carol Oates's inspirations for the story. (Oates dedicated the story to Dylan.)
Check out the trailer for the 1985 movie adaptation, Smooth Talk.
Clip from the Movie
Watch a few scenes on YouTube.
Franz Schubert, "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ["Death and the Maiden"]
Lyrics and performance of a Schubert song based on a theme ("Death and the Maiden") that inspired the story.
Death and the Maiden
A website exploring the "Death and the Maiden" theme in Renaissance art. Learn more about how this is connected to Oates's story in our discussion on "Symbolism."
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