Study Guide

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Joyce Carol Oates

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


"The music was always in the background," the narrator tells us, "like music in a church service, it was something to depend upon" (6). Music is everywhere in this story, blaring out of radios in restaurants, cars, and homes. It's so omnipresent, in fact, that it seems to have worked its way into the very way characters think, act, and feel. For Connie, music is associated with sex; her feelings for boys are mixed up with "the insistent pounding of the music" (10) and its "slow-pulsed joy" (14). Arnold exploits the rhythm of popular music, with its repetition of catchy lyrics and simple melodies, when he cajoles Connie in a "simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song" (59). Because it's everywhere, music can introduce a number of different themes, including the effects of popular culture, the nature of sexual desire, and the dynamics of psychological manipulation.

The Car

Funny how only men get to drive in the story, right? Fathers, boyfriends, rapists all get the wheel, but never a woman. The only mention of a female driver is the "crazy woman driver" (36) who left a dent in Arnold's car – probably with good reason. Cars are a form of mobility, freedom, and empowerment in the story that women don't get to enjoy. We're a long, long way from Danica Patrick.

The Look

The first thing we learn about Connie (besides her name and her age) is that she has a "habit of craning her neck to look into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right" (1). Looking is a form of control in the novel: the one who looks has control over the one who is looked at.

When Connie is under Arnold's gaze, when she meets him for the first time in the restaurant parking lot, she can't help looking at him – twice. When Arnold first appears at her door, he's wearing sunglasses, hiding himself from Connie's gaze, while he's free to gaze at her all he wants. Connie is looked at for most of the story, an object to be ogled by men or envied by women.

The last scene of the story, in which we see Connie looking at herself as if from outside her body, is highly ambivalent. It could be that Connie has succumbed to the splitting-up of herself under the force of Arnold's predatory stare. Or it could be that she is seeing herself clearly for the first time as she goes out to meet her fate. What do you think?

Death and the Maiden

Oates has stated that she had the "Death and the Maiden" folktales in the back of her mind as she wrote this story; she even considered "Death and the Maiden" as a title.

A common motif in Renaissance art, the "Death and the Maiden" trope has origins in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, is ensnared by Hades and doomed to live with him in the underworld for six months of the year. This myth is taken up as a larger allegory about the confrontation between love and death. (Check out this link for more.)

Oates may also have had in mind Franz Schubert's famous song "Death and the Maiden," in which Death poses as a "friend" to the maiden, who pleads with him not to "touch" her. "[The] story is clearly an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil)," Oates explains. "An innocent young girl is seduced by way of her own vanity; she mistakes death for erotic romance of a particularly American/trashy sort" (source). But it's only when Connie confronts Death (i.e., Arnold Friend) that she's able to move beyond her superficial values to something higher, to "heroism."

The Home

The literary critic Christina Marsden Gillis has argued that the home in the story is a metaphor for the vulnerability of a woman's body in a male-dominated society (source: Gillis, Christina Mardsen. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?": Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode). It's certainly an interesting theory to test out for yourself as you look at the way the actions are staged in the novel. In the story, a careful orchestration of scenes through windows, on thresholds, in doorways, against walls, builds up to Connie's final step into the beyond at the end of the story. Is her final step a gesture of defeat, an acknowledgement that Arnold has torn down all the walls of her identity? Or is her final step a rejection of the home and the domestic values associated with it, personified by her mother? Hmm…