Study Guide

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Sexuality

By Joyce Carol Oates


[Connie] had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. (1)

Connie seems incredibly self-conscious about the way others perceive her – she's always trying to get a view of herself from the outside, whether via mirror or other people's reactions.

Connie would [...] look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. (1)

Connie's sense of self revolves around her beauty rather than any other quality (say, personality, intellect, etc.). Ironically, this sense of self is "shadowy," as if to suggest that there is nothing substantial to her beauty.

But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night of July. (10)

Connie seems unable to express her sexual desires, even to herself, except obliquely or indirectly. Her desire is reduced to a nameless "idea" or "feeling" and associated with sexually suggestive imagery such as "urgent insistent pounding."

Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose, but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was. [...] She shook her head as if to get awake. (12)

There's something quite luscious about this description of Connie's daydreaming, even if it's fueled by the cheesy romantic love of "movies" and "songs." This is all the more poignant considering what happens to her at the end of the story.

It was a car [Connie] didn't know. It was an open jalopy, painted a bright gold that caught the sunlight opaquely. Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, "Christ, Christ," wondering how bad she looked. (15)

The only people we see driving in the story are men, like Connie's father and Arnold Friend. Connie's first reaction at seeing a strange car isn't fear or anger but self-consciousness: she wonders how she looks, how attractive she is to men. It's also interesting at this critical moment that she says, "Christ, Christ," when just a couple of paragraphs before we are told that her family doesn't "bother with church" (12).

Connie liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed. [...] And his face was a familiar face, somehow [...] the nose long and hawklike, sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke. (46)

The story keeps emphasizing how like other boys Arnold Friend is, how "familiar." This makes him more mysterious to us because we don't learn anything about him as an individual. He is generic and stereotypical, as if Connie is confronting "men in general" here rather than one psychotic criminal.

She recognized most things about him [...] even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn't want to put into words. [...] But all these things did not come together. (77)

As in the previous quote, Arnold is still presented to us as characteristic of "boys" in general. But outside the familiar context of drive-in restaurants and movies, Connie doesn't know how to react to him.

"Yes, I'm your lover. You don't know what that is, but you will. [...] I'll hold you so tight you won't think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you'll know you can't. And I'll come inside you where it's all secret and you'll give in to me and you'll love me –" (104)

As the situation escalates, Arnold's language gets more sexually explicit and violent, culminating in the rape scene he describes in this quote. Arnold isn't merely recounting his desire; he is commanding Connie to "give in" and submit to him. Sex is associated here with mastery and control.

She put her hands up against her ears as if she'd heard something terrible, something not meant for her. "People don't talk like that, you're crazy," she muttered. Her heart was almost too big now for her chest and its pumping made sweat break out all over her. (105)

Connie experiences Arnold's sexually explicit talk as itself a kind of violation, a trauma she experiences both physically and psychologically.

She watched this smile come, awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask. His whole face was a mask, she thought wildly, tanned down to his throat but then running out as if he had plastered makeup on his face but had forgotten about his throat. (110)

The verb "come" in this quote has a creepy echo with its previous use in a sexual context.