Study Guide

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Visions of America

By Joyce Carol Oates

Visions of America

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is set in 1960s America. That this setting so closely resembles our own is not surprising, given how much of American society can be traced back to the burst of optimism and material prosperity following World War II. The story takes us into the world of American suburban adolescence, where popular culture in the form of movies and rock music saturates everyday life, and where there is little to do besides cruising and hanging out at shopping plazas or diners.

The '60s was also a period in America when many were questioning values that had long been taken for granted. The civil rights movement, more liberated attitudes toward sexuality, and the hippie counterculture are all legacies of the 1960s. The story asks us to consider how America as a superficial, wealth- and celebrity-obsessed culture may play a role in the context of its treatment of violence and adolescent sexuality.

Questions About Visions of America

  1. Look at instances in which popular culture pops up in the story, in references to music, radio shows, and film. How does popular culture factor into the way different characters act and feel? Compare Connie's attitude toward popular culture with Arnold's.
  2. How do different characters spend their time in the story? Are they productive or just passing time? What does their use of time tell us about the kind of society they live in?
  3. Think of the music and movies you like, the stuff you like to do with your friends on a Saturday night, the time you spend with your family. How do these experiences affect your identity, your values, and your outlook on the world? Now think about the story's attitude toward popular culture. Do you agree with its attitude? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Composed of different elements of popular culture, Arnold represents the harmful effects of a superficial society.

Even though "Where Are You Going?" is set in the 1960s, it's still relevant to controversies in American society today.