In her masterpiece short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” first published in 1966, Joyce Carol Oates portrays a extremely dramatic moment in the life of a fifteen year old girl named Connie, who struggles between the expectations that society lays on her as a female and who she feels she really wants to be. Oates describes the duality of Connie’s life in the desire to be sexually appealing and attractive to men, while wanting to remain an innocent and daydreaming girl. In a men’s world, the overly flirtatious girl becomes a victim of a threatening situation, where a sexual predator imposes his will on a girl. By depicting this tragic turn that Connie’s life takes because of her desire to look mature, sexy and appealing to the opposite sex, Oates brings up a topic of women’s victimization in the society, where women are obliged to keep their sexuality concealed in order not to attract sexual predators or send a message to men that would be falsely interpreted as an invitation to the sexual intercourse.
Connie leads a double life, which Oates perfectly describes in the line, “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home” (Oates 1). Her forced duality is created by her oppressed desire to explore her sexuality and attractiveness through communicating with boys, as well as by the lack of intimacy inside her family that forces her to seek superficial intimacy outside the house. At the beginning of the story, Oates reveals Connie’s obsession with her appearance and comparison with other people’s faces (Widmayer 4). This casual habit of making sure she was still pretty was done, however, with a tint of nervousness and insecurity, as Connie thinks that her appearance is everything to her, thus, revealing to the reader that she does not consider her other traits somehow valuable to her and people in her life. Thus, the appreciation of her own beauty collides with her insecurity about losing it, which will mean the loss of everything she has. This duality combined with lack of acceptance at home makes her secretly look for constant appreciation and evaluation of her woman’s worth from men.
While the reader might at first consider the girl shallow and superficial, Oates casually unveils the details of Connie’s life that make the reader sympathize with her and understand where the girl’s self-obsession comes from. Connie’s insecurities are directly created by her closest people, her mother and father. While the girl’s father does not show any interest in communicating with the rest of the family let alone notice his daughter’s problems with self-esteem boosted by his wife’s degrading comments, Connie’s mother lets off the steam on her daughter because of being envious of the girl’s attractiveness. She constantly reminds Connie that she will lose her beauty just like her mother lost it. At the same time, she creates a feeling of worthlessness in the girl by comparing her with June, an overweight and plain older sister, who leads domestic life still living with the rest of the family. Thus, Connie is constantly reminded that she is worse than the person, whom she finds neither attractive, nor interesting, and Connie’s fresh beauty is, thus, indeed the only thing she values in herself. She also values it, as it creates a barrier between herself and her mother, who suppresses her daughter’s sexuality and femininity by despising her way of life, including daydreaming and using “stinky” hairspray, a junk June is never seen using (Oates 1). Connie’s feeling are again colliding, as a part of her wants her mother to die to stop the oppression of her sexuality, while the other part of Connie seeks intimacy and love inside the family, which she occasionally finds during breakfasts with mother that are, nonetheless, always spoilt by “vexation” (Oates 2).
Fearing that she will once end up like her mother, who lost attractiveness and is walking around the house in the bedroom slippers without a hint of being loved by the cold husband, Connie seeks a new life through running away from the dullness of her family (Showalter 16). She looks for a substitute of love in her superficial connections outside the house. Although the evenings she spends in the diner are very important to her, the connections she established during them are shallow, which is portrayed by the fact that her friends’ names are never mentioned and she agrees to dine with the first boy, who approaches her. Meeting with friends, including the boys, several days a week, she is dependent on these departures from home to a completely different world, where she can be beautiful, sexy, flirtations and attractive.
Although still an innocent girl, who is just exploring her femininity, she chooses to look like a grown-up woman to men. Connie is not aware of the social prejudice about female sexuality that existed in the 1960s when the story takes place and for this reason she is not aware of how men look at her and the messages they think she is sending. In a men’s world Connie’s experiments with sexuality on public make her a target for men, who consider that if a woman displays her open desire to be attractive, then she is looking for sexual experience, as well. One of the men attracted to her is Arnold Friend, a mysterious sexual predator and possibly a rapist and murderer, who becomes Connie’s punishment for not following the established rules of female’s behavior in the patriarchal society, where are supposed to confine their sexuality and expose it only in private domestic situations. Friend’s perversion of Connie’s innocence is a response to Connie’s disobedience to follow the patriarchal rules, as just like she brought her sexuality to the public space, a sexual predator responds by breaching her safety in the private space. According to Rodriguez, Connie faces the dilemma created by her double life which is to “leave the home and become the victim to a predator or stay in the home and risk the entry of the predator” (43). And even although she may try and escape from Arnold, she shouts that her father will come and save her, thus, relying on a person, who was absent from the girls life before. As the words “Where are you going” in the title indicate, Connie’s submission to a stranger shows how unimportant her decisions are, as Arnold is the one to choose her destiny. This and other facts that point to the place of women in the society, such as that Connie had to be driven to the restaurant by her friend’s father and later by a boy of approximately her own age, and the fact that she strived to be attractive to men in order to assert her own worth, show that Connie’s victimization was a consequence of the order established by men, where women were excluded from making their own decisions.
Showalter, Elain. "Introduction." Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Ed. Elain Showalter. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, The State U, 2002. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (1966): 1-9. The University of Minnesota. Regents of the University of Minnesota, 3 Oct. 2003. Web. 5 Nov. 2014. <https://www.d.umn.edu/~csigler/PDF%20files/oates_going.pdf>.
Rodriguez, Jennifer Leigh. Morphing the Gothic: The New Voice of Gothic Literature among Contemporary Women Writers. 2008. Print.
Widmayer, Martha E. "Death and the Maiden in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”." Journal of the Short Story in English 42 (2008): 1-12. Journal of the Short Story in English. Journal of the Short Story in English. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <http://jsse.revues.org/383>.