Joyce Carol Oates was born in 1938. As a child growing up in Lockport, New York, her preparation for her future career began early. Before she could even write, she used pictures to convey stories. At the age of fifteen she submitted her first novel to a publisher, but the book was rejected for being “too dark,” since it dealt with a drug addict who is reformed by caring for a black stallion. Such “dark” Themes are common to Oates’s work, including the frequently anthologized story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Oates completed her college education at Syracuse University in 1960 and earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Wisconsin a year later. Newly married, she and her husband, Ray Smith, moved to Texas so he could continue his own schooling. Although by this time Oates had published many stories, she did not think of herself as a professional writer until, by chance, she came across favorable mention of one of her stories in a prestigious anthology, Best American Short Stories. This marked a turning point in her life, and her first published collection of short stories appeared in 1963, followed by her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, in 1964.
Joyce Carol Oates was inspired to write “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” after reading an account in Life magazine of a charismatic but insecure young man who had enticed and then killed several girls in Tucson, Arizona, during the early 1960s. The story begins with Connie, a fifteen-year-old teenager growing up in 1960s suburbia. She is preoccupied with typical teenage concerns: her looks and popular music. She argues with her mother, makes fun of her older, plainer sister, and hangs out with her friends in restaurants, movie theaters, and shopping malls. During these summertime social ventures, she and her friends try to attract the attention of the older high-school boys. One evening, while on a date in a restaurant, Connie notices a boy with black hair and a gold “jalopy”-a beat-up sports car-staring at her.
This story was first published by the literary journal Epoch in 1966 and was included in Oates’s 1970 short story collection, The Wheel of Love. Its acclaim was so swift and certain that, as early as 1972, critic Walter Sullivan noted that it was “one of her most widely reprinted stories and justly so.” Along with the story’s frequent appearance in textbooks and anthologies, Oates herself republished it in 1974 as the title story for Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America. This collection’s subtitle points to Oates’s ongoing interest in adolescence, especially the psychological and social turmoil that arises during this difficult period. Her preoccupation with these topics, along with her keen sense of the special pressures facing teenagers in contemporary society, is evident in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This story is seen by many as one of Oates’s best, and in the words of scholar G. F. Waller, it is “one of the masterpieces of the genre.” Oates’s realism often garners such praise; critics and readers alike have commended the presentation of the story’s central character, Connie, as a typical teenager with whom readers may identify, dislike, or even pity. A similar believability is instilled in Arnold Friend’s manipulative stream of conversation and its psychological effects on a vulnerable teenager. Critics also praise the story for its evocative language, its use of symbols, and an ambiguous conclusion that allows for several interpretations of the story’s meaning. In 1988 a film version of the story was released, entitled Smooth Talk.
The first line of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”- “Her name was Connie”-signals that the story will be told by a third-person narrator. This narrative voice stays closely aligned to Connie’s point of view. The reader learns what her thoughts are, but the narrator provides no additional information or judgment of the situation. For instance, Connie’s harsh appraisals of her sister and mother are discussed: “Now [her mother’s] looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.” However, it is clear that this assessment is Connie’s and not the narrator’s.
Interest in equal rights for women was a subject of great controversy during the early years of Oates’s career leading up to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The 1960s and early 1970s marked the escalation of the women’s movement. Economic shifts meant that more women worked outside the home, and Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, resulting in many political battles during the long ratification process, which ultimately failed. Many men and women reconsidered the traditional balance of power in their relationships, families, and the workplace. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, making it illegal to pay men and women different wages for the same work. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a woman’s right to privacy allowed for legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Although relations between the sexes had been a perennial topic in literature before this period, the 1960s saw a rise in the number of works that attempted to illustrate the oppression of women by a male-dominated society. Oates is among a number of writers who have devoted attention to the psychological and cultural processes that promote conflict, even violence, between men and women. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has often been viewed by critics as a story with feminist Themes, as Oates explores the pressures on young women to equate their self-worth with physical beauty. Furthermore, she demonstrates how men can emotionally exploit women and present a real, physical threat to them by preying upon their misguided notions of self-worth.
Topics for Discussion
1. Read the 1966 Life magazine article, “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” which inspired Oates’s story, and compare the fictional and journalistic interpretations of the same event. How does each writer try to shape the reader’s opinion through presentation of individuals, Setting, and events?
Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca (1938) is a tale about the psychological manipulation of a young bride by her wealthy, troubled husband, Max de Winter. This narrator’s insecurity and constant comparisons to her husband’s deceased first wife, Rebecca, leads to her inaccurate perceptions that give way to surprising truths in the novel’s suspenseful conclusion. Another work of interest is The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers’s 1946 novel about a young girl’s emotional conflicts and difficult transition into adulthood. Twelve-year-old female protagonist Frankie Addams wishes to be called F. Jasmine Addams and mistakenly believes that she will be accompanying her older brother on his honeymoon. McCullers’s deft use of perspective allows readers to understand and sympathize with Frankie, while gaining insights into her situation that she herself is incapable of achieving.
The tale of an insecure, romantic teenage girl drawn into a situation of foreboding violence, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” presents several Themes that arise from the interaction of sharply drawn Characters engaged in psychological manipulation.