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.
Observing the story’s events through a narrator who presents them through Connie’ eyes allows the reader to identify with her terror as she is transformed from a flirt into a victim. Arnold Friend is presented only as he appears to Connie; the reader learns nothing of his unspoken thoughts. This narrative “detachment” makes him less human and more ominous than if the narrator provided details that would encourage the reader to identify with him. Maintaining the third-person narrative voice instead of telling the story in Connie’s own words, however, allows Oates to use descriptive language that Connie would presumably not use. It is through this language that much of the mood, imagery, and symbolism of the story emerge.
The structure of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” follows a familiar pattern. The first few pages of exposition acquaint the reader with Connie and her family, providing details about her character and lifestyle. The rising action begins when Arnold Friend pulls into the driveway and instigates a conversation with Connie. Her character, which has been carefully outlined, begins to interact with another force. This force creates a conflict for Connie; should she succumb to Arnold, or try to save herself? At the climax of the story, Connie’s will is overtaken by Arnold, and she acquiesces to his evil desires.
The most unusual aspect of the story’s structure, perhaps, is its lack of resolution. The action abruptly ends as Connie walks towards Arnold. The fact that the reader does not find out Connie’s fate further heightens the story’s mood of violence, in which horror is suggested, but never shown. The foreshadowing statements made by Arnold imply rape, but don’t show him committing this act of violence against Connie. Similarly, Connie laments that “I’m not going to see my mother again” or “sleep in my bed again,” suggesting that she knows she will be murdered. However, the lack of a stated resolution has been a point of major discussion in critical essays on the story, with some writers proposing that Connie is killed and others proposing that she is not. Some critics look to Oates’s factual source in the Arizona murderer she had read about in Life magazine as evidence of Connie’s certain death. A different perspective on the story is provided by critic Larry Rubin, who interpreted the entire encounter with Arnold as Connie’s dream. By this reasoning, the story’s unstated resolution involves Connie awakening from one of her “trashy daydreams.” The ambiguity of the ending heightens the horror by prolonging the suspense until well after the reader has finished reading the story.
Many other critics have interpreted Arnold Friend as a symbol of some larger idea or force, such as the devil, death, or sexuality. Connie, also, has been said to represent many things: Eve, troubled youth, or spiritually unenlightened humanity. Such interpretations can be validated by Oates’s initial title for the story, “Death and the Maiden,” which she explains was chosen to suggest “an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil)” for a young woman who is “seduced by her own vanity.” Oates also points out, though, that as she revised the story her interest shifted toward a more realistic treatment of her character and situation. Several images are used to give readers insight into Connie’s perspective. These images frequently relate to popular music, which serves as a background throughout the story and takes on a near-sacred religious function for Connie since “none of them bothered with church.” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is subtitled “For Bob Dylan,” and at least one critic has noticed the similarity between Arnold’s car and the “magic swirling ship” that Dylan wrote about in his 1960s song “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Connie believes that life and love will be “the way it was in movies and promised in songs,” and this belief in the simplistic messages of popular music makes her unable to discern Arnold Friend’s true nature until it is too late for escape. Arnold, too, relies on song lyrics to seduce Connie. In a “half-sung sigh,” he calls her “my sweet little blue-eyed girl,” a possible reference to the Van Morrison song “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Connie, in fact, has brown eyes, and his misstatement is further evidence that Arnold is not what he seems.