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.
Connie prides herself on being a skilled flirt who has never been in a situation she could not handle. She feels confident when Arnold Friend arrives at her door while she is alone in the house: “Who the hell do you think you are?” she asks. Mistaking him for the type of boy she frequently attracts, she thinks she recognizes him from the sound of his car’s horn, from his clothing and appearance, and from the banter with which he attempts to lure her into his car. Both Arnold and Connie contribute to these erroneous first impressions. Arnold assumes the role of teenage Romeo although he is much older, and Connie accepts his facade because of her fondness for the “trashy daydreams” to which her mother accuses her of subscribing. Because the story is told from Connie’s perspective (although she is not the narrator), readers see the gradual dismantling of these first impressions through her eyes. She concludes that Arnold’s hair may be a wig, that his tan is the result of makeup, and that his boots “must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.” Though the veracity of these observations is never proven, they reveal Connie’s realization that Arnold is not what he seems. His romantic words are not original, but taken from popular songs, and his manner is that of “a hero in a movie.” Nothing about Arnold Friend is genuine, except his violent intentions and his skill at psychological and physical intimidation. By the story’s end, Connie understands that she is not the confident flirt she thought, but a powerless pawn in the hands of a dangerous individual.
Connie is vulnerable to Arnold Friend’s manipulations primarily because she has no clear identity of her own. As a teenager, she is neither a child nor a woman. Connie attempts to establish her identity by testing the boundaries her parents set for her, assuming a different persona at home than with her friends, and seeking validation of her attractiveness from the boys at the drive-in restaurant. She identifies her worth as a person with her physical beauty, a factor that causes her to disparage her sister, fight with her mother, and engage in the “habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Connie’s behavior is typical among teenagers searching for identity. Though Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend is extreme, Oates devised the situation to illustrate how an unstable identity can make an adolescent-especially a girl-susceptible to exploitation by someone who knows how to feed a vain, unsteady ego for his own interests and desires. Connie is practiced in acting out the stereotype of a pretty girl. By the time Arnold asks her, “What else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” she feels she can do nothing but comply. Trusting in her incomplete identity to the end, she is led to ruin.
Her unstable identity provides Connie with a mentality that makes her a perfect victim for Arnold’s sexual, perhaps even murderous, designs. In the presence of a villain, Connie’s propensity for flirtation becomes a fatal character trait. Unfamiliar with the logic and reasoning that comes from having a strong, centered identity, she is susceptible to Arnold’s psychological manipulation, and thus complicit in her own demise. Connie assumes that because Arnold looks and acts like other boys she has known-those she believes she has handled so adeptly in the past-she has nothing to fear from him. She is drawn in by his flattery, intrigued by his claims that he has “found out all about” her. By the time his violent intentions become apparent, Arnold has gained a psychological hold over Connie that he maintains with a blend of threats, romantic language, and a hypnotic tone that she regards as an “incantation.” He strips her of the little selfhood she possesses by telling her who she is: a nice girl who is sweet and pretty and does what he says. By the time she surrenders to Arnold, he has so undermined her sense of personal will that she is left with the sense that her body is no longer her own.
Fifteen-year-old Connie exhibits the confusing, often superficial behavior typical of those facing the difficult transition from girlhood to womanhood. She is rebellious, vain, self-centered, and deceitful. She is caught between her roles as daughter, friend, sister, and object of sexual desire, uncertain of which represents the real her: “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home.” She is deeply romantic, as shown by her awareness of popular song lyrics, but she is interested more in the concept of having a boyfriend than in the boy himself. She sees the boys who exhibit interest in her primarily as conquests who “dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea.” All of these traits make her vulnerable to Arnold Friend’s manipulation. A more complex reading of Connie’s character, which includes a glimmer of hope for reaching beyond her own self-centeredness, can be found in an article by Joyce Carol Oates. In speaking of the ending to the story, Oates points out that Connie is “capable of an unexpected gesture of heroism” when she believes that her compliance with Arnold will prevent him from harming her family.
Initially portrayed as “a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold” who notices Connie at the drive-in restaurant, Arnold Friend assumes many identities throughout the story. He is the sweet-talking suitor, whose appearance Connie approves of because of his “familiar face.” He is also a potential rapist and murderer who uses psychological manipulation to appeal to Connie’s vanity and need to be liked by men. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Arnold Friend is that he blends elements of romance-“I took a special interest in you, such a pretty girl”-and violence-“We ain’t leaving until you come with us”-in order to appeal to a young woman unsure of who she is. Arnold Friend’s name is a dark joke, alternately A. Friend, or without too much transformation, An Old Fiend. Many critics have suggested that Arnold Friend is the devil in disguise. He has trouble balancing on his small feet-hooves?-and the makeup on his face makes him look younger than he really is. He tells Connie that he is eighteen, although she estimates that he must be at least 30. He calls an “X” he draws in the air “his sign,” and knows that Connie’s family is away for the afternoon, describing their whereabouts in astonishing detail.
Other Characters in the story include Connie’s frequently nagging mother, who makes comparisons between Connie and June, her well-behaved oldest daughter. Her mother generally disapproves of Connie’s behavior. She thinks that Connie’s actions and manner of dress are more promiscuous than those befitting a fifteen-year-old girl. Connie, on the other hand, believes that their conflict stems from her mother’s resentment of her youth and beauty. Nevertheless, Connie’s mother tries her best to trust her. That trust, however, is interpreted by Connie as “simplicity,” because she thinks her mother believes her lies about “where she’s going” and “where she’s been.” Yet their deep connection becomes apparent near the end of the story when Connie “[cries] for her mother” and thinks “I’m not going to see my mother again.” This indicates that Connie’s rejection of her mother is a no more than a product of teenage defiance.