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“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Short Story by Joyce Carol Oates

The plot of the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates centers around the encounter of a girl and a mysterious man who tries to seduce her. It has both realistic and allegorical levels of meaning and is generally viewed as an illustration of initiation into sexual adulthood and an encounter with the Devil (Gillis 65). The tale of sexual awakening is told in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” through the portrayal of a young girl representing innocence and a mysterious man regarded as a personification of a satyr.

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The short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” was written by Joyce Carol Oates in 1966 and first published in Epoch magazine. It is thought to have been inspired by three Tucson, Arizona murders committed by Charles Schmid in 1964–1965 (Courthard 506). The story was originally named “Death and the Maiden” and is dedicated to Bob Dylan because Oates was inspired to write it after listening to Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” tells the story of Connie, a young and beautiful girl of 15 who lives in a small town in a southern state with her mother, father, and sister, and spends much of her time daydreaming and picking up boys. She meets a mysterious stranger who comes to her house in a brightly painted car and tries to persuade her to go for a ride with him. She likes him initially but gradually starts to realize that he is much older than she thought and notices strange details about his behavior and appearance. Frightened, she runs to pick up the phone but fails and is compelled to leave with him, realizing that she will never return to her house again.

Connie’s character is portrayed through the description of her appearance, behavior, and emotions. She is depicted as a beautiful girl with long dark blond hair who regards herself as pretty and constantly “glances into mirrors or people’s faces to make sure her own is all right” (Oates 1). The most important feature about her appearance is that “everything about her had two sides in it, one for home, and one for anywhere that was not home” (Oates 2). Her walk, facial features, laugh, and clothes seem to change whenever she leaves the house reflecting the changes in her behavior. Connie’s personality has two aspects in it: one that feels trapped in the house with the family that does not understand her, and the other that enjoys life outside parental restraints.

This contradiction is further emphasized in the description of her behavior. With her family, she raises her eyebrows, feels like she wants to throw up, feels tense and struggles between vexation and submission. Her mother picks up at her and speaks of her disapprovingly, and her 24-year old sister, who is “plain and chunky and steady” (Oates 1), does not understand her. Cm cruel. She tells neither her mother nor her sister how she spends her days, and they do not care and do not ask. When at home, she either daydreams or gets in her mother’s way, and, although there are no fights in the family, there is no real connection either. Connie spends most of her time alone, lost in her dreams.

When Connie leaves the house, her behavior changes drastically. She spends days with her girlfriends in a shopping mall, walking and laughing and picking up boys. Sometimes, she goes out with them, and “it is nice and sweet, not in the way someone like June would suppose, but sweet, gentle, the way it is in movies and promised in songs” (Oates 3). There are no sexual motives in her behavior; although Connie is sexually mature, she is too young and innocent to exploit her beauty. She searches for love and is “in love with love” (Petry 156), and all the boys she meets are dissolved in her mind “into a single face that was not even a face but an idea” (Oates 3). Overall, Connie is portrayed as a representation of youth and innocence that idealizes love and is never more than half-awake to reality.

The turning moment for her character occurs when she encounters a stranger that tries to seduce her. The author describes her reactions, behavior, thoughts, and feelings to illustrate the shock and transformation that Connie suffers when her dream world collapses, and she faces reality. When the boy comes to her house that she has previously met on the street, she, although disturbed, regards him as an ordinary encounter. She notices the things about him that attract her: his clothes, muscles, smile, laughter, and the sound of his voice. She is almost ready to be enamored by him when she realizes that something is not right. Connie notices that he is not a kid and is probably around his thirties. His friend is weird, he walks weirdly, he knows all her friends and acquaintances, and there are disturbing details in his appearance and behavior that alarm her. In her head, the initial sympathy turns into fear when he starts to insist on her going for a ride and having sex with him.

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Connie’s character is generally believed to represent youth and innocence. According to Courthard (507), “she is simply a pathetic teenager, and there is nothing psychologically complex about her.” The story describes the moment of sexual awakening when her innocence is confronted with reality, and she realizes that the world is not as sunny as she imagined it to be in her dreams. When analyzing the story from an allegorical perspective, her character is compared to that of a nymph who is seduced by a satyr.

The second character of the story is Arnold Friend, the man who falls for Connie after meeting her on the street and comes to her house in an attempt to persuade her into riding away with him. Nothing is known about his past or present, and the only information revealed to the reader is what he tells Connie about himself. His appearance and behavior are described from Connie’s perspective, and the details which she observes shape the reader’s perception of the character.

From their first encounter, he is described as a boy with shaggy black hair in a convertible jalopy painted gold, who watches Connie with a grin on his face. When he comes to her house, she examines his appearance in detail, noticing that he is not tall, has muscular hands, and is dressed in a way that she likes. She describes the sound of his voice, which is simple and lifting, “slightly mocking, kidding, but serious, as if he is reciting the words to a song” (Oates 6). However, something about his appearance starts to seem strange. Connie suddenly realizes that he is much older than she thought, he knows too much about her friends and family, and is too insisting on her traveling with him. He notices that his hair looks like a wig, and there are other things in his appearance that seem artificial; even his boots look like they have been stuffed with something to make him taller. He is not real; not in a way that the boys from her daydreams are but in a fake and demonic way (Petry 157). She feels that he possesses the power beyond her understanding and unwillingly succumbs to it.

The character of Arnold Friend has been the subject of extensive scholarly research, with his figure generally believed to be the personification of Satan. This idea was inspired by the author’s quote that “Arnold Friend is a fantastic figure: he is Death, he is the ‘elf-knight’ of the ballads, he is the Imagination, he is a Dream, he is a Lover, a Demon, and all that” (qtd. in Gillis 65). However, Easterly (537) suggests that his traits and character are more elusive of a satyr, a demi-god from Greek and Roman mythology, than of the Devil. He has a muscular upper body, black hair, and hawklike nose, wears a wig to cover his ears, and his feet do not go all that down into his boots because a satyr’s feet end in hoofs (Easterly 538). His name, “Arnold Friend,” is pronounced similarly to “an old friend,” which is perceived by the critics as a hint that he has been around since antiquity (Easterly 538). Arnold possesses supernatural abilities, describing to Connie what her family is doing at the moment. While the Devil is usually presented as interested in possessing human souls, Fiend clearly desires sexual relationship with Connie, tempting her rather than threatening (Easterly 539). He is a menacing and demonic creature that pretends to be a young man to seduce and kill his prey.

The story is, therefore, interpreted as an adumbration of a myth with universal implications. Easterly (539) notes that “the ambiguous power this stranger has over Connie, the depth of his deceptiveness, and the danger the ensuing adventure holds for her become more understandable when Friend is viewed as the manifestation of a satyr in modern dress.” The story is perceived as a tale of a young and innocent creature being seduced by the personification of lechery.

In a more realistic interpretation of the story, Arnold Friend is seen as a character inspired by the serial killer Charles Schmid who murdered three women in a similar manner in 1964–1965. The author models his character on Schmidt, who also was short and muscular, and tried to appear younger by dying his hair, wearing makeup, and stuffing his boots to appear taller (Courtyard 506). The events and details of the story mirror the circumstances of one of Schmidt’s murders: the victim was 15, she was alone in the house, and had just washed her hair when the murderer came.

In this sense, the story is purely realistic in its style and nature, and nothing occurs in it that cannot be explained. Courthard claims that “its principal characters are not personification of abstract qualities but a demented killer and giddy teen-aged girl” (508). Gillis (65) notes that it is “a story of a man who leads his victim not to a promising new world, but, rather, to a violent sexual assault; a tale of initiation depicted in grotesque relief.” From that point of view, the story can be regarded as a psychological tale of a teenager trying to accept the inevitability of death and of a woman’s weakness in the face of a man threatening her.

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Overall, the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has several layers of meaning. From a realistic perspective, it is a tale of a victim and a murderer, with Arnold Fiend representing a sick killer and Connie being an ordinary teenager who struggles to accept the inevitability of death. On the allegorical level, it is a story of sexual awakening that can be traced back to ancient myths (Gillis 65). Arnold Friend can be viewed as a personification of a satyr, with Connie being a nymph he is trying to seduce (Courthard 509). She experiences pain and shock when the world of dreams she has been living in collapses, and she faces reality. Throughout the story, Connie represents youth and innocence, and the mysterious character of Arnold Friend, as seen from Connie’s perspective, transforms from an attractive young man into a demonic creature with supernatural powers.

Works Cited

Courthard, A. R. “Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” As Pure Realism.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 505–510.

Easterly, John. “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 27, no. 4, 1990, pp. 537–547.

Gillis, Christina Marsden. “’Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?’: Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 65–72.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” 1966. Web.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Who Is Ellie? Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 155–158.

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