I love it when an author can make you start out a story by hating their main character, and in the end, make you pity, or even admire them. This is but one reason that I teach Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” in my class on the grotesque. [editor's note: you can find the full text of the story here] The other reason is that it falls into the realm of the fantastic and uncanny, and stirs up a whirl of debate during our short class hour. When I ask my students if Arnold Friend is a supernatural being or psychotic stalker, the class is usually split fifty-fifty. That’s some powerful fantastic at work.
I first ask students what they think of Connie—most of them emphatically do not like her. A few say that she reminds them of every other fifteen year old girl. A few will confess that they were Connie at that age. But she is a hero to no one. Then I have students list the grotesque, fantastic descriptions of Arnold Friend. They are spread throughout the tale so that we only encounter the figure in stages, much like Connie. At first we assume he is just a little older than Connie, and even though he stands, “in a strange way, leaning back against the car as if he were balancing himself,” she still thinks his face is “a familiar face, somehow” (982). His eyes are “like chips of broken glass that catch the light in an amiable way” (982). This plasticity to Arnold Friend’s character lends itself to the fantastic: all throughout the story, his description builds and deconstructs itself before our very eyes. There is something humorous about a teenage boy that cannot balance himself, but then there is something utterly terrifying when you realize, along with Connie, that “he wasn’t a kid, he was much older—thirty, maybe more” (984). Once we have this fifteen year old girl faced with a grown man and his friend, whom she realizes isn’t a boy either, we fear for this girl that but a few scant pages before we judged as a selfish teenager only interested in her appearance.
Yet here, again, my students react violently to Connie as well, demanding that she defend herself, call the police, bar the door. They forget she’s out in the country, with only a screen door between her and Arnold, who promises that “anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else that he needs to” (986). He also promises that he won’t come into the house unless she touches the phone: “I ain’t made plans for coming in that house where I don’t belong but just for you to come out to me, just the way you should. Don’t you know who I am?” (987). And on that question rests the pivotal tension of the story, for we don’t really know who Arnold Friend is. He talks in lilting way to Connie, who at one point says that “he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and…everything about him and even the music that was so familiar to her was only half real” (985). He knows Connie’s family is at a barbecue, and casually asks about the woman down the road who is dead (yet he talks about her as if she was alive). All of these facets don’t quite add up to a coherent human personality. But more important is what the fantastic presents Connie with in terms of redemption. For, as selfish and shallow as we see her in the beginning, Arnold’s promise that he will leave her family unharmed if she goes with him allows Connie to perform an act of sacrificial love.
Before she does that, though, she reaches for the phone in one last attempt of an earthly rescue, and again Oates uses the fantastic to completely disorient the reader. We see Connie scream “into the phone, into the roaring…and felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend were stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house “(988). My students are always confused at that moment, unsure of where Arnold is standing and whether or not Connie has been assaulted until Oates lets us know that he is by the door, and hasn’t moved. The landscape stretches out before us when Arnold says, “The place where you come from ain’t there anymore, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out” (988). This echoes the last line of the story when Connie, after coming out of the house to join Arnold, looks at “the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him, so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to now that she was going to it” (989).
I can’t say whether students end up really liking the story for its own sake, or if it’s more what the story does, how it moves like a strange animal. For it is certainly not a story about sexual awakening like some people might want us to believe. The language used against Connie is one of a rape, by a man who may or may not be a man. He is the uncanny catalyst who presents this young girl with a choice, and in protecting her family from this unearthly human, she becomes the heroine of the story. We are left with more questions, certainly, than answers (and this frustrates my students most of all), but in that rhetorical gap caused by the fantastic, we can then truly begin to discuss real issues about violence in our society, gender dynamics, and the possibility of unconditional love.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” Worlds of Fiction. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.