An Essay on Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

Prompt: Both Connie and Arnold Friend more than once suggest that he is, or should be, familiar to her. Aside from the fact she has seen him at least once before, why and how does he seem familiar? Why might that familiarity be significant, or how might it shape your sense of who Arnold is or what he might represent in the story?


Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is a chilling story. The way that Joyce Carol Oates writes Arnold Friend as a predator and fifteen-year-old Connie as prey is horrifying, and there are many moments in the story that leave the reader filled with dread. Some of these moments are when Connie’s internal monologue is shown to the reader, and she is noticing things about Arnold that seem off or threatening.


At one such moment, Connie is watching Arnold Friend standing outside of her door and thinks about how:


she recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put into words. She recognized all this and also the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him. But all these things did not come together (par. 77).


Connie recognizes all these things about Arnold Friend, but she doesn’t recognize him specifically. Earlier in the story, Connie had been out another evening with a friend and had passed Arnold at a burger joint while she was walking with another boy. That evening their eyes met in the parking lot, Connie took note of Arnold Friend’s distinctive hair and distinctive car. Connie doesn’t say a word to Arnold Friend, she doesn’t even know his name yet, but he says to her “Gonna get you, baby” (par. 7). That is the only time that Connie has any contact with Arnold Friend before he shows up at her house several days later.


So, it seems odd that he would be familiar to Connie during this meeting in her driveway while she is home alone. He is a stranger who she has only glimpsed once. How can he be familiar? But, Connie keeps thinking that there are familiar things about him. “His face was a familiar face, somehow” (par. 46).


Arnold Friend himself approaches Connie with an inappropriate and startling level of familiarity. He breaks standards for acceptable behavior by treating a girl he is meeting for only the second time ever like a long-time girlfriend who he is confident is madly in love with him. The first thing he says to Connie is “I ain’t late, am I?” (par. 17). He speaks as if he knows that Connie has been expecting him. Connie’s response of “who the hell do you think you are” (par. 18) makes complete sense to say to a stranger who shows up unexpectedly at your house and then pretends like you have made plans together. Arnold Friend, however, ignores Connie’s response as if she is the one who is not making sense. He continues pushing the narrative he has created onto Connie as if he can rewrite truth through pure force of will.


Arnold Friend is familiar to Connie. Connie “liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed” (par. 46). The reader can assume that Connie is talking about boys. Much of her focus during the story has been on boys. The story begins with a description of Connie’s habit of checking mirrors or “other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right” (par. 1). Connie “knew she was pretty and that was everything” (par. 1). Being pretty attracts boys.


It is summer vacation for Connie, and when she’s not out with her friends meeting boys, she’s at home “getting in her mother’s way and thinking, dreaming about the boys she met” (par. 10). As she thinks about these boys her mental images of them dissolve “into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July” (par. 10). The boys are melded together by her wanting for them and her wanting for them to want her.


On the day that Arnold Friend shows up to Connie’s house uninvited, before he arrives, Connie is sunbathing in her backyard “dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over into thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was” (par. 12).


When Arnold Friend shows up at Connie’s house her feeling that he is familiar is mingled with her recognition of the distinctly male things about him. While Connie is noticing how muscular he is she is also noticing that “his face was a familiar face, somehow; the jaw and chin and cheeks slightly darkened because he hadn’t shaved for a day or two, and the nose long and hawklike, sniffing as if she was a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke” (par. 46).


The male face is familiar. The features, compared to the features of a predator, a hawk, are familiar. The idea that Connie is a treat to be gobbled up by a boy is familiar. Before Arnold Friend shows up, Connie is thinking about the boy she was with the night before, a boy who “gobbled” her, a boy who she wanted to be “gobbled” by. Arnold Friend is exciting some of the same feelings in Connie, but in a different way. The night before was “nice” and “sweet”. Arnold Friend seems neither nice nor sweet. He is an attractive yet unknown entity that is forcing his way into her life. Connie doesn’t yet know whether or not she wants to be “gobbled” by Arnold Friend. He is both enticing and threatening.


The threat outweighs the attraction whe Connie realizes what is not familiar about Arnold Friend. Connie is continuing to notice things she recognizes about him, about boys in general. She recognizes “tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt”. She recognizes “that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put into words”. She recognizes “the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy,” and she recognizes “the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him, but all these things did not come together” (par. 77).


Connie has finally pinpointed what is foreign about Arnold Friend, and she asks him how old he is. When Arnold Friend realizes what Connis has realized “his smile faded” (par. 79). He tries to lie and convince Connie that he is also a teenager, but Connie sees through the lie. She has realized that Arnold Friend is not a boy, but a man. Boys are familiar to Connie, but men are not, and she doesn’t want them to be.


Connie’s fear only grows when she realizes that the friend Arnold brought along with him is also a man rather than a boy (par. 86). “Maybe you two better go away,” she tells them, but Arnold Friend is not taking no for an answer. Arnold Friend does not go away. He reveals that he know even more information about where Connie’s family is. He threatens Connie and her family when Connie says she is going to call the police. When the story ends, Connie, alone with this predatory man and terrified out of her mind, does not seem to have any option but to comply with his demand that she come with him. Reading these events play out is so chilling, because Arnold Friend seemed so familiar. He’s the irresistible bad boy that sweeps a teenage girl off her feet and whisks her away from her stifling family. At least, that’s who we thought Arnold Friend was at first. That’s who he wants us to think he is.


Is the bad boy so irresistible, though, when, instead of whisking, he coerces and threatens? No, he is not. Is the bad boy irresistible when he’s not a boy at all, but a man playing the part of a boy. No, he’s just creepy then. The familiarity of Arnold Friend is so unnerving, because the familiarity is just a facade covering up something devious and malicious.