Superficiality and the Psychological in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? ” Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? ” is an intense exploration of psychology among its characters. Primarily, the character of Connie is particularly interesting: she is a relatively flat character who doesn’t say much other than discussing her own beauty, but yet she ends up in a terrifying situation that mobilizes and interests the reader. Indeed, it is superficial Connie who ends up with the strange, threatening men at the end of the story, and she is the only character who knows what is going on.
Because she isn’t a fully-developed person in this story, Connie’s conflict is purely psychological and easy to see from outside: since the reader does not have a particularly strong attachment to this story’s protagonist, the danger becomes even more removed and unreal. Interestingly, by providing fewer intimate details of her main character, Oates allows her story to occupy a much more ethereal and psychological realm than if Connie was an interesting and detailed person, thereby creating an entirely different story than before.
Joyce Carol Oates, a contemporary and very prolific author, has ideas of what the purpose of her writing is. In an interview, Oates stated, “I don’t accept charges that I’m unduly violent in my writing. Most of my novels and stories are explorations of the contemporary world interpreted in a realist mode, from what might be called a tragic and humanistic viewpoint. Tragedy always upholds the human spirit” (Sjoberg, 272). “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? ” certainly fits this mold of literature: the story ends with the stark possibility of Connie’s torture or death, though the reader never discovers what exactly takes place.
Indeed, the story ends with her located in “so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it” (16), recalling numerous scenes of child kidnapping and the various brutal crimes often associated with it. This situation is tragic in and of itself, obviously – these types of crimes are never socially sanctioned, and the anonymity of Connie’s attackers makes the crime even more vicious. Oates, however, is challenging the idea of tragedy in this short story.
Because Connie does not have a well-defined personality, the reader cannot sympathize with her as he or she could with a character that is more fleshed out. Here, the tragedy is only a tragedy because of the nature of the crime: the identity of the victim does not influence the tragic nature of the incident. Because of the simplicity of the tragedy in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? ”, the story is inherently psychological. The reader is forced to reckon with where her or his sympathies lie, and identify why this story is so disconcerting.
Indeed, when Arnold Friend makes statements such as “I want you…Seen you that night and thought, that’s the one, yes sir. I never needed to look anymore” (14), it is a clearly disturbing moment. These moments continue to become directed more and more at Connie: Oates writes, “No, your daddy is not coming and yes, you had to wash your hair and you washed it for me. It’s nice and shining and all for me. I thank you sweetheart” (14), demonstrating that this situation is not simply abstract, but that it does relate directly to Connie.
This, however, is the beauty of the story: not only is the story a psychological thriller in terms of what’s going on and what is on the various characters’ minds, but it also forces the reader to think about who these people are and how their relationships have developed. Further, this story does not allow the reader to simply sympathize with Connie in the situation, instead forcing him or her to recognize distaste for the protagonist, who isn’t well-developed in the first place, and think about what it means for this story to be a tragedy.
If Connie were a more round character, this story wouldn’t be as psychological because it would be easier to sympathize with her and thereby pay more attention to plot than ideas.
Works Cited Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? ” Celestial Timepiece 17 April 2009. <http://jco. usfca. edu/works/wgoing/text. html> Sjoberg, Leif. “An Interview With Joyce Carol Oates. ” Contemporary Literature 23. 3 (1982): 267-284.