Arguing for an Interpretation: Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?

Text Reconstruction and Psychological Analysis: Profiling Arnold as a Serial Killer and Connie a Victim

Writing Project: Arguing for an Interpretation
Essay Concerned: Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?

“Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates has been praised for all these years as one of the best short stories. Furthermore each reader has given it a different reading. And every one of them is sufficiently unscrambled with convincing evidence.

Many interpretations concerning this story focus either on the characters individually or on them both and the main approach is in a psychological perspective. Interpretations centering on Connie as a typical adolescent girl suggest that “she is on an inward quest for personal identity but comes to disaster because she has been deprived of ‘maps of the unconscious such as fairy tales provide” (Schulz and Rockwood, 156). And they approach the story from a psychological perspective as “products of the unconscious mental process of a troubled adolescent girl who represents an entire generation of young people” (Schulz and Rockwood, 157).

Interpretations focusing on the other major character, Arnold Friend, find a “surface realism” in which “Arnold Friend is read as a ‘Symbolic Satan’ whose access to fifteen-year-old Connie is a direct result of the moral indifference of the adults in the story” (Wegs, 67-70).

What’s more, interpretations that see Connie and Arnold as a whole offer us a totally different perspective. Joyce M. Wegs asserts that Arnold “functions on a psychological level wherein he is the incarnation of Connie’s unconscious erotic desires and dreams, but in uncontrollable nightmare form” (70). In turn, Marie M.O. Urbanski sees the story as an existential allegory of initiation which represents a “young person coming to grips with externally determined fate” (200). G.J. Weinberger would have us see Arnold Friend as “Connie’s double, her ‘alter ego’ who represents her fear of the passage from adolescence to adulthood” (205).

There is also distinctly feminist reading of this story. As Greg Johnson puts it, “as a feminist allegory, then, ‘Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?’ is a cautionary tale, suggesting that young woman are ‘going’ exactly where their mothers and grandmothers have already ‘been’: into sexual bondage at the hands of a male ‘Friend’” (103).

While all of these interpretations have their points, what is missing is a close examination of where the story is originated. The problem behind all these interpretations searching for figurative meanings is that sometimes we ignored the truth that the story can also stand completely on its own conveying a social reality.

It is widely acknowledged that Joyce Carol Oates once revealed that her story was influenced by a Life magazine account of a tabloid psychopath known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson”, an Arizona serial killer who raped and killed teenage girls, burying their bodies in the Arizona desert. There are some critics, like A. R. Coulthard, and Tom Quirk, identify the story as “an actual murder case” and reads it as simple realism. And I believe that much more can be said.

Under the background of a true serial killer case, this story has showed us Arnold Friend as a serial killer and his process of targeting, seducing and threatening his victim, a fifteen-year-old girl-Connie who is a typical adolescent young girl.

Serial murder is neither a new phenomenon, nor is it uniquely American. Dating back to ancient times, serial killers have been chronicle around the world. One of the most notorious serial killers is an unknown individual named himself “Jack the Ripper” who was down on whores and sent letters to the police claiming to the killer and he had never been caught.

Arnold Friend was perceived as a serial killer who owns a dominant personality which can be seen easily in the way he speaks. He prefers using imperative sentences and rhetorical questions. And he is always the leading character in the conversation between Connie and him, and also between Ellie and him. All these features make him arrogant and conceited.

“I ain’t late, am I?”
“Toldja I’d be out, didn’t I?”
“Don’tcha believe me, or what?”
“You won’t want that.”
“I toldja shut up, Ellie. Don’t hem in on me, don’t hog, don’t crush, don’t bird dog, don’t trail me.”

No matter in relationship with whom, it seems that Arnold is always the one that orders, leads and dominants. He forces others to think the way he thinks, tells them to do things the way he wants them to be done.

The dominant personality is very common in the serial killers along with some other characteristics that can be concluded as the personality disorder. People may ask how a person became a serial killer. The answer usually lies in the development of the individual from birth to adulthood. Specifically, the behavior a person displays is influenced by life experiences, as well as certain biological factors.

The development of social coping mechanisms begins early in life and continues to progress as children learn to interact, negotiate and compromise with their peers. In some individuals the failure to develop adequate coping mechanism results in violent behavior. There are certain traits common to serial killers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilty, impulsivity, the need for control, predatory behavior are consistent with the psychopathic personality disorder which manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their selfish needs.

Arnold Friend’s behavior is coincidence with the pattern of serial killers usually possess. He wants to show his targets that he is in control. He keeps letting Connie be aware of one thing that is his knowing everything about her, like he know “her parents and sister are gone somewhere and he knows where and how long they’re going to be gone, and he knows who she were with last night and her best friend’s name is Betty.” These details are the evidence that Arnold displays to control Connie, as if he was saying, you cannot run away from me, don’t even bother to think about it.”

Besides the dominant personality, Arnold cannot endure being ignored or being disobeyed. At the end of the story, he gradually lost his temper and threatens Connie of hurting her family. He is the one who owns the leverage all along. She has no chance of escaping.

There is an interesting detail in the story that worth mentioning. The one seemingly obscure passage in Oates’ story offer us a clue that where Arnold Friend from instead of nowhere. Shortly after making his first threat to harm Connie’s family, Arnold Friend says something that seems totally unrelated to anything that has gone before.

“Hey, you know that old woman down the road, the one with the chickens and stuff-you know her?”
“She is dead!”
“Dead? What ? You know her?” Arnold Friend said.
“She is dead,-she’s-she isn’t here anymore”
“Don’t you like her?”
“But don’t you like her, I mean, you got something against her? Some grudge or something?” Then his voice dipped as if he were conscious of rudeness.

Who is this woman? Why did he particularly mention this one? His rude questions at the end of this passage indicate that he had some personal feeling for the woman.

And where do all the detailed information about Connie, her family, her friends, her whole neighborhoods, even the names of them, come from? This detailed information cannot be gathered just in days all by Arnold Friend himself. There is a big possibility that Arnold Friend is born and raised in this town. That’s why he knew it so well, so thoroughly. Connie’s family moved in this town for three years. This hypothesis can also be supported by the details in this story. After Arnold Friend listed some kids’ names to show that he knows everybody, Connie questioned him about how he knew all about this. Arnold says, “Sure you saw me before. You just don’t remember.” And then Connie found an expression kids had used the year before but didn’t use this year on Arnold’s car. She found it familiar in the latter part of the story.

“She recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that…, and even that slippery friendly smile of his…She recognized all this and also the sing-song way he talked…, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against…”

Everything about him is so familiar and that cannot be Connie’s illusions. This perfectly indicates that Arnold Friend knows Connie and Connie has seen him before and now she just couldn’t remember.

Speaking of Connie, we may ask, “Why Connie? Why did Arnold Friend target her instead of anyone else?” It has been studied that not all serial killers are sexually based. There are many motivations including anger, thrill, financial gain, attention seeking and revival. Arnold Friend show great interest in Connie and he said himself that he took a special interest in her. Since we have talked about the possibility that Arnold Friend is from this neighborhood and they may have seen each other before. Is there a chance that once upon a time, Arnold was also attracted by Connie in a way that boys usually do and was rejected or ignored by Connie? And this could be the trigger of all the things happened after. He cannot bear that he was ignored by Connie and make promises to get Connie’s attention by all means and this time he will not give her the chance to ignore him again. He possibly tailed Connie for days and until that night, she finally saw him.

“It was a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible…He waged a finger and laughed and said, “Gonna get you, baby.”

The author has left us a lot of clues that indicates this story as a well-organized case. All the seemingly unrelated details and plots now become clear and reasonable, all the dots have been connected when we looking backwards.

For over thirty years critics have debated over Connie decisions to leave with Arnold Friend. They question Connie’s values and morals, and the author’s intent. What I am trying to say here is that is there any choice that was left for her? Sure she is in her adolescent age and she has bad family relationships. But that is not the reason of her leaving with Arnold Friend. Connie felt a wave of dizziness rise in her when she realized that those two men are much older than she was told. She realized the danger and she said faintly to Arnold to go away. Fear raised in her already.

“Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it…. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness.” She knew deeply in heart that something was happening to her. She was desperate. “She thought, I’m not going to see my mother again. She thought, I’m not going to sleep in my bed again.” She knew exactly that she would not come back home again. She yelled for help. She scared the hell out of herself. She struggles but failed. “She thought for the first time in her life that it was nothing that was hers, that belonged to her, but just a pounding, living thing inside this body wasn’t really hers either.”

All in all, different interpretations build on their own grounds. So do mine. I believe that we cannot compare them simply. But in this interpretation of mine, I concentrate on the details that the author portrayed and analyze them from the background of author’s inspiration and approach the story in the psychological perspective to profile the behavior of Arnold as a serial killer and Connie a victim. And I perceive it as a reasonable explanation and interpretation.

Works Cited

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia, SC: U of South California P, 1987.
Kurkowski, Clifford J. “A Psychological Analysis of Connie: A Feminist Viewpoint of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Footlights, n.d. Web. 21 April 2011. .
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” Ed. Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994.
Quirk, Tom. “A Source For ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Studies in Short Fiction 18.4 (Fall 1981): 413-19.
Rhodes, Bess. Killing Two Birds with One Stone: Oates’ Figurative and literal Reason behind “Where Are You Going, Where have You Been?”, Watermarks
Urbanski, Marie Mitchell Olesen. “Existential Allegory.” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Ed. Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. 75-79.

Reflective Companion Piece to Project:

It is a really good short story that gains a lot of different interpretations from different readers. Inspired by those interpretations, I developed my own based on my understanding of the short stories and my reading experience related to the subject that I am going to illustrate the text and profile the characters—the serial killer’s psychological characteristics. When I was first introduced the story, I was acknowledged that this story is inspired by a real serial killer case that happened at that time. Then I naturally approached the story in this unique perspective and pay attention to the details that may be connected and make my explanation and interpretation reasonable. I found out the through multiple readings, I gain something in every time of reading. And finally as I start to reconstruct my own story line, I am able to connect the dots that scattered all over the whole story and make them serve my purpose of interpretation. After I constructed my own interpretation, I look through others’ and I found out that some of them are not so convincing based on their evidence that provided. The process of building my own interpretation helped me fully understand the story and gain many alternative perspectives as reading others’ interpretations. And using the details in the text and also in scholars’ works makes my own reasonable and convincing. Arguing for interpretation is truly a good way to perceive a literature work.


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