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Short Story Analysis "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?"

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Oates may have drawn on the Persephone myth for her short story.

Oates may have drawn on the Persephone myth for her short story.

"Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" Summary

"Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" is a modern classic by Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates draws on mythology, music, and modern culture in order to create her story.

Here is a summary, analysis and breakdown of some of the sources and inspiration she used, along with an interpretation of their meaning.

Overview of the Story

Joyce Carol Oates' story is about a young girl at the edge of adulthood. Just like any teenager, she sneaks around, going to a drive-in restaurant to meet boys rather than to the movies like she told her family. She is rebellious and flippant and has a bad relationship with her mother.

At the drive-in she first meets Arnold Friend who creepily makes a "sign" in the air and lets her know that he's after her. She shrugs it off as a creepy guy.

The following Sunday, Connie's family is going to a barbecue, but Connie opts to stay home so she can listen to music and hang out.

Arnold Friend and his sidekick Ellie show up in his gold convertible. At first, Connie thinks it's interesting, and she flirts with him. But then she realizes he's there to take her. After she runs into the house and makes a failed attempt to call for help, he lures her out. He threatens her and her family if she doesn't cooperate.

As if under a spell, Connie obeys him, and the story ends with her walking down the path to the car. The implication is that she will never return.

True Life Serial Killer

Oates based the basic story on the serial killer Charles Schmid.

Schmid killed three young women before he was caught.

Known as the Pied Piper of Tucson, Schmid befriended his victims, partying and hanging out with them before he murdered them.

The Pied Piper reference refers to his almost mystical ability to lure the victims to their death.

This shows the first mythical reference, the Pied Piper, that Oates used to build the layers of the story.

Much like the Pied Piper, Friend is able to lure Connie out of the house and to her probable death using only his words and the strange sounds of the music that was playing both in the house and in his car.

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But the use of myth goes even deeper.


Joyce Carol Oates draws heavily on mythology in order to build the core of her story.

Comparing Connie to the mythical Persephone helps the reader to understand her place, her actions and who Arnold Friend really seems to be.

In the myth of Persephone, the young goddess and daughter of Zeus and Demeter is kidnapped by the god of the underworld, Hades.

Demeter, the goddess who controlled the seasons and harvest, was so distraught that the land became barren.

Zeus was forced to intervene and command that Hades return Persephone to her mother. Hades complied, but he tricked Persephone into eating a pomegranate before she left. The significance of this act meant that she would have to return to the underworld.

So, in short, Persephone spent two seasons with her mother, and Demeter's happiness caused the spring and summer. When she went back to Hades to be Queen of the Underworld, her mother's grief caused the fall and winter seasons.

Is Arnold Friend a modern day Pied Piper?

Is Arnold Friend a modern day Pied Piper?

Modern Retelling of the Persephone Myth

Connie and Arnold Friend, then, become modern, mythical figures.

Connie represents the gullable Persephone, and Friend is Hades.

However, Oates gives Friend some more sinister charcteristics, more recognizable as the modern interpretation of the devil rather than just the god of the underworld.

This would help the modern reader recognize who he truly is and his intentions.

Some of the clues to Friend's true identity include:

  • His hair seems to be a wig and is lopsided (horns?)
  • Seems to walk strangely (perhaps because of hooves)
  • Make-up on his face
  • He never comes in the house (the devil can't come in unless invited)
  • He seems familiar to Connie
  • He declares he knows everyone and everything
  • His uncanny ability to lure her
  • Playing rock music (it's the devil's music after all)
  • His name (remove the "r's" and you get "an old fiend")
  • Threatens to use fire to bring her out of the house

Readers often feel frustrated with Connie because she doesn't try to get away and doesn't fight. But if she is truly facing Hades/the Devil, then her innocence versus his experience would be an unequal match.

Choice of Music

The short story is dedicated to Bob Dylan, but why is this?

Interviews with Oates reveal that she was influenced by Dylan's song "It's All Over Now Baby Blue."

An examination of the lyrics reveals similar phrases and ideas that can be found in the story as well.

  • The song says that "the sky too is folding under you" which echoes the scene where Connie's legs get weak as Arnold is talking to her through the door.
  • Friend refers to himself as Connie's lover, which is similar to the line "Your lover who just walked out the door."
  • "The vagabond who's rapping at your door" and "Strike another match, go start a new" refer to Friend talking to Connie through the door and his indication that if he burned the house down, she would come running into his arms.
  • At the end of the story, Friend refers to Connie's blue eyes, a reference to the "baby blue" of the story. Oates, however, indicates that Connie's eyes are really brown.

Modern Culture

Oates seems to be pointing a finger at modern culture. By blending the mythical elements of the Persephone myth with rock music and the invincible attitude of Connie, Oates highlights the dangers of modern youth.

Rock music is playing in all of the important scenes of the story. Oates uses the music to help highlight Connie's youthfulness and, at the same time, examine her ignorance about the way the real world works and the true meaning behind the rock lyrics.

When Friend comes to Connie and tells her that he knows she doesn't know what a lover is, he purposefully scares her and makes her understand she is moving from a world of innocence to experience.

You may only need to look to the Bible to find the source for Oates' title.

You may only need to look to the Bible to find the source for Oates' title.

The Code on the Car

The code on the car always seems to intrigue readers.

While the meaning to Friend may be different, the message from Oates to the reader is clear.

The code, 33, 19, 17 has at least two meanings.

First, the reader can discover the title of the story.

By counting backwards in the Old Testament of the Bible, 33 books, you will arrive at the book of Judges. Go to chapter 19, verse 17.

Although it depends on your translation, the verse reads:

"And when he raised his eyes, he saw the traveler in the open square of the city; and the old man said, “Where are you going, and where do you come from?”

And here you have your title.

Why count backwards? Ask yourself this: Would the devil use the Bible in the proper way?

The other meaning may come from Arnold's intentions toward Connie. Simply add the numbers together to understand the reference.

Take Aways

Joyce Carol Oates used mythology, specifically the Pied Piper and the Hades and Persephone myth, as the basic structure of her story.

She combined inspiration from the music of Bob Dylan along with her understanding of modern culture and society. The real-life criminal Charles Schmid also played a role in the development of Arnold Friend's character.

This created a story that is likely to be read, analyzed and discussed for generations.


Roya Shakibaie Tehran Iran on October 20, 2018:

I enjoyed reading this analysis.

Zelda Mes from South Africa on March 04, 2015:

I liked how you drew on the various sources to make the short story more accessible for the reader. I really enjoyed reading this.

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