By Elaine Showalter
Originally published in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Edited and with an introduction by Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1994
Among the four hundred short stories that Joyce Carol Oates has published during her career, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” remains the best known, most anthologized, and most widely discussed. Inspired by a magazine story about a teenage killer in Arizona, it was first published in the literary magazine Epoch in fall 1966 and then selected for The Best American Short Stories (1967) and The O. Henry Awards (1968). In recent years, it has been reprinted as part of the feminist literary canon in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar; and Oates has drawn attention to the centrality of the story in her literary development by using it as the overall title of two collections of her short stories: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (1974) and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (1993). In 1986, the story was the basis of a commercially successful film, Smooth Talk, directed by Joyce Chopra, which in its turn became the subject of much feminist debate.
Following the changes from Life reporter Don Moser’s account of “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” to Oates’s masterpiece, to the movie Smooth Talk gives us the opportunity to see how the literary imagination transforms raw material into art, and to understand these different genres and texts as related but autonomous works. Oates has described her many stories and novels as “tributaries flowing into a single river”; so it is not surprising that “Where Are You Going” should contain many elements that have been characteristic in her work, including the blurring of realism and the supernatural, and the effort to bear witness “for those who can’t speak for themselves.”1 The story also takes up troubling subjects that have continued to occupy her in her fiction: the romantic longings and limited options of adolescents, especially girls; the sexual victimization of women; the psychology of serial killers; and the American obsession with violence.
Oates has described the form of “Where Are You Going” as “psychological realism”; or “realistic allegory,” a fictional mode that is “Hawthornean, romantic, shading into parable.”2 At the same time, the story deals with a terrifying possibility of contemporary American life, a situation of invasion, abduction, and probable rape and murder, which meets us in every morning’s headlines and every evening’s television news. For women who live with these fears, as the white women of Hawthorne’s age did not, the formal and abstract elements of “Where Are You Going” will be measured against its indictment of an American social disorder.
Joyce Carol Oates is among the most distinguished writers ers of her generation, but the success story of an American woman writer is always different from the normative success story designed for men. We have no expectations of the great American woman novelist, no myths of her growing up, or coming of age. “I don’t have any long list of things like busboy, Western Union boy, short-order cook, naval officer—all of those things are on most people’s dust jackets,” Oates has commented about her relatively uneventful life.3 While her career more closely resembles the pattern of early creativity, literary immersion, and intellectual omniverousness established by American women writers like Margaret Fuller and Edith Wharton, she has written more, in a variety of genres, than any comparable American writer of this century.
Born on June 16, 1938, in rural Lockport, New York, Oates grew up in a working-class Catholic family and attended a one-room schoolhouse, where her teacher, Mrs. Dietz, taught eight grades. “For decades,” she writes, “my memory of my first teacher was that of a childs’-eye view of a giantess, or a deity: could Mrs. Dietz really have been as tall as I remembered?”4 As a schoolchild, she read the American classics in a tattered copy of the Treasure of American Literature: Franklin, Irving, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Twain. Few women writers were included among these first literary Gods, for in the process of national canonization, American women writers and artists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe or Kate Chopin had been left out of anthologies. Later, in her teens, she read Emily Dickinson and the Brontës, and still later, Flannery O’Connor.
Although their own education had been cut short by the Depression, her parents, Frederic and Carolina Oates, were both devoted readers who supported their daughter’s emerging intellectual and literary gifts. She was given a typewriter by her grandmother when she was fourteen, and began to train herself “by writing novel after novel.”5 When she was fifteen, she submitted her first novel to a publisher; it was rejected as too depressing for young readers.6 But Oates won all the school prizes, including a New York State Regents Scholarship to Syracuse University. There she devoured philosophy and literature, especially Nietzsche, Kafka, and Faulkner, and graduated class valedictorian, summa cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa in 1960. During her junior year at Syracuse her short story “In the Old World” won the Mademoiselle fiction award. “We never really thought she’d be this successful,” her father remarks. “It all started when she was in college and won that fiction contest at Mademoiselle. Everything just took off from there.”7
At this stage of her life, Oates was planning to become an English professor; she entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where she met and married another student, Raymond Smith. She was beginning her doctoral work at Rice University when one of her stories was selected for the honor roll of Best American Short Stories, and she gave up academic criticism for fiction, although she has continued to teach throughout her career. In 1962, Oates and Smith moved to Detroit, and she was deeply marked by the racial violence that finally exploded in the riots of 1967. “Moving to Detroit in the early 1960s changed my life completely,” she has said. “I would have been a writer . . . but living in Detroit, enduring the extraordinary racial tensions of that city . . . made me want to write directly about the serious social concerns of our time.”8 Her novel them, which reflects the apocalyptic sensibility of the period, received the National Book Award in 1970. From 1967 to 1978, Oates and Smith taught at the University of Windsor in Canada, a decade in which she published twenty-seven books—short stories, novels, poetry, plays, and criticism. “I have a laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book,” she told an interviewer in 1972.9
In 1978, Oates joined the faculty of Princeton University where she is now Roger Berlind Professor of the Humanities. Like Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Oates and Smith are a literary team who have established a journal, The Ontario Review, and a publishing company, The Ontario Review Press. Having their own press gives them the power to sponsor other writers, artists, and translators as well as to publish some of Oates’s own work. Oates also writes fiction under the pseudonym “Rosamond Smith.” The move to Princeton inaugurated a new, more public phase of her career. She has travelled extensively tensively in the United States and Europe, and her writing continues to reflect an enormous range of interests in contemporary American life, from boxing to politics. “For a serious American writer—especially for a woman writer,” Oates told an interviewer in 1992, “This is by far the best era in which to live.”10
The huge ambition, formidable intelligence, and vast range of Oates’s work has nonetheless unsettled the stereotypes of those critics who still equate greatness with masculinity. From early in her career, Oates has often been judged in terms of the gender-determined norms of American literature, criticized for her enormous literary productivity and for the violence of her drama and fiction. She has always scorned such criticism as sexist. “If the lot of womankind has not yet widely diverged from that romantically envisioned by our Moral Majority,” Oates wrote in 1981, “. . . the lot of the woman writer has been just as severely circumscribed. War, rape, murder and the more colorful minor crimes evidently fall within the exclusive province of male action.”11 In the 1980s and 1990s, her work has moved toward more explicitly feminist themes.
Yet Oates has also been reluctant to describe herself as a “woman writer” or a “feminist writer.” Instead, she calls herself a “(woman) writer,” an artist whose imagination and ambition is genderless, yet who knows her social identity constrained by cultural expectations and by the literary traditions of sexual difference. Her thinking on the “ontological status of the writer who is also a woman” is deeply sympathetic to feminist concerns but firm in its distinctions between the serious writer’s genderless imagination, and the sexually-specific reception and critical understanding of her work. “A woman who writes is a writer by her own definition,” she has observed, “but she is a woman writer by others’ definitions.”12
“Where Are You Going” reflects many of the ideas and attitudes of the 1960s, but is set in a teenage culture more like the 1950s. Such recognizable details of American adolescent life as popular music, radio disc jockeys, cars, drive-in restaurants, and shopping plazas feature in the plot, yet they also seem fixed in an unreal and stylized teenage past shaped by movies, before mall rats, drugs, date rape, or The Pill. Connie’s fantasy world is the world of James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Rebel Without a Cause. Her coming-of-age story also anticipates the coming-of-age of American society, its emergence from the hazy dreams and social innocence of the 1950s into the harsher realities of random violence, war, and crime. Oates has located the story in the “transformational years” of the 1960s, when she saw “a new morality . . . emerging in America,” a morality “intuitively understood” by her younger readers who could see in it not “morbidity, absurdity, and a sense that life is meaningless,” but rather the portrayal of “human beings struggling heroically to define personal identity in the face of death itself.”13
In an early essay, Oates noted that she often wrote stories based on newspaper headlines: “It is the very skeletal nature of the newspaper, I think, that attracts me to it, the need it inspires in me to give flesh to such neatly and thinly-told tales.”14 The skeleton of “Where Are You Going” was the saga of an American teenage murderer, Charles Schmid, which was written up in Life magazine, as well as other news magazines, during the winter of 1965-1966. Oates has commented that she deliberately did not read the Life article all the way through, in order not “to be distracted by too much detail,” but that it captured her interest: “There have always been psychopathic killers, serial murderers, and interest in them; as how could there fail to be, given our human predilection for horror, ‘the fascination of the abomination’ . . . . For the writer, the serial killer is, abstractly, an analogue of the imagination’s caprices and amorality; the sense that, no matter the dictates and even the wishes of the conscious, social self, the life or will or purpose of the imagination is incomprehensible, unpredictable.”15
Charles Schmid was a twenty-three-year-old ex-high school student who had been suspended in his senior year for stealing tools from a welding class. He had taken to hanging out by the high school, picking up girls for rides in his gold convertible. Ultimately he murdered three of them, while other teenagers served as accomplices. In March 1966 Schmid was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the Arizona gas chamber, but he was killed by another inmate before the sentence could be carried out.16
Schmid’s story attracted a great deal of attention during a period when teenage runaways, the evils of rock and roll, and adolescent sexuality were much debated in the news, and before the American public had become numbed by stories of serial killers. Readers were fascinated by the way Schmid had modelled himself on his idol, Elvis Presley, and by his self-dramatizing lies. But the teenage girls he entranced and murdered are much less colorful characters in the news stories. Such girls were the other side of the American fantasies of the early 1960s—the Barbie dolls, Gidgets, and groupies of the years just before the women’s movement. Oates, however, turned the familiar story of the serial killer inside-out by taking the victim as her protagonist, and by taking her seriously. Her sense of what is tragic in Connie’s “trashy dreams,” and what is heroic in her fate, is typical of her compassion for the women often rendered silent and inarticulate in American society.
In 1970, Oates included “Where Are You Going” in her third collection of short stories, The Wheel of Love. While her earlier collections had included all her published short fiction, with The Wheel of Love she began to select and shape her books of stories around a theme, so that they were “not assemblages of disparate material but wholes with unifying strategies of organization.”17 The unifying theme of The Wheel of Love, she told an interviewer in 1970, was “different forms of love, mainly in family relationships”; she had originally planned to call the book Love Stories.18 Other stories in the collection included the prize-winning “In the Region of Ice,” “The Wheel of Love,” and “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again.”
Oates has written and commented on “Where Are You Going” in numerous interviews and essays in the decades since its publication. She has explained that the story came to her “more or less in a piece” after hearing Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and then reading about a killer in the Southwest and thinking about “the old legends and folk songs of Death and the Maiden.”19 She dedicated the original story to Dylan because the “hauntingly elegiac” song seemed appropriate “to the dreamy, yet highly charged atmosphere of Connie’s world”; in recent versions she has omitted this dedication as being dated, but it is part of the critical history of the story.20 As she notes in the essay in this book, she first imagined ined Connie as both a realistic American teenager of her time and place, and the doomed “maiden” of legend. Initially she saw the story as “an allegory of the fatal attractions of death. . . . An innocent young girl . . . mistakes death for erotic romance of a particularly American/trashy sort.” But as the story developed, she became more interested in its “moments of grace”—the “dramatic turn of action” at the end, “when the presumably doomed Connie makes a decision to accept her fate with dignity and to spare her family’s involvement in this fate.”21 “At the end of the story,” she has commented, “Connie transcends her Connie-self—her merely local, teenage, American self. So, confronted with death, we are obliged to be equal to it. Or to try. To merely sexualize the story trivializes it.”22
In the 1960s and 1970s, “Where Are You Going” was most frequently read by critics as an allegory of good and evil, with Arnold Friend as a satanic figure. Many critics took the mother’s point of view, condemning Connie’s “trashy values,” and boy-craziness, and blaming the debased adolescent culture of her world for her susceptibility to the fatal seduction. Critics analyzed the story’s use of popular music, compared Arnold Friend to Bob Dylan and Ellie Oscar to Elvis Presley, and tried to decipher the numbers on Arnold’s car. They were shocked by the ending of the story, but did not see Connie’s yearnings as meaningful or view her final act as courageous. Only very recently has Oates been discussed as a feminist writer. Indeed, in 1970, a reviewer of The Wheel of Love insisted that the characters “have no connection with the movement for women’s liberation.”23 Feminist critics who wrote about Oates in the 1970s emphasized her negative images of women, rather than the feminist consciousness behind the work. Greg Johnson, a critic who is also writing a biography of Oates, is among those who take the opposite view. He argues that “Where Are You Going?” is among the earliest of Oates’s stories to show “explicitly feminist concerns.” Indeed, according to Johnson, the story is a “feminist allegory” in which Connie is “surrendering her autonomous selfhood to male desire and domination. Her characterization as a typical girl reaching sexual maturity suggests that her fate represents that suffered by most young women—unwillingly and in secret terror—even in America in the 1960s.” Overall, he concludes, “Where Are You Going?” is “a cautionary tale, suggesting that young women are actually ‘going’ exactly where their mothers and grandmothers have already ‘been'”—into sexual bondage at the hands of a male “Friend.”24
The issues of feminist allegory became more evident in 1986, when “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” was made into a movie called Smooth Talk, with a screenplay by Tom Cole and direction by Joyce Chopra, who had made her reputation as a feminist director of documentary films including Girls at Twelve and Joyce at 34. Smooth Talk starred Laura Dern as Connie, Treat Williams as Arnold Friend, and Mary Kay Place as Connie’s mother, with songs by James Taylor. In a dark irony that strikes at the very heart of the story, the film was shot in Petaluma, California, then imagined as a model of safe, small-town America, but in 1993 the place where twelve-year-old Polly Klass was abducted and murdered by a psychopath who broke into her house. In adapting the story for the screen, Cole and Chopra made a number of changes in the plot, developing the roles of Connie’s girlfriends and family. Most important, they revised the ending, so that after driving away with Arnold in his convertible, Connie returns to her home. She tells Arnold firmly that she does not want to see him again, and then seems softened and reconciled to her family.
The success of the film sent reviewers back to the story, and occasioned an intense debate over the feminist implications and contemporary relevance of both story and movie. To many critics, the story was shockingly anti-feminist in its mobilization of women’s fears about sexuality. Writing in the film journal Cinéaste, for example, Elayne Rapping described the story as a Cinderella tale in reverse, where the “wicked stepmothers and ugly stepsisters get their revenge on the ‘popular’ one, the one who ‘thinks she’s so pretty.'” In Rapping’s view, both film and story were “preoccupied with sexual danger and fear, with the menacing image of men as ruthless, semi-deranged predators,” and despite its ending, the film “resurrects a puritanical fear of female sexuality and the old good girl/bad girl dichotomy which uses that fear to keep women sexually repressed and at war with each other.”25
A major difference between the story and the movie was the intense degree of identification viewers, particularly women viewers, felt with Connie. Whether they were teenage girls or middle-aged mothers, ordinary filmgoers or experienced film critics, women viewers had strong reactions to Connie’s behavior. Audiences used to Hollywood horror films about stalkers and slashers, and to everyday fears of sexual violence, were disturbed by Connie’s recklessness, and frightened by her encounter with Arnold Friend, and thus the film’s effort to incorporate both the realistic and the symbolic elements of the story ran into serious difficulties. As Andrew Sarris pointed out, this could partly be explained by the difference in genres: “The tendency of readers of fiction is to identify with the sensibility of the writer and to discern that sensibility through the transparency of the literary characters. Moviegoers identify more with the corporeal identity of the actors and actresses on the screen, and associate their own destinies and fantasies with the idealized figures on the mobile and luminous canvas.”26
Oates has always made clear that “Smooth Talk, with its different title, is an autonomous work.”27 In an essay originally written for the New York Times and reprinted in this volume, she discussed her own reactions to the film, emphasizing the historical and generic differences between her ending and the one chosen by Joyce Chopra. Whereas “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” “defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion,” the film makes Connie a “‘typical’ teen-aged aged girl” of today, whose “loss of virginity is bittersweet but not necessarily tragic.” The resonances of Oates’s ending, with its allusions to “the vast sunlit reaches of the land” to which Connie is going, suggests an awakening that is “impossible to transfigure into film.”
The critical essays and reviews in this volume provide a cross-section of the most stimulating responses both to the story and the film. They represent different phases in the critical reception of Oates’s work, and in the interpretation of her psychological realism. No case book on Oates’s fiction, however, can supply a full set of answers to all the disturbing questions the story will raise for a reader. As Oates has warned, “Every person dreams, and every dreamer is a kind of artist. The formal artist is one who arranges his dreams into a shape that can be experienced by other people. There is no guarantee that art will be understood, not even by the artist; it is not meant to be understood but to be experienced.”28
The first two essays illuminate the differences between social and metaphorical interpretations of the story. Is it reality or dream? At one extreme, Marie Urbanski’s essay describes the story as an “existential allegory,” in which the author’s realistic “trappings” should not obscure her allegorical design of “Everyman’s transition from the illusion of free will to the realization of externally determined fate.” On the other side, in opposition to Urbanski and other critics who see the story as a fable, Tom Quirk announces his discovery of Oates’s source: the case of Charles Schmid. In his 1981 essay, he shows how many of the details of the story were indebted to details of news reports of the Pied Piper of Tucson, and insists that the people, events, and evil Oates portrayed in her story were all too real. In Quirk’s view, the story is not a timeless allegory of existential fate, but a specific critique of the “antique values” of the American Dream.
Yet, as Quirk also acknowledges, Oates is an artist rather than a journalist, and her fiction is an imaginative transformation of the actual into something new and strange. Thus other critics have emphasized the story’s literary and mythic elements. In “The Stranger Within,” Joan Winslow notes the parallels between Oates and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” as stories of sexual initiation and repression. Winslow focuses on the passage which describes the two sides of Connie’s personality, “one for home and one for anywhere that was not home,” and sees Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend as a meeting with a devil figure who is really the demonic side of herself. In both Hawthorne and Oates, the story can be read as a dream and “as a psychological analysis of the emotional state which could create such a dream.”
Joyce W. Wegs’s essay focuses on Oates’s use of the grotesque to show the terror and mystery behind everyday reality. In her reading, Connie’s “grotesquely false values” derived from romance and popular culture substitute for a deeper morality or spirituality; and her family and society are equally devoid of religious content. Arnold Friend is a satanic figure, “the incarnation of Connie’s unconscious erotic desires and dreams, but in uncontrollable nightmare form.” Picking up on suggestions by Winslow and Wegs, Larry Rubin argues that the Arnold Friend episode is actually Connie’s dream, a quasi-rape fantasy that she falls into when she is alone at home drying her hair. In Rubin’s view, Oates is portraying Connie’s “compulsive sex drive” as a destructive force which will ruin her not only physically but also morally. For the “uninitiated female,” a “deep-rooted desire for ultimate sexual gratification” may be profoundly dangerous.
In contrast to essays which see Connie’s fate as the result of her trashy teenage dreams or her dangerous sexuality and blame the vapidity of her society for her false values, Gretchen Schulz and R.J.R. Rockwood locate the story in a tradition of cautionary narratives and folklore about women’s identity and behavior, interpreting Connie’s behavior from a psychoanalytic perspective. They direct our attention to motifs from the many fairy tales—the Pied Piper, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs—woven into Oates’s story. Following the work of Bruno Bettelheim, they argue that these fairy tales are symbolic maps of female adolescent conflict, and that Connie is a troubled adolescent struggling with “unresolved oedipal conflict, aggravated by sibling rivalry” and unable to integrate her unconscious and conscious desires. Schulz and Rockwood regard the encounter with Arnold Friend as both another fairy tale and a case study of Connie’s lapse into psychosis, “a terrifying schizophrenic separation from reality, with prognosis for recovery extremely poor.”
Christina M. Gillis acknowledges the importance of fairy tales, fantasies, and dreams in “Where Are You Going,” but also stresses women’s vulnerability to seduction and rape, both in the real world and in the traditions of fiction, where the interior spaces of the female body and of the home emphasize issues of threshold, invasion, privacy, and attack. Gillis places responsibility for the story’s outcome on Arnold Friend, the invader who does not respect the spatial limits of Connie’s world and who finally uses threats against her family to force her out. In Gillis’s reading, Connie’s age and gender, not her values or desires, make her a vulnerable victim.
The essays by B. Ruby Rich and Brenda O. Daly provide different viewpoints on the film adaptation, Smooth Talk. Writing in The Village Voice, Rich protests the movie’s seeming endorsement of a retrograde message: sex is dangerous for teenage girls. Connie is punished for her flirtatiousness, her sexuality, her sense of adventure: “She was asking for it, wasn’t she? Just looking for it, right? We’re back in the familiar terrain of Blame the Victim Land.” But while Daly agrees that Chopra uses the camera and the soundtrack to “enforce a sexual/spatial system of inequalities,” she also argues that the movie is not a typical Hollywood horror film which exploits female sexual vulnerability. In the film, Connie survives; the evolution of her consciousness, which was the subject of Oates’s story, is transformed into assertiveness and will. Her story is one of “joy in her awakening sexuality” and rebellion against the conventional morality of her mother and sister. While Oates’s ending is metaphysical, involving self-knowledge in the face of darkness, Chopra’s ending is more material, involving Connie’s triumph over the invader. “The difference between Oates’s Connie and Chopra’s Connie,” Daly concludes, “is but one instance of our cultural metamorphosis during the past 20-25 years.”
For the fullest understanding of “Where Are You Going,” one which takes Connie seriously, we need to consider its place in a tradition of women’s writing, as well as within the classic male tradition most critics have examined as influences or parallels. The title “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” first strikes us as the parent’s nagging question to the child. Yet it is also a metaphysical question about Connie’s life, and about the experience and destiny of women. Oates invokes both concrete detail and literary mythology to emphasize the double story of adolescent coming-of-age and female sexual vulnerability.
One important myth is the story of Demeter and Persephone, which has been paradigmatic for American women writers at least since the nineteenth century.29 In the classical version of the myth, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the young Persephone is gathering flowers in a field when she is surprised by Hades, who carries her away in his chariot to the underworld. There she grows hungry and eats the seeds of a pomegranate. Because she has consumed the seeds, her mother Demeter cannot bring her back to earth, but must accept the gods’ proposal that Persephone should spend half the year in the realm of the dead with Hades and only half on earth with her. As the story has been interpreted by American women writers, however, it becomes a parable of the woman artist’s rite of passage, her necessary separation from the mother’s world of reproductive sexuality and nurturance to the dark underworld of passion, creativity, and independence.30 As Oates has commented with regard to her novel American Appetites, the daughter “has to define herself in terms of the mother and she has to define herself in opposition to the mother, in order to have any identity. . . . Many daughters are close to [and] love their mothers enormously, but the love is so strong it has to be denied if they are to be two people.”31
The myth of Demeter and Persephone can also be described in Freudian terms, as the daughter’s necessary individuation and transfer of attachment from the mother to the father. But this process is fraught with internal and external violence. As Marilyn Wesley has explained, the dangers of the transition are “often expressed in stories of imminent rape,” as the daughter finds “not liberation from the mother’s values, but the overwhelming evidence of her powerlessness within the patriarchal system.” Wesley has traced a three-stage process of the American daughter’s individuation in Oates’s fiction: First, the necessity of differentiating a self separate from the mother; second, the consciousness of rape as a cultural condition that implies the victimization of the female; and third, the attempt to counter the threat of violence through the discovery of forms of perception such as art, literature, or education that may balance order and vitality. She sees this pattern in “Where Are You Going,” especially in the ending. Although Arnold Friend is a psychopath, his function in the story is also to force Connie into recognizing the limiting codes of the familly. He is a transgressive figure “of limit and challenge” who appears in various guises throughout Oates’s work.32
In “Where Are You Going,” Connie is eager to separate from the dull domestic world of her mother and sister, but also plays out a charade of conflict with her mother that masks an uneasy intimacy and identity. Connie fears that life is taking her to a moment in which she too will be scuffling around in old bedroom slippers with nothing but photos to remind her of her adolescent flowering, nothing but a tired, silent husband to remind her of the sweet caresses of love. In the pre-feminist milieu of the story, sisterhood is no more powerful than motherhood. Bonds between women are weak and superficial. Connie and her sister June seem to have nothing in common; Connie’s girlfriends are scarcely important enough to be named. When they go out together, it is not to be together but to escape from their parents and to find boys. In the world of the story, women cannot group together for mutual support, but only gang up against a third, as Connie’s mother shows when she “complained over the telephone to one sister about the other, then the other called up and the two of them complained about the third one.”
Connie’s past and future, the place where she has been and where she is going, is symbolized by her mother’s body and her mother’s house. Her abduction from this claustrophobic world at the hands of Arnold Friend is both terrifying and liberatory. “Where Are You Going” shares many characteristics of the fictional genre of the Female Gothic, a classic form of feminine narrative from the eighteenth century to the present, which deals with female sexuality, maternity, and creativity. In its original form, established by novels like Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, a young heroine is kidnapped by masked bandits and taken to a haunted castle or ruined abbey, where she is threatened by an older, dark, powerful man, who may turn out to be her lover or her father. (Oates has commented in the essay on the film reprinted here that she wished that she had “built up the father, suggesting, as subtly as I could, an attraction there paralleling the attraction Connie feels for her seducer, Arnold Friend.”) Often the heroine’s mother is also a prisoner in the castle or has died there and indeed the castle or enclosed space is another symbol of the maternal body. In bravely confronting these spectral images in her family romance, the heroine comes to terms with her own identity and destiny.
The Gothic heroine is kidnapped in part because conventions of femininity make it otherwise almost impossible for her to move. Connie, too, is virtually immobilized by her sex and her age. At fifteen, she is too young to drive a car, but in any case, in the story only boys and men seem to drive. If the girls want to go to the movies, they have to find a father to drive them; if they want sexual privacy with a boy, his car provides it. Connie is always at the mercy of men who will come with a vehicle to take her away, to take her somewhere else. Women have no agency, no vehicle, no wheels. It’s not coincidental that Arnold Friend’s golden convertible is part of his magic.
Moreover, like Austen’s Catherine Norland in Northanger Abbey, Connie’s “trashy daydreams” are shaped by popular culture, and she sees her little world through the rosy lens of romantic films. The drive-in restaurant is a “sacred building” and Connie does not imagine anything bigger or better in the city. The shopping plaza and the moviehouse are enough for her; and adolescent sex has been just “the way it was in movies and promised in songs.” But whatever the promises of songs, the story gives Connie few real choices for the future. She can be a working drudge like her sister, or a housewife drudge like her mother. Connie’s father, the man inside the house—it is, according to Arnold Friend, her “daddy’s house”—also models a future. His role in Connie’s fantasies and her real life is negligible, though he plays a subtle role as a potential liberator and object of desire. Only a hazy eroticism, a combination of the sun, the music, and youth, gives Connie joy; but in the Gothic tradition she inhabits, such violent delights have violent ends.
Yet we need to remember that allegories also have a history, and belong to historical moments. Oates’s Connie both transcends the moment of her creation and belongs to it, just as Chopra’s Connie reflects the assumptions and values of 1986. Returning to the story of teen-age girls in 1993, Oates wrote Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, in which another group of girls in the late 1950s get hold of their own car and fight back against the sexual violence of men. Although Connie’s efforts to define her own identity take her into a nightmare world where sexual initiation and female desire have fatal consequences, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a classic which confronts us unforgettably with the power and freedom of the imagination.
1. Joyce Carol Oates, “Afterword,” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1993), 519, 521.
2. Joyce Carol Oates, “Preface,” Stories of Young America (Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1974), 10; “`Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ and Smooth Talk: Short Story into Film,” reprinted here.
3. Linda Kuehl, “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,” Commonweal (December 5, 1969), in Lee Milazzo, ed., Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), 13.
4. Joyce Carol Oates, “Introduction,” The Best American Essays 1991 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991), xiv.
5. Robert Phillips, “Joyce Carol Oates; The Art of Fiction LXXII,” Paris Review (Fall 1978), in Conversations, 76.
6. Frank McLaughlin, “A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates,” from Writing! (September 1985), in Conversations, 123.
7. Quoted in Jay Parini, “My Writing is Full of Lives I Might Have Led,” Boston Globe Magazine (August 2, 1987), 64.
8. McLaughlin, “A Conversation,” in Conversations, 125.
9. Walter Clemons, “Joyce Carol Oates: Love and Violence,” Newsweek (December 11, 1972), in Conversations, 33.
10. Interview with Elaine Showalter.
11. Joyce Carol Oates, “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?,” The New York Times Book Review (March 25, 1981), 35.
12. Joyce Carol Oates, “(Woman) Writer: Theory and Practice,” in (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (New York: Dutton, 1988), 27-28.
13. “Preface,” Stories of Young America.
14. Joyce Carol Oates, “The Nature of Short Fiction; or, The Nature of My Short Fiction,” in Frank A. Dickson and Sandra Smythe, Handbook of Short Story Writing (Writers Digest: Cincinnati), xiv.
15. Interview with Elaine Showalter.
16. See “Growing Up in Tucson,” Time (March 11, 1966), 28.
17. “Afterword,” Where Are You Going, 521.
18. Kuehl, “An Interview,” in Conversations, 12, 13.
19. “Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,” in John R. Knott, Jr., and Christopher R. Keaske, eds., Mirrors: An Introduction to Literature, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1975), 18-19.
20. Interview with Elaine Showalter.
21. “Afterword,” Where Are You Going, 522.
22. Interview with Elaine Showalter.
23. Charles L. Markmann, “The Terror of Love,” Nation 14 (December 1970), 636.
24. Johnson, Understanding Joyce Carol Oates (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 95, 103.
25. Elayne Rapping, “Smooth Talk,” Cinéaste 15 (1986), 36-37.
26. Andrew Sarris, “Teenage Gothic,” Village Voice (March 4, 1986), 53.
27. Interview with Elaine Showalter.
28. Joyce Carol Oates, “Fictions, Dreams, Revelations,” in Scenes from American Life: Contemporary Short Fiction (New York: Random House, 1973), vii-viii.
29. See Josephine Donovan, After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989).
30. For an excellent account of one writer’s use of the myth, see Candace Waid, Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 1990.
31. “Joyce Carol Oates” in Inter/View, ed. Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 44.
32. Marilyn C. Wesley, Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993), 127-28, 44, 145-46.
Thanks to Madere Olivar and Wendy Chun for research assistance on this volume.
Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English and Avalon Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. She has written eleven books, most recently The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and the literary history A Jury of Her Peers; American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf, 2009), which was awarded the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism. The Vintage Book of American Women Writers, an anthology to accompany the book, was published in 2011. In 1994, she edited the casebook for “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” published by Rutgers University Press; and in 2006, she wrote the introduction to The Wonderland Quartet, four novels by Joyce Carol Oates published together by the Modern Library.
Image: Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.