As Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” surely contains the most frightening monologue in our literature, so Joyce Carol Oates’s most famous short story— “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—contains its most frightening duologue.
Published fifty years ago this autumn in the literary magazine Epoch, Oates’s story was recognized immediately as something special, meriting inclusion in both of the annual American short story anthologies, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O’Henry Awards. It is worth quoting Walter Sullivan’s review of these anthologies as the first serious look at Oates’s classic story:
Certainly, Miss Oates must be the most gifted short-story writer of her generation. Her use of detail, her sense of pace, all her fictional instincts are so sharp that she is able to develop a massive sense of violence with magnificent coolness and detachment. . . . When we learn Arnold Friend is not a teenager but a fully matured man, we know that nothing can save Connie, and so the sight of his knife is an inevitability that moves us along to the very edge of an unfathomable violence which we are not allowed to see. No quotation or excerpt could possible convey the texture of Miss Oates’s story or the tension she is able to sustain. By strictly fictional standards, the story seems to me to be as good as it could possibly be.
(That Sullivan remembers a knife where Oates mentions none, attests to the story’s power of suggestion.)
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has since entered the wider culture, regularly taught in high-schools and universities; the inspiration for the feature film Smooth Talk; and included in a hundred or more anthologies with titles such as: 200 Years of Great American Short Stories; The World’s Best Short Stories; The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories; The Riverside Anthology of Short Fiction; The Art of the Short Story; The American Tradition in Literature; American Short Story Masterpieces; and The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
A cursory search of the internet and social media reveals scores of amateur student films dramatizing the story; songs (“Don’t Ride With Arnold Friend”); illustrations (Ladies of Literature: Volume 2) and manga; tattoos; and even bumper-stickers with Arnold Friend’s “secret code.”
Inspired by a Life magazine article about a serial killer, the story likely also had personal origins for Oates. Arnold Friend’s interrogation of Connie bears eerie similarities to Oates’s description of a babysitting job gone terribly wrong when she was Connie’s age:
I found myself terrorized for hours by a (drunken?) male relative of the family for whom I was babysitting, who appeared at doors and windows, knocking, teasing and tormenting, insisting that I let him in. I was too frightened to call home—too frightened to pick up the telephone since he could see me; I believed that he might break into the house if I did. (The Lost Landscape)
Dedicated in 1966 to future-Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, Oates’s story informs Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise. As Joyce Carol Oates tweeted a few days ago (“Let’s celebrate the Bob Dylan Nobel win”)—indeed, let us celebrate the 50th anniversary of this fearsome, classic story:
- Read Elaine Showalter’s essential introduction to the story, and learn of its history, meaning, and critical reception.
- And most of all, read (or re-read) the story itself: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? and experience the transcendent “vast sunlit reaches of the land . . . that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”
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.