An Angel and a Friend
Each of us experiences transitions in our lives. Some of these changes are small, like moving from one school semester to the next. Other times these changes are major, like the transition between youth and adulthood. In Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", the author dramatizes a real life crime story to examine the decisive moment people face when at the crossroads between the illusions and innocence of youth and the uncertain future.
Joyce Carol Oates' message of life and transitions is best understood when the reader brings his or her interpretation to meet with the author's intention at a middle ground. This type of literary analysis is known as Reader Response. In Reader-Response, the emphasis is placed on "the idea that various readers respond in various ways, and therefore [the] readers as well as authors 'create' meaning" (Barnet, et. al. 1997). In this story of life passages and crucial events, it is imperative that the reader has a solid response to Oates' efforts in order to fully comprehend the message. Literature is a combined meeting between the intentions of the author and the reaction of the reader.
The author begins her message with the title of her work, which conveys the idea of passages of time in life. The phrase "where are you going" suggests a time in the future, and the phrase "where have you been" evokes the past. Oates' message continues through the plot and characters. The basic elements of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" are rooted in a true story of a 1965 crime. Occurring just a year before Oates' 1966 story was published, the "parallels between [the two tales] are so numerous that Oates' borrowing of them is unquestionable" (Coulthard 733) to the reader. Oates herself admits the connection, claiming she wrote the story "after having read about a killer in some Southwestern state" (Reaske and Knott 720) in a magazine. Oates' use of an actual story around the time she wrote her piece shows how she was intensely affected by the violence that occurred around her during the time she lived in. This touches on Biographical Criticism, which stresses both the life of the author and how that life affected them as an artist. The story Oates draws from is that of Charles Schmid, who (perhaps with an accomplice - though this was never proven) raped and killed a young girl named Alleen Rowe. The details of this story are undeniably repeated in Oates' tale through both the plot and the characters. Connie, the victim in Oates' story, has much in common with actual victim Alleen. Both were fifteen at the time of their encounter with their predator. Both had just finished washing their hair and were home alone when their attackers came to their house. Both girls were lured from their house into the arms of their attacker: Connie was presumably headed for the remote wilderness with him, while Alleen was actually taken there. Alleen was raped and beaten to death, and the threat of rape is frighteningly apparent for Connie - though the question of her death is left up to the reader. Connie's attacker tells her, "'I'm your lover. You don't know what that is yet, but you will'" (Oates 710). The predators of both girls also had much in common. Both men went under seemingly harmless pseudonyms. Charles Schmid, the real villain, called himself "Angel" Rodriguez, while Connie's villain named himself Arnold "Friend". Both Angel and Friend were years older than the teens they spent their time with, and attempted to look younger by wearing make up and acting like teens. Angel was rumored to have a friend with him when he killed Alleen, though the accomplice supposedly did not directly involve himself in the rape and murder. Friend had Ellie in the car with him, who sat passively in the passenger seat of the car "and did not bother to look around at them" (Oates 707). Angel and Friend were short, and walked oddly. Angel stuffed his shoes with objects to give height to his 5'3" frame, and Friend looked as though he had done the same. Both drove gold jalopies and had shaggy, wig-like black hair. Angel was described by those who knew him as a talker and a bragger. Friend fit both these characteristics in his conversation with Connie, where his sentences lap over each other nonstop and he boasts to Connie "'I'm your lover . . . you couldn't ask for nobody better than me . . . and you'll love me'" (Oates 710).
The story of Angel, while deeply disturbing, was very useful to Oates in illustrating the hubris of youth and the moment reality declares its end. The story is true, and therefore a good example of the truthfulness of Oates' argument about the end of innocence. The case of Angel ended with the death of a total of three girls at the hands of Angel and perhaps an accomplice, and Angel's eventual death in prison. Having written the story in 1965, Oates obviously did not have access to the ending of Angel's saga, though it probably would not have changed the ambiguous ending of her own rendering in the slightest. Oates ended with Connie stepping out of her home "moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited" (Oates 713), and ending without a real sense of finish. The seeming lack of completion of Oates' indeterminate ending is the point of the story itself. The story deals with the moment at the end of a teenage dream world and at the start of something unknown. Therefore the story ended at that very moment in Connie's life.
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" consists of two main focus scenes: the world Connie thrives in and the day everything in it changes. The story begins by introducing the reader to Connie (the protagonist's) world. The story is written in limited omniscient point of view in the third person. The reader is allowed into the private thoughts of Connie only, making her the focal point and heroine of the story. The author begins the story with Connie's life to establish a world we can grow familiar with so we will later feel the experience of the foundation dropping out. Connie is an attractive fifteen year old girl, easily recognized by the reader as the epitome of a teenager. Her world is full of rock and roll music, friends, fun, and fantasy. She spends the summer going to town with friends, listening to music, and meeting with boys. She and her friends share similar interests in boys and fun, and "would lean together and whisper and laugh secretly" (Oates 703) when they gathered together. Like many teens, Connie seemingly lives two lives: one that her family sees, another that she projects to her peers. "Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home" (Oates 703). "She is constantly at odds with her family" (Gillis 245), not seeming to have any emotional connection to them observable to the reader. She lies to her mother and sister about her friends and where she goes at night. Her relationship with her father is non existent, as he is always at work. She considers her family to be an embarrassment when around her friends. June works at Connie's school "and if that weren't bad enough - with her in the same building" (Oates 702), Connie also saw her sister as unattractive. Physical appearances are important to Connie, and she is fittingly obsessed with her own.
Connie also lives in a fantasy world. She spends her time daydreaming about boys and meetings with them. Her mother constantly tries to pull her out of these imaginary journeys, telling her that "her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams" (Oates 702). Her image of the world is what she sees behind rose colored glasses of youth. Her involvement with boys, both real and imagined, were "sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs" (Oates 705). Their faces blended together in her mind, "dissolved into a single face that was not really a face" (Oates 704), making them not real people capable of anything but figments she could control, figments that prolonged her fantasies. She never thought about the world beyond her doorstep until the day it came for her.
The day Friend pulls up Connie's driveway is the day Connie's world of youthfulness is invaded with brutal reality. Before Friend actually shows up, Connie has an experience where she awoke from a dream "and hardly knew where she was" (Oates 705), finding her ranch house looking more old and worn and asbestos- covered than she ever realized before. This is just the beginning of the reality Connie faces that day. Friend's is an "invasion at several levels" (Gillis 245). Friend comes to Connie's house, attempting to seduce her into going with him. The location t hey are actually headed for is ambiguous, both to the readers and to the characters themselves. Friend himself has no idea where he is going to take Connie, only that it will be away from her house. "It was if the idea of going . . . . somewhere, to someplace, was a new idea to him" (Oates 707). The fact that there is no destination in mind is evidence that the future Connie faces, once removed from her cocoon of youth, is itself uncertain. Friend eventually succeeds in luring Connie away; the threat of violence to her family is the catalyst for her relenting. This is proof of Connie's changing values, for the reader recognizes that this is the first time Connie has shown any emotional connection to her family whatsoever. The fact that Friend approaches Connie's house is crucial to understanding what Connie is experiencing. A house has connotations to the reader as a sanctuary, a place where a person (in this case Connie) can be a child protected from the world, "the domestic space [a] state of childhood associated with the home" (Gillis 245). Connie's retreating into the house at Friend's approach and her refusal to fully leave the grounds reveals her desperate attempts to cling to the safe world she knows. At Friend's threats she "backed away from the door . . . [into] a place she had never seen before, some room she had run inside" (Oates 710). She recognizes things are different outside where Friend inhabits, yet her own house is not the familiar, protected structure she grew up depending on. In fact, Connie is trapped somewhere between her childhood home which no longer provides any protection or familiarity for her and a dangerous future with an adult stranger. Connie has no innocence to return to, so she makes the choice to go with Friend. Her leaving the house is symbolic of her leaving that innocent piece of herself behind.
Also symbolic of her leaving something behind, in this case her fantasies and illusions, is her agreement to go with Friend. He brings to a crashing halt all her song-inspired fantasies of young love. Friend's face is specifically mentioned several times, and he even sported "a round grinning face" (Oates 706) on the side of his car. This is in sharp contrast to the faceless boys of Connie's dreams, and it is clear to the reader that dream and reality are beginning to meld together for Connie. He is hardly the typical romantic hero the readers and Connie are accustomed to (regardless of whether or not he thinks he is), both in physical appearance and in mental well-being. He is so old he wears make up to appear younger. He is short, walking just on the verge of falling over. His attempts to connect with youth are outdated, from the passe slogan on his car to the way he verbally ran "through all the expressions he'd learned but was no longer sure which one of them was still in style" (Oates 712). He is often confusing to Connie, revealing to her an imaginary "x" symbol he proclaims to be his "mark" as well as a series of numbers that have no significance to her though he evidently feels they should. "He read off the numbers, 33, 19, 17, and raised his eyebrows at her to see what she thought of that, but she didn't think much of it" (Oates 706). Connie's lack of complete comprehension of Friend's intent shows the oblivious state she lives in while in her own world. The numbers and the symbol are just as meaningless to the reader because we are supposed to feel the disorientation Connie (our protagonist) feels at the invasion of Friend. Despite his charming manner, Friend is boldly blunt, especially when talking to Connie about sex. He uses explicit phrases that turn Connie's fanciful ideas about experiencing sweet love into a frightening sexual act. He tells her "'I'll come inside you where it's all secret and you'll give in to me and you'll love me'" (Oates 710). Connie, feeling increasingly threatened, retreats further into her home.
By the time Connie finally steps outside the door of her house, she has completely disassociated herself from her person as well as everything she had come to know and trust. She leaves a part of herself in the house as she "watched herself . . . as if she were safe back somewhere . . . watching this body and this head" (Oates 713). Even her heart "was nothing that was hers, that belonged to her" (Oates 713). When she finally crosses over into his arms, she is no longer the same Connie she was at the beginning of this story, her illusions gone and only the unforeseeable future ahead of her.
There are many differing interpretations of this story. One popular one asserts that it is the tale of Satan's emergence into the mortal world, of his invasion of Earth. Friend, then, is "clearly a symbolic Satan" (Wegs 90) come straight out of Hell with "supernatural powers and a remarkable knowledge" (Winslow 238), and the story is his tale. This is a very hasty generalization. First of all, Connie is the main character of the story. It is written from her point of view, with her past and environment and feelings and change. The story is about her, not the more colorful, but less prominent Friend. Friend may be the most fascinating character superficially because his quirks jump out at the reader, but it is too quick a judgment to say the tale is his.
Secondly, the character of Friend is not the Devil. On the surface, he does appear to have some characteristics of Satan, but a deeper examination reveals a much stronger explanation: that he is duplicated from sheer realism. Friend's crooked feet are not the "cloven hooves of the devil" (Winslow 239), but the pathetic attempts of desperate man trying to look appealing to a young girl, just as his face is not under the mask of the Devil, but under a layer of make-up. His physical characteristics are those of his real-life twin, Angel. The knowledge he displays, which may at first appear extraordinary, is nothing more than guesswork and a little spying. What he knows of her family's picnic could easily be explained when the reader understands that Arnold has been watching Connie that he in fact "picked" her and was stalking her. He told Connie he had "seen [her] . . . and thought, that's the one . . . I never needed to look anymore" (Oates 711). A stalker would likely know when she is to be alone and he would have no trouble, in a small town, learning of a local picnic her family might attend. In describing the scene at the picnic, he appears to be searching for a story, speaking "vaguely, squinting as if he were staring all the way into town" (Oates 709), and the one he gives is one any of us could have made up if we were so inclined. Connie, in her fear and confusion, believes him to be telling the truth, when he is likely just making things up and piecing things together with simple psychological insight. Most teens would think of a square older sister as "poor, sad" (Oates 709), therefore he needed no extra perception to deduce that. Friend's mysterious appearance in Connie's driveway, that he seemed to "come from nowhere and belonged nowhere" (Oates 709) is not because he is otherworldly, but rather a dangerous criminal of unknown origins. Friend's appearance and personality are further proof he is not Satan. Friend, at various times, feels "offended . . . pleased . . . embarrassed" (Oates 708) with Connie's responses to all he is saying. It is probably safe to assume the Prince of Darkness would not feel personally emotionally wounded or prided by a human's skepticism. His appearance is downright unattractive, and the powerful Satan, if he was truly attempting to seduce a girl, would probably choose to make himself attractive to her. To claim Arnold is the devil incarnate and the story is about him is to quickly make a decision without taking time to closely examine the facts.
Another common interpretation of Oates' story is that it is the tale of the sexual awakening, a girl's realization of "the full reality of her sexual nature" (Winslow 238) when she is "entering into sexual experience . . . initiation" (Winslow 238). Somehow Friend is "the answer to Connie's unuttered call and to her erotic desires" (Tierce and Crafton 724). But reducing the story to a tale of mere sexuality is an oversimplification that denies the true power of the piece. Analysts contend that the numbers on Friend's car "add up to 69" (Winslow 239), and his verbal threat to her "is explicitly sexual" (Winslow 239) in nature. Yet these numbers could mean anything; they could be the age of himself and his victims, they could be a secret code only he knows. The numbers are not definitively sexual. Friend's threat to Connie is, on the very basic surface, sexual. But his imposition on her goes far deeper than that. The story is not about Connie's innocence only in terms of sexual matters, although that is a part of it. It is about Connie's youthful incompetence of all things in life. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" deals with Connie's interaction with life in all its facets. Consequently, Friend's invasion of Connie's world is not a purely sexual one, although it does simplify the story to say so. Friend invades her home property and threatens her family and illusion of love and life. Her house becomes, as a result of Friend's appearance, "nothing but a cardboard box" (Oates 713), and her heart "feels solid but we know better" (Oates 713). In short, "the place where [she] came from ain't there anymore" (Oates 713). Friend tears apart every foundation that Connie has come to consider as truth, and sex is just a piece of that.
The argument of the author herself has a fallacy that forces the reader to question the validity of her contention. Oates uses Connie to tell of the innocence and fantasies of youth and how they end in such a brief instant. This is the use of a well-known cliche that is not always true in all cases. Not all youths have naive fantasies and false illusions about the world. For example, many children in rough cities learn at a very young age that life cannot afford you daydreams, and that the world is a tough, unsafe place. Their youth is based in reality. Also, not all people experience a defining moment when their past is behind them and the future is ahead. For some people, the transition between youth and future is a gradual process, moving so slowly that one particular minute cannot be appropriately designated as more crucial than the others. This fallacy, while not completely rendering her message invalid, nonetheless constrains the credibility of her assertion.
Using a true case of violent crime, Joyce Carol Oates examines how youthful naivete and fantasy end in a crucial moment just before the uncertain future begins in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been". For Connie, that moment came the day Arnold Friend violated her world. A closer inspection of our own lives would perhaps show us the moment we ourselves stood between the illusions of our youth and the indefinite future.
Added to archive: August 22, 1998