Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been: The Gothic’s Fear of Small-Town Life and Teenage Rebellion

Content Warning: Childhood sexual abuse, sexual abuse, sexual assault

Joyce Carol Oates’ story, “Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been” (1966), focuses on a  teenage girl who begins experimenting in her sexuality as boredom from living in a small town grows. In the much darker ending, she is taken by what seems to be a supernatural predator, who preys on her vulnerability as a young girl. The scariest part of it all is that Oates was very much inspired by one major tragedy in the country at the time: The murders of three young girls by a  23-year-old man named Charles Schmid. Through the symbolism of Arnold Friend as a  predatory supernatural character, and Connie’s experimentation with sexuality in response to dismal home life (in gothic terms, the symbol of the loss of her purity), Oates demonstrates the gothic for a more modernized audience—ones who fear what happens when the lack of excitement in rural areas leads teenagers to push boundaries and display rebellion. This is important as Oates creates a commentary on what the modern American household is actually afraid of: The “supernatural” predator, or the fear of teenage boredom that leads to rebellion.  

The first thing to note about the story is the context and historical climate surrounding it.  Oates was quite obviously pulling from a real murder surrounding the time she wrote “Where Are  You Going, Where Have You Been.” Charles Schmid and Arnold Friend has eerie similarities; they were both older men that drove goldish cars and used makeup and shoe stuffing to make themselves more attractive to younger girls. A quote from the essay “Joyce Carol Oates’s  ‘Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been’ as Pure Realism” says that “the most telling evidence is how faithfully Oates duplicated the bizarre facts about Charles Schmid. . . When  Schmid was arrested, he was twenty-three but still haunting teenage hangouts” (Coulthard 506).  Similarly, we see Arnold Friend hanging out at the drive in restaurant that Eddie and Connie leave from, waiting in his golden convertible, eerily staring and saying “gonna get you baby”  (Oates 2) to her. Here, we are pointed to this idea that both these men preyed on young teenagers through the things that made them most vulnerable: their newly discovered sexuality and freedom. While we never know what happens to Connie after she leaves with Arnold, if it is anything like the real case of Charles Schmid, readers can assume it is not a happy ending for the main protagonist of this story.  

At first glance, Connie is a typical teenager in a small town who loves her friends and boys, but often dislikes her parents. She cares about her appearance as she is often “checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was alright” (Oates 1). She often goes out with friends to the movies or shopping, and they all dress alike with “shorts and flat ballerina slippers. . . with charm bracelets jingling on their thin wrists” (Oates 1). But most importantly, Connie has a  distaste for her parents, particularly her mother, not unlike many other teenagers her age. She often wishes “her mother was dead most of the time and she herself was dead and it was all over” (Oates 1). Here, we are presented with the anxieties Connie has with her mother who often compares her to her sister and tears down her self-esteem.  

Connie turns to romantic relationships and presumable sexual experimentation in place of her dismay with her home life. She sees one boy, Eddie and “Spent three hours with him at the restaurant where they. . . drank Coke in wax cups, and then down an alley a mile or so away”  (Oates 2). Here, Oates implies an innocence of the teenage relationship of drinking sodas together, but also the rebellion of teenage sexuality of spending time down old alleys. We ultimately are forced to believe as readers that this feels symbolic of Connie losing her purity.  Even when she’s not with boys, she spends time at home “dreaming about the boys she met. But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face, but an idea, a feeling” (Oates 2). The implication that her experimentation is not so much about the boys, as it is more about the feeling of being alive and having the freedom to do as she pleases. Yet, we should also draw attention to Oates’ emphasis on feminine purity being forsaken, rather than purity in general. The predator that punishes Connie is male, but it is also notable that Connie is punished, while Eddie seems to get to continue with normal life after their alleyway hookup. The article “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?:’ Seduction, Space and a Fictional  Mode” says “while the poles of Oates’ story are innocence and experience, the focus of attention is the process of seduction, or the threshold between the two states” (Gillis 66). Here, Gillis points out the true gothic elements: ones in which the fear is engrained in feminine purity being lost, rather than innocence lost. When this feeling and her vulnerability ultimately leads to her being abducted, Oates brings up the gothic’s fear of what happens when purity of the young girl is forsaken.

Arnold Friend is not only a supernatural predator, but also a symbol of punishment for teenage rebellion. He tries to blend in with Connie through making himself more appealing as he has “shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig” (Oates 3). At first, it works, as Connie is kind of charmed by him as she “liked the way he was dressed. He looked as if he probably did hard work. . . even his neck looked muscular” (Oates 4). However, it isn’t long before the dynamic changes and Connie is scared. He tries to befriend her by inviting her to ride with him and saying, “Connie, you ain’t telling the truth. This is your day set aside for a ride with me” (Oates 4). However, Connie is alarmed by this, as she is unsure of how he knows her name. This points to him being some sort of other worldly figure, or all knowing. He also is unable to walk well, as he “wobbled in his high boots and grabbed hold of one of the porch posts” (Oates 6). While we don’t know the reason he can’t walk and balance normally, the options are that he stuffs his boots, or his ‘feet’ are not humanlike at all, pointing to him being possibly supernatural. He then tries to convince her he is only eighteen, but again Connie feels unsure. He tried to fit in by knowing Bobby King and listening to the radio Connie listens to, but she realizes he has “man the flying saucers” painted on his car, a saying that is a year old among other teens (Oates 5). He starts to scare her even more as he knows her family, and where they are. He tells Connie that he is “her lover” and that he is “always nice the first time” (Oates 6).  Here, Oates points out that something Connie originally yearned for is now being forced upon her by a predator who is all knowing. The things she always wanted: freedom from her parents,  romantic relationships, and rebellion is now being used as punishment of the experimentation.  She is overwhelmed by all that he knows about her, and his threats to her family. Ultimately,  Connie gives in, but what she once desired is now turned to fear and emptiness. She realizes her parents cannot save her and she thinks “I’m not going to see my mother again. . . I’m not going to sleep in my bed again” (Oates 9). She gets in the car, and Arnold welcomes her by calling her his “sweet little blue-eyed girl” (Oates 9). Here, readers are forced to say goodbye to the innocence Connie had of normal teenage boredom, friendships, family strains, and rebellion as Arnold and his assistant drive off with Connie into vague landscapes. The symbolism of Arnold as a punisher leads to the abduction of Connie.  

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is not only a mirror image of a  historical event that the media was obsessed with, but also a cautionary gothic tale of what boredom in small town teenagers leads to. Oates uses Connie’s sexuality and loss of her purity as a way of instilling fear into teenagers like her, and later uses Arnold Friend and the supernatural,  as a symbol of punishment for those who act in rebellion. Through this, readers are forced to deal with subsequent fears of small-town life, sexuality, and loss of innocence within their own lives. Connie is symbolic of the fear of freedom, and the ultimate punishment that the gothic pursues when purity is lost. Gillis says in their essay that this story is “the story of the end of childhood,  the end of romance, the invasion and probable destruction of private and self-contained space”  (Gillis 70). While maybe not as drastic, Oates pushes readers into the fear of both loss of childhood and invasion of private space in our own lives, using Connie as an example of our own victimization. 

Works Cited 

• Coulthard, A. R. “Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You  Been?’ As Pure Realism.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, Fall 1989, pp.  505–510. EBSCOhost,  

search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=asn&AN=713 5813&site=eds-live&scope=site. 

• Gillis, Christina Marsden. “‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’:  Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 18, no. 1,  Winter 1981, p. 65. EBSCOhost,  search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=asn&AN=864 8456&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Abstract: “Where Are You Going Where Have You Been: The Gothic’s Fear of Small-Town Life and Teenage Rebellion” aims to explore themes of sexuality and female punishment in the classic short gothic story by Joyce Carol Oates. This paper explores the predatory antagonist, setting, teenage rebellion, and true historical happenings to investigate the trope of violence against female bodies in gothic stories and what that means for us as modern day audiences.

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Kait Regulbuto
Kait Regulbuto is a Literary Arts major with a dual minor in Education and Women and Gender Studies. She is a lover of good books, particularly horror, and good coffee.