The Concept of Duality in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 16 Pages

American Studies - Literature


The Concept of Duality in Joyce Carol Oates’s

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, first published in 1966, has often been read as a ‘story of initiation’. According to Freese, a ‘story of initiation’ is characterized by the fact that the initiate undergoes an irreversible, existential change.[1] However, this definition can be criticized in two points. First, it is based on the plot. Second, this story type solely focuses on the young person’s development. It takes the society as the status quo and demands transformation and change from the young protagonist only. Thus, the burden of the problem is put on the youth.

In contrast, a fairly different story type, the ‘coming-of-age story’, will be favored in order to analyze the story. In the ‘coming-of-age story’ the major conflict of the story lies in the adult world. Rather than focusing on the change of the youth, in the latter story type the youth character is exposed to a confrontation with the adult world. In Oates’s story this confrontation consists of the fact that the youth world (Connie) is getting overpowered by the adult world (Arnold Friend). As a consequence, the ending of the story implies strong criticism of society in general where violence, brutality and inhumanity are prevalent. In Sullivan’s words the story “is an interlude of terror: it builds fearfully toward a violence so unspeakable that it must happen offstage.”[2]

At the beginning of the story, in the title, the reader is confronted with a twofold question pointing in two directions. “The very title of the story calls attention to duality: a future (where are you going) and a past (where have you been).”[3] Therefore, in this term paper the following thesis will be examined: “The concept of duality is a basic feature of the ‘coming-of-age’ story.” It will be shown that in Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” one distinctive feature of creating the story type of the ‘coming-of-age’ story is the concept of duality. While following the twofold pattern of analyzing the representation of the youth world and the adult world, further major techniques of creating duality in Oates’s story will be discovered, such as irony, ambiguity, grotesque, parody, allusions, deception, and allegory.

When analyzing the illustration of the youth world, which is mainly represented by Connie, the concept of duality is quite obvious. Connie, a typical teenage girl, whose “mind was all filled with trashy daydreams” (35), lives inside two roles: “[T]here is Connie-at-home, and there is Connie-with-her-friends. Two fifteen-year-old girls, two finely honed styles, two voices, sometimes but not often overlapping.”[4] Furthermore, Connie’s two-sidedness can literally be seen as she dresses differently depending on the role she takes on: “She wore a pull-over jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home” (36). On the one hand, Connie is determined to live a normal middle-class life and to be “plain and steady” (35) like her twenty-four-year-old sister June. On the other hand, Connie lives in a dream world: She spends the nights at the shopping plaza walking through the stores, going to the movies, hanging out in a drive-in restaurant, listening to music and meeting boys. Her fantasy world which she has created herself in order to find idols and define her identity is predominantly embodied by the music world. “Connie is in the process of defining herself through a counterideology […] that contradicts the belief systems of her parents.”[5] When Connie starts to have increasing thoughts about sexual love her concept of love is consequently strongly influenced by music. She believes in romantic love with boys “sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs” (39). In addition, the mirror scene emphasizes that Connie has no clear self-concept at all and still searches for defining her identity: “[S]he knew she was pretty and that was everything” (34). Therefore, it can be agreed that “Connie’s identity is split: one part of her displays her emerging sexuality; the other part conforms to what the authorities in her life consider proper.”[6] Connie’s mother was pretty once too and beauty seems to be the only value that counts within the family. As a result, not only Connie’s outer appearance but also more importantly her interior world is twofold, torn apart, and undefined; this makes her extremely vulnerable. As will be discovered later in the story, “young, inexperienced Connie’s lack of self-identity is the pivot on which the story turns and the reason she becomes Friend’s prey.”[7]

The adult world, which is complex, displays the concept of duality on at least two levels. On a first level, there is the bipolarity between Connie’s parents with her older sister June and Arnold Friend with his accomplice Ellie. On a second level, the character of Arnold Friend incorporates duality, ambiguity, and deception himself.

First, attention will be drawn to analyze the concept of duality on the first level mentioned above by characterizing the complex adult world in Oates’s story. The main point about Connie’s adult family members is that they are all weak characters.

Her twenty-four-year-old sister June still lives at home, works as “a secretary in the high school Connie attend[s]” (35) and is praised by her mother all the time for being “plain and steady” (35). In addition, the name “June” might be read as an allusion to the Roman goddess “Juno” who personifies women and marriage and thus further stresses the conservative role June assumes in accordance with the American middle-class values.[8]

Connie’s father is “away at work most of the time” and has no interest in family life and the needs of his daughters at all: “He didn’t bother talking much to them […]” (35). As a consequence, “Connie’s father plays a small role in [Connie’s] life, but by paralleling repeated phrases, Oates suggests that this is precisely the problem. [H]e can hardly ask the crucial parental questions, “Where are you going?” or “Where have you been?”[9]

The relationship between Connie and her mother is that of a typical teenager and her mother. While her mother keeps picking at Connie, her older sister June is praised by her mother all the time basically because she acts according to the conventional middle-class values. The weakness of Connie’s mother becomes apparent in the fact that the only real connection between Connie and her mother is the beauty her mother once had and Connie exhibits now. “In other words, to Connie and her mother, real value lies in beauty.”[10] However, according to the value system of the female characters within the family, “[Connie’s] mother and sister are not attractive, so they do not really count.”[11]

In contrast, moral values are not considered important and are not transferred to Connie in the family’s enclosed middle-class world. Wegs emphasizes this statement by saying that “Connie’s parents, who seem quite typical, have disqualified themselves as moral guides for her.”[12] None of the adults surrounding Connie can serve as a role model for her. Interestingly, neither the father’s nor the mother’s name is mentioned in the story. Being nameless illustrates their lack of identity and further emphasizes their weakness and powerlessness.

The negative connotation of the American middle-class value system is further emphasized by the characterization of the father of Connie’s best friend with whom Connie goes to the shopping plaza at night. As “he never bothered to ask what they had done when he came to pick them up again at eleven” (35), Oates further underscores with her parallel description of the father of Connie’s friend the moral indifference of the entire adult society.[13]

Summing up, Connie’s encounter with the adult world has hitherto been dominated by typical American middle-class characters whose world consists of superficiality, beauty as the only value, hamburgers, coke, malls, and barbecue partys; and Connie is part of this American middle-class world.

Arnold and his accomplice Ellie, the other representatives of the adult world, function as a counterpart of Connie’s adult environment. Arnold can offer Connie something her parents cannot offer. He seems to be the incarnation of Connie’s dream and fairytale world and the representation of Connie’s deepest desires and fears. This is why Arnold can fulfill his task to introduce people to a different, not a metaphysical, world. For Connie Arnold seems to symbolize the opportunity of breaking out of the typical American middle-class world and of defining her identity. “[T]he two major locations of the tale are the home and family unit it signifies, and the outside world represented first in the drive-in hamburger joint, later in Arnold Friend himself.”[14] As Connie enters a completely new world, represented by Arnold, one might argue that she actually undergoes “an irreversible change” like Freese suggested in his definition of the ‘story of initiation’.[15] However, “change” usually has a positive connotation. Therefore Freese’s definition cannot be applied at this point and is even ironic as the “change” finally leads Connie to rape and death. In fact, the world Arnold embodies is chaotic, threatening, and fatal.

A closer analysis of Arnold Friend’s figure will confirm the assumption that, on a second level, he displays the concept of duality himself in various ways. Although Arnold Friend has no identity either he creates his identity of a youthful lover what makes him appear as an ambiguous and twofold figure.

Arnold’s positive function is that he openly confronts the codes of the family. Although he himself has no genuine identity - he borrows his artificial form from a humorous pastiche of teenage styles and slogans - he forces Connie into a recognition of the necessary displacement of the unexamined forms of “family”.[16]

His technique of creating this duality within himself by using all methods of disguise and deception is obvious in the story at many points. “Arnold’s clothes, car, speech, and taste in music reflect current teenage chic almost exactly, for they constitute part of a careful disguise intended to reflect Arnold’s self-image as an accomplished youthful lover.”[17]

First, Oates might have considered the technique of deception when giving Arnold the surname “Friend” which implies a strong effect of irony as he definitely is not a “friend” but a brutal and dangerous figure. Easterly supports the existence of duality in the form of deception in the names and further develops this argument by stating that “[t]he theme of deception first occurs in the names. Friend assures Connie that he is her “friend”, but the dropping of the two r’s transforms the name into “an old fiend” […].”[18]

Second, the concept of duality is visible in Arnold’s outer appearance. His “shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig” (40) actually appears to be a wig. His dressing style “was the way all of them dressed: tight faded jeans stuffed into black, scuffed boots, a belt that pulled his waist in and showed how lean he was, and a white pull-over shirt that was a little soiled and showed the hard small muscles of his arms and shoulders” (42). Arnold copies the stereotype dressing style of the youth culture idol with the intention of approaching Connie more easily. “When he walks, however, Connie realizes that the runty Arnold, conscious that the ideal teenage dream lover is tall, has stuffed his boots; the result is, however, that he can hardly walk and staggers ludicrously.”[19] In addition, combined with the youthful grinning, which is a remarkable attribute of Arnold throughout the whole story, “that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn’t want to put in words” (45), he uses make-up in order to appear younger. “He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick the lashes were, thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material” (45). When Connie reveals Arnold’s disguise she realizes that “[h]is whole face was a mask” (48) and to Connie it seems “as if he had plastered make-up on his face” (48). Interestingly, in ancient drama masks (personae) were used as an artificial device for the actors to play different roles on the stage.[20] This is why it can be argued that the mask represents a symbol of taking on a different role for Arnold as well. Role reversal as a typical feature of the ‘coming-of-age’ story also displays the concept of duality and is not only evident in this context but also becomes obvious when considering the fact that Arnold Friend assumes the function of a role model - at least at the beginning of the story - and somehow replaces Connie’s father. Another implicit allusion to the fact that Arnold is fake and only takes on an actor’s role exists in Connie’s recognition of Arnold Friend’s “gentle-loud voice that was like a stage voice” (52).

Third, Arnold’s use of language, speech, and voice is a further stylistic device used to build up deception and ambiguity and thus applying the concept of duality. There is no doubt, Arnold appears as a rhetorically powerful figure. However, he does not use his own words at all. “Even his speech is not his own […]”.[21] Arnold’s two-sidedness is created by imitating the youthful language, citing lyrics from popular music songs, and using hip slang expressions. “He spoke in a simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song” (43). Therefore, “[m]usic is also an important part of Friend’s camouflage.”[22] Friend’s fake use of language only becomes apparent when Connie recognizes that Arnold uses an expression - “MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS” (44) - that is no longer up-to-date. “It was an expression kids had used the year before but didn’t use this year” (44). In addition, Friend’s use of teenage slang expressions he learned by heart in order to appear youthful and en vogue also has another function. Using a little bit of fantasy the slang expressions “Don’t crawl under my fence, don’t squeeze in my chipmunk hole, don’t sniff my glue, suck my popsicle […]!” (51) contain strong sexual allusions and display Arnold’s cruel intention: raping and killing Connie. Arnold’s speech is further described as a “singsong way […], slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy” (45). Furthermore, his fake “words [are] spoken with a slight rhythmic lilt, and Connie somehow recognized them - the echo of a song from last year […]” (49). These two text-immanent examples definitely imply the association with a rock star or a teenage idol and reveal Arnold’s falseness.

Strongly related to Arnold’s use of his voice in a “singsong way” (45) is the important function of music in the story. It can be observed that Oates also uses the concept of duality in relation to the theme of music. On the one hand music is an implicit theme within the story, on the other hand, there is a clear link to the external world indicated by Oates’s dedication of the story to Bob Dylan.

Regarding the text-immanent realization of the music theme it first can be stated that throughout the whole story music is in some way omnipresent. Connie basically lives in a world of music. Her whole teenage life is centered on music. Going out at nights, she “listened to the music that made everything so good; the music was always in the background […]; it was something to depend on” (36). Instead of joining the rest of the family to go to a barbecue she prefers listening to her favorite radio program “XYZ Sunday Jamboree by Bobby King” (39). It is the music world where Connie searches for happiness, enjoyment, values, idols, and role models. In fact, music can offer her something her family cannot. Listening to music puts Connie in a highly emotional state. She is “bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy” (39). “Indeed, throughout the story the music is given an almost mystical character, for it evokes in Connie a mysterious pleasure.”[23] In contrast, Arnold somehow knows about this vulnerability of Connie and tries by all means of deception to correspond to Connie’s desires. As has been developed above, by using different techniques of deception and duality it can be agreed to the statement that “[the music] always accompanies Friend as a leitmotif to his almost supernatural ability to dominate Connie. […] The music enchants Connie, and Arnold Friend uses it both to deceive and entice her.”[24] When Arnold first appears at Connie’s home it is the realization that they both listen to the same radio program by “Bobby King” (41) which makes Connie start a conversation with Arnold and think he is likeable. As a consequence, the music is the important link between Connie and Arnold. “The recurring music then, while ostensibly innocuous realistic detail, is in fact, the vehicle of Connie’s seduction and because of its intangibility, not immediately recognizable as such.”[25]


[1] For the complete definition of the ‘story of initiation’ cf. Peter Freese, The American Short Story I: Initiation. Teacher’s Book. Interpretations and suggestions by Peter Freese (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1986) p. 52.

[2] Walter Sullivan, “The Artificial Demon: Joyce Carol Oates and the Dimensions of the Real.” in: Wagner, Linda W. (ed.). Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. (Boston: Hall, 1979) p. 77.

[3] Christina Marsden Gillis, “’Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’: Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode.” Studies in Short Fiction 18.1 (1981): 67.

[4] Greg Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates. A Study of the Short Fiction. (New York: Twayne, 1994) p. 150.

[5] Marilyn C. Wesley, Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction. (Westport/London: Greenwood, 1993) p. 145.

[6] Joan D. Winslow, “The Stranger Within: Two Stories by Oates and Hawthorne.” Studies in Short Fiction 17.3 (1980): 263.

[7] Joan Easterly, “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” Studies in Short Fiction 27.4 (1990): 541.

[8] Michael Grant und John Hazel, Lexikon der antiken Mythen und Gestalten (München: dtv, 182004) p. 228.

[9] Joyce M. Wegs, “’Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” in: Linda W. Wagner (ed.). Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. (Boston: Hall, 1979) p. 88.

[10] Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 88.

[11] Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski, “Existential Allegory: Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” Studies in Short Fiction 15.2 (1978): 200.

[12] Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 88.

[13] Cf. Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 88.

[14] Christina Marsden Gillis, “Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode”, p. 67.

[15] Peter Freese, The American Short Story I: Initiation, p. 52.

[16] Marilyn C. Wesley, Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction, p. 146.

[17] Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 89.

[18] Joan Easterly, “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 538.

[19] Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 89.

[20] Cf. Jean-Claude Fredouille, Lexikon der römischen Welt, übersetzt und herausgegeben von Robert Hilgers (Darmstadt: WBG, 1999) p. 134. „[Die Theatermasken (personae)] wurden aus Pappmaché hergestellt und waren bemalt, wobei man den Gesichtsausdruck der Rolle anglich und die Mundöffnung zugleich als Megaphon diente.“

[21] Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 89.

[22] Joan Easterly, “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 539.

[23] Joyce M. Wegs, “The Grotesque in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 88.

[24] Joan Easterly, “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’,” p. 539.

[25] Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski, “Existential Allegory”, p. 201.


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Concept Duality Joyce Carol Oates’s Going Where Have Been



Title: The Concept of Duality in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”