Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? | Study Guide

Joyce Carol Oates

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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Joyce Carol Oates short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"—publishing in 1966 in Epoch magazine—focuses on 15-year-old Connie, whose struggle with her emerging sexuality becomes dangerous when she gets to know the menacing Arnold Friend. The story treats the American obsession with violence, the troubled life of an adolescent, and the victimization of women, all subjects on which Oates has focused frequently.

Winner of an O. Henry Prize, the short-story award named for one of the greatest writers of the genre, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is considered one of Oates's greatest of her more than 600 short stories. It was first anthologized in 1968 and has appeared in many other anthologies since.

1. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was inspired by a series of real-life murders.

In 1961 in Tucson, Arizona, Charles Schmid Jr. murdered several young women. He knew most of them; they were girlfriends or acquaintances. Schmid was arrested in 1965, and in 1966 a Life magazine article described him and his smooth attitude, his use of makeup and hair dye, and the cowboy boots he stuffed with paper to seem taller. Oates was fascinated by the killer and—most of all—his victims, and she used Schmid's story as an inspiration for her own story.

2. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was also inspired by a Bob Dylan song.

While Oates claimed Bob Dylan's song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" didn't "directly influence" her story, she noted in an article in the Wall Street Journal that the song's "soul and poetic rhythm were very seductive." Though she admits the song is difficult to interpret, lines like "The vagabond who's rapping at your door/Is standing in the clothes that you once wore" clearly reveal to her something is ending. Because, as she wrote, "The life that my teenage character knew is about to end," she thought it "seemed fitting to dedicate my story to Bob Dylan."

3. Critics and readers often accuse Oates of including too much violence in her work.

Oates wrote an essay for the New York Times titled "Why Is Your Writing So Violent?" It addresses the question she claims she has been asked by readers all over the world. She responds that she found the question sexist and insulting: it would never be asked of a male writer. She points out that she writes about the real world—about real social problems—and it is the nature of her subjects that creates her violent scenes. And she notes, "When people say there is too much violence in Oates, what they are saying is there is too much reality in life."

4. Some critics have called "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" antifeminist.

Oates's focus on women as victims has led some critics to question her feminism. Her female characters are often passive and acted upon by males. In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" in particular, the suggested rape of the main character has outraged critics. However, other critics have pointed out that Oates "participates in a feminist discourse by attempting to assess how women are made and unmade by male definitions of womanhood."

5. The title "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" may be a biblical allusion.

According to critic Mark Robson, Oates hints at the source for her title with the numbers written on the side of Arnold Friend's car: 33, 19, 17. In the Bible, Judges is the 33rd book from the end of the Old Testament, and verse 19:17 reads, "When he raised his eyes he got to see the man, the traveler, in the public square of the city. So the old man said: 'Where are you going, and where do you come from?'"

6. Oates originally wanted to title the story "Death and the Maiden."

Oates's original title for "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was "Death and the Maiden." Oates explained, "Like the medieval German engraving from which my title was taken the story was minutely detailed yet clearly an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil)." There are several such engravings and paintings, and it is unclear to which one she refers, but all show a young woman embraced by a figure who represents Death. Oates called this title "rather too explicit," thus explaining why she changed it before publication.

7. Oates admired a film adaptation of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Oates had some quibbles with Smooth Talk, the 1986 film adaptation of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" She noted, "My difficulties with 'Smooth Talk' have primarily to do with my chronic hesitation—a justifiable shyness, I'm sure—about seeing/hearing work of mine abstracted from its contexture of language." However, in general she admired the adaptation, even though director Joyce Chopra changed the ending. She said, "I quite understand that this is an unfilmable conclusion, and 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' is in fact an unfilmable short story. But Joyce Chopra's 'Smooth Talk' is an accomplished and sophisticated movie that attempts to do just that."

8. Oates was educated in a one-room schoolhouse and taught in several well-known universities.

Oates was born in rural upstate New York. Her elementary school was a one-room schoolhouse where she discovered the wonders of the dictionary, "a book comprised of words!" She went on to become a renowned professor in Princeton University's Creative Writing Program, from which she officially retired in 2014 after 36 years, though she continued to teach.

9. Oates has written under several pseudonyms.

Oates used pseudonyms to publish in a number of different genres. As Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, she has written mysteries and suspense novels. She also has published short stories as Rae-Jolene Smith. In an essay on writers who have used pseudonyms, she explains the desire to publish anonymously:

Who, having created an identity in the world's eyes, an indestructible persona, has not subsequently wished to escape from it!—for such is the perversity, the instinct for freedom and newness, in the human psyche.

10. It is likely that Oates's husband of 47 years never read "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

Oates's husband, Raymond Smith, was an editor, and Oates noted he read most of her nonfiction but not much of her fiction: "I don't believe that Ray read my first novel With Shuddering Fall." It's very possible that he never read "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" either.

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