Writers Read, Part IV: Symbolism in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Close Reading & Mastery

Summary Recap

Inspired by a string of murders committed in the 60s, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? follows a young girl who defies her mother and is stalked by group of older men. However, there’s far more to this story.

Read the Story: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Before reading these posts, you may want to read Oates’s story. It’s everywhere. Find a copy and read it. Once you’ve read the story, you’ll be able to understand what I’m analyzing and have far clearer context.

In general, I’ll post textual evidence from the story and analyze that evidence.

Symbolism: Daughter and Mother

Textual Evidence: “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything.

This may be more than it appears due to Connie looking “right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself.” This describes Connie looking into a mirror; however, she’s also looking “through her mother.” Her mother may be a shadow of what she once was: She was once like Connie.

The spite Connie’s mother expresses may be rejection of her younger self: The mother was once like Connie, sees that, and hates it—or, in the very least, knows how dangerous she once was. This is reinforced by the following line: “Her mother had been pretty once too […].”

Symbolism: Names and Seasons

Connie’s sister is June. June, the summer month, is new and rich yet matured from the months of spring. Perhaps Connie, could then be compared to the spring season.

This archetypal, cyclical pattern is reinforced when “Connie’s mother kept picking at her until Connie wished her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over.” Death commonly is symbolized by winter; however, there is no direct mention of this within the story.

Symbolism: Hidden Self

Connie’s name may hold significance as well. Her name conjures words like confidence, contrary, and contradictory. And her behavior and perception reinforce this.

Connie contradicts people’s perception of her. She gains confidence from others through her insincerity or duplicity: “high, breathless, amused voice that made everything she said sound a little forced, whether it was sincere or not.”

Her physical appearance changes as well, showing her duplicitous life specifically when “She […] 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 […].” She was also “cynical and drawling at home” while “nervous anywhere else […].”

All of these references to duplicity also connect to the mirrors Connie continually likes to peer into; those images she sees are the exact opposite of who she is in the physical world, just as she presents opposites of herself to those around her.

Symbolism: The Boys Contradict and Reflect

Connie speaks to the man in the gold car “sullenly, careful to show no interest or pleasure, and he spoke in a fast, bright monotone.” Her presence here contradicts what she feels internally, and the man’s external presence contradicts Connie’s. Not only is this conflict, it also shows no one is being honest externally, therefore, cannot be trusted.

Meanwhile, the boys in the car all wear “glasses [that] were metallic and mirrored everything in miniature.” These boys give the impression of experience and age, yet their view of the world is truly limited and small just like the miniature image reflected in their sunglasses. In addition, the vision of the boys being of high school age may be a half-truth as well since “everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real.”

This uncertainty continues when Arnold threatens, “’[…] I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me.’” This violence counters the love he professes they’ll share, or in the very least, what she is supposed to feel for him; however, that love is a lie, hateful. There is, of course, Arnold’s last name which contradicts his violence (his last name being Friend and not going into An Old Fiend by erasing the Rs).

Everything about these boys—men—is a lie, and they rely upon an honest reflection of their vile selves to draw Connie in just as Connie used her own duplicity to acquiesce to various relationships: family and friends. The dialogue between Connie and Arnold, forceful and tragic, leads to the last lines where she ponders how she’ll experience the world beyond her house, but this too is a tragic lie.

So, what’s the point of all this?

Writers need to be active readers. While there are moments where you may simply read for entertainment, most moments should be focused on an awareness of the words and how the author uses them.

Now, I’m not saying I analyze every short story and novel in the same way. I wrote this analysis during my MFA and edited it for this post. I read and analyzed this story a second time in a later quarter. However, there’s merit in reading as closely this: It teaches how to read your own writing closely and incorporate similar techniques.

In addition, this shows how dense a piece may actually be. Simple word choice impacts the meaning of a sentence. In addition, each word that’s chosen develops characters, the setting, and—in the case of this story—becomes an extended metaphor.

Being aware of what you’re reading leads to a mastery of writing—as long as you practice it in your own writing.

My Next Post

In my next post, I’ll go over how Joyce Carol Oate’s makes her readers work.

Author: Chuck Lang

Chuck Lang is a writer of science fiction and horror. Influenced by his years as a carpenter, four years serving in the US Navy, and his fifteen years teaching literature, he holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Lindenwood University. After completing his first manuscript, the supernatural horror novel DEAD GODS, in 2019, he has begun work on its two sequels, DEAD GODS: INHERITANCE and DEAD GODS: RESOLUTION. He is currently developing two additional projects, an urban fantasy horror novel and a military science fiction novel. He lives and writes near the frequently flooded Red River in Fargo, ND with his wife and two redhead sons.

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