Writers Read, Part V: Imagery 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.

Imagery Taken Just Far Enough

What I enjoy most about this story is the normalcy that’s immediately established, in particular, the family with real conflict and how Connie is the defiant outcast. That normalcy becomes tenuous, for me at least, in the sixth paragraph where religion becomes a focus:

“They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the brightlit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for. They sat at the counter and crossed their legs at the ankles, their thin shoulders rigid with excitement, and listened to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.”

Why this place is compared to a church, a haven? It’s protection, protection from “a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold.” It’s a church for a family where “[…] none of them bothered with church […].” When the shaggy-haired boy shows up at her house, she wonders “how bad she looked” after “whisper[ing], ‘Christ. Christ’” almost as though she understood her life at that moment and was attempting to avoid the consequences, seek penance for what she had done to her family. This steady increase of conflict continues throughout the story, up to the very end in a masterful exchange of dialogue and motion.

One example of a metered delivery of imagery is when Connie asks where Arnold Friend is taking her:

“He looked at her. He took off the sunglasses and she saw how pale the skin around his eyes was, like holes that were not in shadow but instead in light. His eyes were like chips of broken glass that catch the light in an amiable way. He smiled. It was as if the idea of going for a ride somewhere, to someplace, was a new idea to him.”

The diction is simple. The sentences are basic in structure, but there’s an interchange, a meter to them. The first sentence does its job well, almost as though Arnold Friend’s look through the concise grammar is impacting Connie. That impact then flows into the next two sentences with vivid imagery that creates uneasiness, which is intensified by the two-word sentence, “He smiled.” All those words build to that smile, a smile that hides his intent from her yet sets the reader on edge through a dramatic irony of sorts.

There’s more, obviously, throughout this story that is pure mastery such as the description of Arnold Friend’s boots: “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it.” That’s just freakish, awesome. However, I’ll stop there.

So, what’s the point of all this?

There’s denseness in the meaning of the simplest of words. Look for those words and cue into the context to determine why the author may have chosen them. In addition, sentences don’t need to be complex and flowing; trimming sentences to simply get to the point is all the reader needs. When writing sentences, be aware of the meter.

I had my writing broken down with this detail during my MFA, and while I read other writer’s writing with this level of detail, I hadn’t with my own. That hyperawareness translates to better writing and a connection to your readers.

My Next Post

In my next post, I want to go over some of the excerpts I included above, specifically the last about Arnold Friend’s boot. Because it’s awesome.

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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