A feminist Viewpoint of Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been



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June 29, 2009

A Psychological Analysis of Connie: A Feminist Viewpoint of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

by Clifford J. Kurkowski

 

                When Joyce Carol Oates first published the short story entitled “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?”, many readers were uncomfortable with the actions of the major character known as Connie since her behavior often reminded them of someone they may have known.  The difficulties that Connie encounters throughout the story expose the audience to the questions the author is raising and forces them to examine the deep psychological problems that people, such as themselves, often face during their own lifetime.  Readers, therefore, gain a better understanding of the character through the emotions that are a result of their own experiences.  In other words, the approach known as psychological criticism has readers focus their attention on a literary work by analyzing the presentation after they have interpreted the actions and the conflicts that actually determine the outcome of the character within the story under consideration.  To accomplish that goal, not only must one examine the text closely in order to obtain an effective psychological profile of the character, but they must also delve into the actual psyche of a character such as Connie in order to have a better comprehension of her actions.  When that information finally becomes clear to them, readers do grasp a better understanding of her actions and can justify why it is that Connie actually leaves with Arnold Friend.

                For over thirty years critics have debated over Connie’s decision to leave with Arnold Friend because readers find it unnatural for a young woman to leave with a total stranger. Critics find this a significant issue in literary criticism because it questions Connie’s values and morals, and the author’s intent. Some critics, like Marie Urbanski, believe that Connie leaves with Arnold because she is, “bowing to absolute forces which her youthful coquetry cannot direct – absolute forces over which she has no control” (78).  Urbanski and other critics feel that Arnold’s persuasive demeanor forces Connie into his hands because she cannot resist his seductive temptations, which in turn, create other “forces” within Connie’s mind which prevent her from having a clear judgment towards the situation. Another critic, Tom Quirk, scratches the surface of Connie’s psyche by believing that “there is a fire inside Connie’s brain” to rebel against the “American Dream” of “hearth and home and innocent youth” and that she leaves with Arnold to rebel against the norms of society (88). Quirk comes very close in understanding Connie’s motivation but he needs to go one step further by delving deeper into her psyche to find out why she left with Arnold.  To probe Connie’s mind we need to ask deeper questions such as: What was Connie’s home life like? What kind of relationship did Connie have with her parents and sister?  Whom did Connie associate with outside of the home?  What kind of life did Arnold offer Connie? Finally, did Connie leave on her own free will? Once we build a psychological profile of Connie we will be able to answer these questions and conclude that Connie leaves with Arnold Friend on her own free will.

                In one of his essays, Bernard Paris states that readers must expect “the central characters of realistic fiction be like real people, that they have a life of their own beyond the control of the author,” and in order to recognize a necessity such as that, one must first examine the backgrounds presented to them by the author (230).  To gain a better profile of Connie, one must understand the interactions she has with the members of her family, the involvement she has with other people, the interesting places she finds the most enjoyable, and the influences she experiences form certain events that have an effect on her behavior.  For example, when Connie is fifteen years old, she has “a quick, nervous giggling habit” of craning her neck either to glance into a mirror or to study the face of someone else as a way of increasing her self-confidence (25).  Like a normal teenager, she is slightly insecure and hopes her friends will accept her by basing their decision on appearance as well as behavior.  By being aware of the fact that others consider her attractive, Connie is unafraid of flaunting herself, and her mother asks her more than once to quit “gawking at yourself.  Who are you?  You think you’re so pretty?” (25).

                Not only does Connie live with her mother, but her twenty-four year old sister, June, and her father also share the same house.  The relationship that Connie has with her mother is somewhat questionable because she always considers her daughter prettier and younger even though she “had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie” (25).  The relationship with the sister is also unpleasant because the mother praises June more often because there are nine years of difference between Connie and Jean; in addition, their sibling rivalry is still in existence.  She does consider June somewhat boring because her sister has somewhat established herself to a degree, continues living at home in spite of that, and often returns home at night whenever she chooses.  Even though most people consider her a responsible adult, at the age of twenty-four, June

                                still lived at home.  She was a secretary in the high school Connie attended, and if that wasn’t enough—with her in the same building—she was so plain

                                and chunky and steady  that Connie had to hear her praised all the time by her mother and her mother’s sisters.  June did this, June did that, she saved

                                 money and helped clean the house and cooked and Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was filled with trashy daydreams.  (26)

 

With her mother constantly praising June as the better of the two, a great deal of resentment develops between Connie and her mother; in fact, she often “wished her mother was dead and she herself dead” from all the disagreements that she and her mother and June experience with one another on a regular basis (30).  Furthermore, Connie actually imagines “her mother preferred her to June because she was prettier, but the two of them kept up a pretense of exasperation, a sense that they were tugging and struggling over something of little value to either one of them” (30).  Her father is also unhelpful because he works during the day, arrives home late each evening, and as a result of his exhaustion, “[reads] the newspaper at supper and after supper he went to bed” (26).  In addition to his absences, he offers no guidance to Connie or her sister, and as is usually the case, their mother is the one who must contend with the difficulties associated with the family environment.



                Extracurricular activities for Connie consist of the movies, the shopping mall, and the “drive-in restaurant where the older kids hung out” (27).  At this drive-in, she spends time with her best friend, Betty, and it is the only location where she no longer encounters the rigors one associates with everyday life for the simple reason she considers herself in control of the situation.  For example, not only does she and Betty regularly entice the older boys whenever they have a chance, but if Connie considers any of the boys unacceptable to her liking, she and Betty would ignore them in every possible way.  After fueling her air of pretentiousness and confidence, Connie and her friend use their new found strength whenever either one of them encounter

                                a boy they didn’t like.  It made them feel good to be able to ignore him.  They went up through the maze of parked cars and cruising cars to the bright-lit,

                                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.  (27)

 

She continually spends her time at the drive-in because it is a place for her thoughts to run wild for one simple reason: She does not have to care about who notices how much she is enjoying herself.  It is a “sacred” territory to her, in other words, because it provides her with a place where one can lead another life without worrying about whether their mother or their siblings know anything about it.



                Music also plays a major role in her development as a result of the influence it has on the decision making process.  In a number of ways, it supports Connie through what appears to be religious imagery, invoking her attention by staying “always in the background, like music at church service; it was something to depend on” (28).  It stimulates her by providing a fantasy that depicts the way in which one can understand the various possibilities that society offers to its members on a regular basis.  It increases her contentment with the world, presents her with an intense exposure to beauty, and expands her impression of what romance offers people in similar situations.  In a number of ways, these possibilities are more enlightening whenever she relaxes

                                with her eyes closed …, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped onto thoughts

                                of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way  someone like June would supposed but

                                sweet, gentle, the way it was in the movies and  promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was, the back yard ran off 

                                into the weeds and a fence-like line of trees and behind it the sky was perfectly blue and still.  The asbestos “ranch house” that was now three years old

                                startled her—it looked small.  She shook her head as if to get awake.  (30-1)

 

The music also captures Connie by reminding her that once it stops playing she re-enters society.  She wants to enjoy the chances it makes available on an everyday basis, but each time she does listen to the music, an involvement with those two or three minutes of encouragement often provide someone like Connie all of the possibilities necessary for increasing their understanding of the world around them.  Although many consider her a detached person who has little interest in the responsibilities family members expect each other to fulfill, Bernard Paris claims that people such as Connie often have “an aversion to effort and places the greatest value upon the freedom from constraint”; in simple terms, they continually immerse themselves in a number of different activities (247).  Not only does music allow her to avoid the everyday doldrums one must face on a continual basis, but as she previously asserts, music is also “something to depend on” in order to comprehend society from a better perspective (28).



                In a profile such as this, one can recognize the basic psychological elements that comprise the character, many of which increase the desire they have for social acceptance, and in the case of Connie, she opens the door for people such as Arnold Friend to become a part of her life.  When Connie looks through the door and sees Arnold she notices that he is like the other boys she hangs around with, he has “the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and tight shirt, and that slippery friendly smile” (37).  Connie is comfortable with the way Arnold looks and there is a physical attraction by the way she describes him. When Friend speaks to Connie it is like a “singsong” to her ears, she wants to listen to what he has to say. Though, her family members provide her with a feeling of isolation, Friend offers her some new experiences by making his love, affection, and guidance available through a number of guarantees:

                                “Yes, I’m your lover.  You don’t know what that is but you will,” he said.  “I know that too. I know all about you.  But look: it’s real nice and you couldn’t

                                ask for anybody better than me, or more polite.  I always keep my word.  I’ll tell you how it is, I’m always nice at first, the first time.  I’ll hold you so tight

                                you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t.  I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in

                                to me and you’ll love me ….”  (40)

 

Despite the dreams that the music from the radio and the persuasive words from Friend offer her, the desires that Connie has are what determine whether or not she chooses to stay at home.  With a dysfunctional family, she is no longer comfortable at home and somewhat bitter about having faced such a life; in other words, this presents the possibility that Connie is employing a vindictive streak to regain respect of which her parents have been depriving her for a number of years.  



                Even though Friend may provide her with an attractive lifestyle despite her fear of leaving home, the possible difficulties accompanying him are in no way clear to Connie.  In fact, she starts to reconsider the possibilities, and her conscience questions some of his reasoning after locking herself behind the screen door.

                                “Shut up!  You’re crazy!” Connie said.  She backed away from the door.  She put her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible,

                                something not meant for her.  “People don’t talk like that, you’re crazy,” she muttered.  Her heart was almost too big now for her chest and its pumping

                                made sweat break out all over.  (41)

 

Instead of protecting herself, she may have been seducing him.  After all, she does know how to play the game well as a result of flaunting herself at the drive-in, teasing the older boys on her own terms, and telling each of them goodbye whenever she considered it appropriate.  Despite her understanding of the situation, she eventually leaves with him even though one can consider her reluctance a sign of insecurity and a fear of the unknown. 



                In addition to the possibility of a new adventure, Connie is joining someone who apparently cares about her more than either her parents or her sister has.  That is, she now has to face the difficulties that may have been looking for her through Friend and that becomes clearer when she leaves with him.

                                She put her hand against the screen.  She watched herself push the slowly open as if she were back safe somewhere in the other doorway, watching this

                                body and this head of long hair moving out  into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.  “My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that

                                had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much

                                land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.  (47-8)

 

By referring to the song “Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan, Friend is taking advantage of the influence that music has over her, and he is hoping those particular words provide her with the sense of security he considers necessary.  At the start of the song, Dylan states that “You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last / But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.”  In response, Connie follows his advice and ventures into the unknown because she believes he has a better place available for her.



                Young men and women, whether they are adolescents or adults, often leave home for an adventure, a new life, or merely to disappear from society as they understand it.  Readers, however, must ask themselves if the characters are making choices any different than the ones they make under the same situations.  She leaves home to pursue a new life for the simple reason her family does not fulfill her need for a loving and affectionate relationship with each one of them.  Not only did she want to gain their trust, but she also needed their guidance whenever possible for as long as she could remember.  When Friend entered her life, things changed because he was persuasive, knowledgeable about the world around them, and was aware of the fact she badly wanted someone to love her.  She had experienced the images of love and sounds of romance through watching movies and listening to music for quite a while, and despite her age, she was certain she knew how to handle the choices Friend was making available to her.

 

Works Cited

Dylan, Bob.  “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”  Bringing It All Back Home.  Columbia, 1965.

Oates, Joyce Carol.  “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  Ed. Elaine Showalter.  New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994.

Paris, Bernard.  “Mimetic Criticism: Reality as Context.”  Contexts for Criticism.  Ed. Donald Keesey.  Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing C, 1987.  226-34.

Quirk, Tom. “A Source For “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  Ed. Elaine Showalter.  New        Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. 81-89.



Urbanski, Marie Mitchell Olesen. “Existential Allegory.” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  Ed. Elaine Showalter.  New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. 75-79.


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