“A Virgin in the Backseat Smoking Hash: Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?’”
Michael Carlson Kapper, University of Akron
Class: Fantasy Literature (for original); Scholarly Writing (for 1st revision)
December 1996; revised Spring 1998; revised January 1999
< http://jco.usfca.edu/research/paper011.html >
Since its first publication in the fall of 1966, many critics have undertaken to explain Joyce Carol Oates’s short story "Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?" These explanations have each taken one of several approaches to the story’s meaning, or, more importantly, its didactic message. Previous critics have endeavored to explain this piece in terms of three major theories; that is, they posit that Oates was trying to personify evil, to denigrate rock’n’roll music, or to lecture on the dangers of teenage sexual promiscuity. These critics, under the impression that the story does not all fit together (because Oates’s narrator say so [Oates 68]), tend to take the view that one of these (or perhaps two) is the "correct" reading of Oates’s piece, and follow that line of thinking to as logical a conclusion as they are able. It is my contention, however, that—while each of these elements is important in the story—there is another element here that has been overlooked. I believe, contrary to the narrator’s assertion, that all these things do come together, and that this coming together calls for a new reading of this piece. All of the elements can be unified through a drug-based reading. This reading, a unified reading, takes into account the sex, evil, and rock’n’roll readings, and even accounts for them in ways that they could not account for themselves, thereby showing these other readings not as incorrect, but as incomplete. The entire story is about Connie using drugs, and on the Sunday afternoon in the story, she is not the victim of a serial rapist/murder, but merely the victim of a drug trip.
Each of the other elements is clearly present and is clearly important. I think it germane to review here the pertinent information from other critics’ readings of this story, so that the important elements of their arguments can be incorporated into this new reading.
First the music. Rock’n’roll music is a constant presence in Connie’s life. At the drive-in, the background music is "something to depend on" (Oates 61), and on Sunday afternoon, with no drive-in and no boys around, the music itself gives Connie joy (Oates 63). This omnipresence is even noteworthy in the music’s absence. Leaving the shopping plaza in her friend’s father’s car, Connie was, the narrator notes, too far away from the drive-in to hear the music (Oates 62). Further, as is typical of many rebellious teenagers, Connie finds her escape in music: "She went inside the house and turned on the radio to drown out the quiet" (Oates 63), perhaps so as not to be alone with herself, or perhaps to prevent the sadness which might arise from the loneliness and boredom of a summer Sunday afternoon. This seems to be the case, for as Joyce M. Wegs notes, "Throughout the story the music is given an almost mystical climate, for it evokes in Connie a mysterious pleasure" (88).
In addition to its constancy in Connie’s life, music is also integral to the character of Arnold Friend; there is the "singsong way he talk[s]" (Oates 68) and the way his words remind Connie of last year’s song lyrics (Oates 72). Then, just as music had been ever present in the background at the drive-in, Ellie Oscar’s transistor radio provides a soundtrack for Friend’s "seduction" of Connie at the house.
Ellie himself represents another musical tie-in. Ellie, according to Alice Hall Petry, is "a character whose appearance, personality and behavior suggest that he is the incarnation of the darker side of the admitted idol of Friend’s prototype: Elvis Presley" (155). That is, Oates had a prototype for Arnold Friend; his name was Charles Schmid, a serial rapist and murderer active in the Tucson, Arizona area in 1965. Schmid admitted that his hero was Elvis Presley. Petry goes on to suggest that Oates’s aim was to denigrate rock’n’roll: "And what better way to suggest the dangerous illusions and vacuousness generated by the romantic promises and frantic strains of music sung by . . . Elvis Presley than to have an Elvis figure participate in the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl?" (157). That is, Oates, according to Petry, is trying to show the evil inherent in rock’n’roll music by having a character who looks much like Elvis, and who is closely tied to music like Elvis’s, be a part of Connie’s rape and murder.
This Ellie/Elvis connection can be pursued one level further, though, by stepping away from the musical end of things to the perspective which says that Friend is not a serial rapist and murderer, but evil incarnate: Satan himself. The thought of Ellie, this Elvis figure, as a henchman to the devil would come as no surprise to those who were already the middle-aged adult establishment during the rock’n’roll era. In fact, many of that generation had independently concluded that the real Elvis was leading the youth of America on a "highway to hell" (to borrow a phrase from the rock band AC/DC). From here, it is not too great a stretch to believe that Ellie’s part in Connie’s own personal dance with the devil was to help draw her in via the music provided by his radio.
This position, though, relies on inferences, rather than on explicit statements in the text. For example, though Friend claims to be eighteen, Connie sees him as "thirty, maybe more" (Oates 68) and the critics believe that Friend represents Satan imply much, much more. Further, Friend twice states that he will not enter the house without permission (Oates 71, 72)—though in one of these instances he defines Connie picking up the telephone as giving him permission to enter the house (Oates 72). This, too, is a demon reference, referring to the ancient belief that a demon cannot enter a house without an invitation. Next, there is the matter of Friend’s boots. In reality, the prototype, Schmid, was five feet, three inches tall and stuffed the toes of his boots with tin cans and rags to make himself seem taller (Quirk 82-83), and it seems likely that this was Oates’s intention in stating that Friend was somewhat wobbly in his own boots (71). Some have inferred, though, that the reason for his unsurefootedness was that his boots were supporting a cloven hoof, as some traditions hold that a demon would have. Finally it seems that Friend is in some way omniscient: he knows where Connie’s parents and sister are, and what her sister is wearing; he knows the same kids Connie knows and a good bit about the dead woman down the road, thought not her name.
So, from this brief look at the previous work, it is clear that there is decent evidence for the theory that Oates’s intention was to denigrate rock’n’roll music, and that this denigration is closely tied to the demonic nature of Arnold Friend’s character. This, though, does not explain elements present in the story such as Connie’s perception of the telephone (Oates 74).
Another commonly taken approach—in fact, the most commonly taken approach, perhaps due to the fact that the issues involved in this approach draw more attention to themselves than do other, less emotionally-charged issues—is that Oates’s aim in this piece is to comment on the consequences of sexual promiscuity, and there is ample evidence in support of this reading. First and foremost, there is an overtone of sexuality throughout this piece. From Friend’s persistent insistence that he is Connie’s lover to his description of what their first sexual encounter will be like, this story is laden with overt sexual references. Beyond the overt, though, even the narration in sections not concerned with sexual activity has a sexual tone to it; for example: "breathless with daring" (Oates 60) and "their thin shoulders rigid with excitement" (Oates 61, emphasis added) reference sexuality in passages primarily concerned with crossing a road and sitting at the counter in a restaurant.
Many have taken a position as to what Connie’s sexual downfall was. Marilyn C. Wesley reports that Oates herself has said that Connie was "an innocent young girl seduced by vanity" (43). The reader can clearly see Connie’s vanity in the opening paragraph of this piece, where it is openly stated that Connie "knew she was pretty and that was everything" (Oates 59). The argument here is that Friend himself did not entice Connie out of the house, but rather that he used her vanity: that fact that he confirmed her own notion that she was pretty was what, in the end, led to her downfall.
Most of the sexuality arguments, however, focus on Connie’s young age and relative inexperience with sex. Joanne V. Creighton goes so far in this direction as to contend that:
Connie’s encounter with Arnold Friend is not just a unique instance of how one girl’s experimental flirtation propels her too rapidly into the world of experience, not just an account of one girl’s perception of the deceptiveness of appearances and the terrible reality of evil, but a particularly vivid instance of a universal experience: the loss of innocence. (118)
Most, however do not go this far. To say that the entire piece is about Connie becoming more experienced (in the ways of the world as well as in the ways of sex) through being raped by Friend is, even among this school of critics, rather far afield. Most critics who favor the experimental sexuality interpretation of this piece simply say that Connie has trouble recognizing—and therefore controlling—her newly developed sexual urges. Wegs says, "That [Connie’s] are a kind of generalized sexual desire is made evident by Oates’ [sic] description of Connie’s Summer dreams" (91), and Greg Johnson seems to continue this thought by saying that "Friend seduces Connie at an early, vulnerable stage of her sexual maturity, ensuring her permanent submission" (44-45).
Both Wegs and Johnson are arguing here that Connie has too little sexual experience to differentiate and control specific sexual feelings, and that by playing upon this generalized desire to take a lover before the needed experience has actually been gained, Friend can claim Connie as his—and only his—forever. These critics argue this "inexperience" point even though they are among the school of critics who argue that it is precisely Connie’s burgeoning promiscuity that gets her into this predicament in the first place.
Opposed to these schools of critical thought which focus solely on a single and therefore not unifying theme, my reading of this piece is not simply a single reading, but an integrative one. I do not intend to present a contending view, but rather a view which incorporates all of the others. While most critics pull one of these elements from this piece and take it to its most logical conclusion, I intend to show that my reading—one of illicit drug use—integrates all of these other elements. The closest reading to my own that I have found is one by Larry Rubin entitled "Oates’s ‘Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?’" In this essay, Rubin argues that Connie’s experience with Friend is nothing but a daydream (a reading borne out by a viewing of the film version of this story). But even this daydream reading is not as wholly integrative as the drug use reading.
To begin, I steal a passage from those critics who see only sexuality in this story. Reference is made to a girl named Nancy Pettinger, and the narrator tells the reader that Connie "always drew thick clear lines between herself and such girls, and her mother was simple and kindly enough to believe her" (Oates 62). If the reader is already leaning toward a sexual reading of this piece, Nancy’s unfortunate surname (Pettinger—sort of a comparative form of petting, an adult euphemism for the general sexual fooling around of kids: making Nancy a girl who does more petting than most) would lead that reader to believe that the type of girls Connie is trying to distance herself from is the promiscuous type. That is, the reader is apt to believe that Connie has led her mother to believe that she is chaste, when, in fact, she is not. But the more telling line in this passage is Connie’s reference to Nancy, in which she say, "Oh, her. That dope" (Oates 62).
What this implies is the use of illicit drugs--the perspective on which this reading is based. Nancy has been caught, and Connie has led her simple-minded mother to believe that she would do nothing of the sort. There is, however, evidence that Connie would, in fact, do exactly that sort of thing. "Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as though it were a kind of love (Oates 63, emphasis added). What is implied here, I believe, is the use of some sort of hallucinogenic drug, the effect of which would be to put its user in a dream-like state, a sort of lucid dream which the dreamer experiences as vividly as, but differently from, her experience of real life. This difference shows up in the piece from the moment Connie’s parents and sister leave the house and continues throughout: "she hardly knew where she was" (Oates 63), "the asbestos ‘ranch house’ . . . startled her--it looked small" (Oates 63), "the kitchen looked like a place she had never seen before" (Oates 71), and "her eyes darted everywhere in the kitchen. She could not remember what it was, this room" (Oates 73).
In addition to not recognizing the features of her own home, Connie also has a surreal experience with the telephone. She perceives what the narrator identifies as the dial tone as "a tiny roaring" (Oates 74). This experiences illustrates that Connie’s mind was not functioning properly, as any person familiar with the operations of a telephone whose mind was unaltered would have recognized the dial tone for what it was.
Also, just as Connie refers to Nancy Pettinger as a dope, Arnold Friend twice refers to his companion, Ellie, in the same way (Oates 73, 75). This hints that Ellie (as well as Friend) is a manifestation of a drug trip that Connie is on. The word dope has been used once to tell the reader that Nancy uses drugs, but as Friend uses this word in reference to Ellie, it is a hint that the drugs themselves are what causes Ellie’s presence: he is a dope, because he is from the dope.
Now, what of the other readings of this story? First, there is actually something in the description of the music which argues more strongly for the drug reading than for a strict musical reading. It is odd to me that without being in some altered state, Connie would find herself "bathed in a slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest" (Oates 63), especially if the records played on the radio were of "hard, fast, shrieking songs" (Oates 63) which would not lend themselves to slow-pulsed anything.
Worth noting, too, is the fact that Ellie’s transistor radio is tuned to the XYZ (which sounds remarkably like LSD) Sunday Jamboree with Bobby King (Oates 64), as is Connie’s radio in the house (Oates 63). I would argue here that the reason that both radios are tuned to the same program is because, in fact, all of the music is coming from Connie’s radio in her room; the soundtrack for the Connie’s experience is provided by her own radio.
Also of interest here is the fact that Friend’s voice seems continually to change. "He had the voice of the man on the radio now. It was the same voice" (Oates 69), and "and this last was in a different voice" (Oates 69). Friend says "It’s Sunday" (Oates 69) in the voice of Bobby King. This "voice-over" can be viewed as Connie’s real senses intruding on her trip: on a radio program called XYZ Sunday Jamboree, the phrase "It’s Sunday" is sure to be shouted at least once.
Also, sometime during the thirty-odd-year life of this piece, it has acquired a dedication to Bob Dylan. I say acquired, because in its original publication in the fall of 1966, it had no dedication, but in several other versions, it does. This dedication informs a drug reading because by 1966, Elvis Presley and others of his musical genre with their emphasis on teen love and the like were giving way to Dylan and his "cryptic, atonal folk music" (Petry 157), and as Dylan might have said, the times they were a-changin’. Changing from guys cruising around the drive-in to guys being packed off to Vietnam wholesale, and changing the primary vice of youth from sex to drugs. Granted, promiscuous sex was raised to an art form in the drug culture of the late 1960s, but by 1966, even those who still preferred the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys to protest music were being introduced to the wonders of drug use. So it would come as no surprise to me if Connie and Eddie were not having sex that night in the alley, but smoking dope instead. It would also not surprise me if Connie’s entire Sunday afternoon experience with Friend and Ellie were nothing more than a girl’s acid trip, rather than her kidnaping, rape, and murder.
In the Friend-as-demon reading, it is interesting to note that his demonic nature does not begin to manifest itself until Connie asserts that she will not go with him. He first shows up at the back door like some kind of James Dean, a dream lover for any fifteen-year-old girl, and tells her she’s cute. What girl wouldn’t be flattered by that in Connie’s situation? Even though Friend appears to be omniscient, he only proves this by knowing things that Connie knows, but he does not even know everything that Connie knows: Connie must provide him with Mrs. Hornsby’s name (Oates 70). The fact that Friend only knows what Connie knows points out that he is, in fact, a figment of her drug stimulated imagination, based on a boy she glimpsed briefly at the drive-in, and in seeing this vision, "Connie discovers that her dream love-god also wears the face of lust, evil and death" (Wegs 87).
I would also submit that for all of her rebelliousness, lust is one area of this equation that Connie has little experience with. The fact that, as stated, above, the dream-demon Friend knows what Connie knows provides the key evidence for Connie’s virginity: he speaks of "the first time" (Oates 70). So I postulate that Connie is a virgin, and that this has been her choice, because the reader has both been told that she is pretty (Oates 59) and been shown that she has had plenty of opportunity to experience sex. If, then, she has chosen to remain a virgin, the only way she would lose her virginity at this point in her life is if she were raped. This fact begins, under the influence of the drugs, to interact with Connie’s growing desire for sex, and the two together conspire to give Connie the sex she wants, and in the only way she would be willing to receive it—unwillingly. When this happens, Friend changes from the flattering love-god to the forceful, if duty-bound, demon.
Even one of the most sexually suggestive lines in the piece, "how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs" (Oates 63), coming as it does after vague references to love and boys, can be integrated with this drug reading. By 1966, most teenagers had heard some of the music glorifying the use of drugs, and in the teen film of the 1950s and 1960s it is rare that a movie goes by—especially a James Dean-type film—without someone firing up an "illicit" cigarette, really no more or less illegal for the teen crowd than the "harder, more illicit" drugs. Sermons by parents and teachers about the evils of drug use probably left many of those who had not experienced drug use with the impression that these substances were quite harsh, which may or may not have been true. This is all to say that everything said in this piece that has been construed sexually in the past can also be read as consistent with the drug reading, adding to the sexual tension which is still prominent in this drug reading.
Finally, just as Friend and the house seem to evolve around Connie throughout this piece, the landscape itself begins evolving at the end, seeming to explode in brightness and vastness. This either represents as shift in the trip toward deeper left field or the end of the trip with the vastness representing the vestiges of the drug experience and the brightness representing the kicking in of Connie’s normal senses and sensibilities.
So, if the bulk of this story is viewed as a drug trip, the other readings of this piece are relatively easy to integrate, and they make sense, if only in that they need not make sense. That is to say, that contrary to the assertion of Oates’s narrator, these things do all come together. Under the influence of drugs, the dream-lover, to whom Connie is tied by music, turns rapist and demon. The dream-lover’s goal is to possess Connie’s body, just as Connie’s unconscious goal is to have her body possessed; he becomes first a rapist and then a demon when these goals come into conflict with Connie’s overt goal: the maintenance of her virginity, at least for the moment. The music throughout the story is the same radio program, a program of fast, hard, shrieking songs, which, contrary to that description, emit a slow-pulsed joy. All of these things point to the fact that Connie’s mind is not functioning properly and is surely under the influence of something; something more natural than a demon, more sinister than rock’n’roll music, and more addictive than sex: drugs. The evidence for a virgin in the backseat doing drugs—and not much else—is throughout the story, but one must look behind the more obvious, more sensational, more emotionally-charged issues in order to see it.
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