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Death and Narcissism in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been Essay


Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is about a young girl's struggle to escape reality while defying authority and portraying herself as a beauty queen; ultimately, she is forced back to reality when confronted by a man who symbolizes her demise. The young girl, Connie, is hell- bent on not becoming like her mother or sister. She feels she is above them because she is prettier. She wants to live in a "dream world" where she listens to music all day and lives with Prince Charming. She does not encounter Prince Charming but is visited by someone, Arnold Friend, who embodies the soul of something evil. Arnold Friend symbolizes "Death" in that he is going to take Connie away from the world she once knew. Even if she is not dead, she will never be the same person again, and will be dead in spirit. With the incorporation of irony, Oates illustrates how Connie's self-infatuation, her sole reason for living, is the reason she is faced with such a terrible situation possibly ending her life.

Connie is only concerned about her physical appearance. She can be described as being narcissistic because "she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirror or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right" (Oates 361). Connie wants her life to be different from everyone else's in her family. She thinks because she is prettier, she is entitled to much more. She wants to live the "perfect life" in which she finds the right boy, marries him, and lives happily ever after. This expectation is nothing less than impossible because she has not experienced love or anything like it. She has only been subjected to a fantasy world where everything is seemingly perfect because home was different. Her sister was the one who got all the embracing and Connie got all the bad mouthing. So when she goes out, boys shower her with attention making her feel top of the world. This is illustrated in the story when Connie is thinking about her previous encounters with boys: "Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs" (365). Connie believes everything in her life can be related to a movie or song similar to a soundtrack of her life. It depicts her dream world. She feels that she can have a happily ever ending life. Music is her escape from the world as if the music opens a gate for her into another realm, making her invulnerable to anything: "And Connie paid close attention herself, bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest" (365). She wishes to escape from the dull life of living with her parents and find a more fulfilling life much like her "dream world."

When the infamous Arnold Friend arrives at her house one Sunday afternoon, Connie is forced back to reality. Arnold will give her a taste of the real world and how this perfect world Connie had once imagined was merely a myth. Arnold Friend represents "Death," and he has come to take Connie away from where she feels she does not belong. He is Connie's future whether she likes it or not. With his dark, shabby hair, his metallic sunglasses, and devilish grin, Arnold is depicted as some kind of demonic being. Arnold is possibly non-human: "Connie stared at him, another wave of dizziness and fear rising in her so that for a moment he wasn't even in focus but was just a blur standing there against his gold car . . . everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real" (371). This may mean that he is only taking human form. Another excerpt in the story that has one wondering if Arnold is something other than human, symbolizing death, is when the narrator remarks, "She watched this smile come, awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask. His whole face was a mask, she thought wildly, tanned down to his throat but then running out as if he had plastered makeup on his face but had forgotten about his throat" (372). He is something other than human, he protrays Satan, and Connie can even sense this because of what he is says to her: "Yes, I'm your lover . . . 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. And I'll come inside you where it's all secret and you'll give in to me and you'll love me" (372). Connie remarks, "People don't talk like that, you're crazy" (372). Connie is correct because he is nobody; he is not even a person, he is Satan himself. He represents evil. He has come to take her away by stealing her from the world she once knew and exposing her to something that has been absent in her world of dreams.

Arnold's car resembles a "Chariot of Death." Even though it is painted gold, as in relation to the streets in heaven, it is black as hell beneath the surface of the new paint job. Arnold will take her to her final destination in the gold car just like he did the beautiful 17 and 19 year olds. That is why I believe the sequence of the number code on his car of 33, 19, and 17 represents. Arnold is possibly 33 years old, Connie even notices that he is older than 18: "She could see then that he wasn't a kid, he was much older--thirty maybe more" (370). I think that Arnold is 33 years old and the first girl he kidnapped was 19 years old, the second 17 years old, and now he needed a vain, beautiful 15-year-old to complete the sequence. Connie fits this category perfectly; Arnold would take her next in the gold jalopy of doom to meet her maker.

Connie's encounter with Arnold Friend can best be described by the engraving, "Death and the Maiden" (Niklaus-Manuel Deutsch-1484-1530). This engraving pictures a skeleton caressing a young woman. The maiden appears to be admiring herself in front of a mirror as death imprisons her in his arms. The irony of both the maiden's, from Death and the Maiden, and Connie's lives is based on beauty, but, consequently, Death chose them as victims because of their narcissism, not a desirable character trait. Like Connie, the maiden is terrified but does not resist "Death." Connie does not want to end up with Arnold Friend, but she does give in and walk into his arms, much as the maiden cannot resist the inevitable fate of her death. Arnold embraces Connie and knows he has succeeded in his mission, when she had to give in or her family and herself will be hurt. He makes her his lover, but Connie wanted to escape reality, and Arnold, "Death," was able to act as her advocate. Arnold was actually doing Connie a favor. She was drawn to him by the attention he gave her, until she realizes he was Death. She just wanted to feel love and pretty by getting all the attention from boys. She was living in fantasy world thinking guys will embrace her not hurt her. Arnold showed her how cruel and dark the real world could be first, then he let her live in her "dream world" permanently.

Work Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" American Short Story

Masterpieces. Eds: Raymond Carver, Tom Jenks. New York: Dell Publishing a division of Random House, Inc., 1987. (361-377).

Niklaus-Manuel Deutsch (1484-1530). "Death of a Maiden."

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