Contextual Research: Where are you going? Where have you been?
It is often painful to read about children’s death, especially if the child is cruelly slaughtered, our society still views the people, who offend minors, as heartless maniacs abusing the most sacred and the most obscure value, the purity of childhood. Such stories barely leave anyone indifferent, and author Joyce Carol Oates created her short story “Where are you going? Where have you been?” affected by the piece of news from Life Magazine, narrating about a teenage girl, seduced and murdered by man, who pretended to be a teenager as well. The short story was first issued in 1966 in a journal, and then was incorporated into The Wheel of Love, a collection of Oates’s narratives. Beyond the prominent, sometimes thrilling psychologism, the story also reveals the historical events and the social ambience of the 1960s, including the crystallization and victory of women’s movement, the formation of youth subculture and the development of women’s self-determination at the individual level.
Equal rights movement
The gendered distribution of human rights became national concern in the United States, beginning from the late 1950s, when Oates was beginning her career in literature. It needs to be noted that the second-wave radical feminism that was enjoying popularity in the 1960s, emerged partially from the prevalence of men’s violence against women and the cynicism or callousness which followed the investigation of violence and rape cases. A number of contemporary intimate abuse victims recounted that they felt offended over and over again after each court hearing and interrogation (Hansen, 1990, p. 47; Hochschild, 2000, p. 87). As one can assume from the short story, it implies a sexual abuse of a fifteen-year-old teenager: “I want you”, he said. “What?” “Seen you that night and thought, that’s the one, yes sir. I never needed to look anymore” (Oates, 2008). Furthermore, the protagonist, Connie, is exposed to psychological violence and intimidation, given that the stranger, Arnold Friend threatens to assault his family: “That feels solid too, but we know better. Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in? – and get away before her people come back? […] You don’t want them to get hurt” (Oates, 2008). These manipulations on her vulnerability and physical insecurity definitely point to certain gender discrimination and point to the oppression of females, who often become victims of such attacks, out of the fear for their families and psychological tension, amplified by sexual harassment such as obscene jokes and hints Connie encounters. The author depicts this situation of seduction and intimidation as a normality, embedded into the daily American life, given that the unexpected visitors who begin to harass Connie at first seem and behave like ordinary young people: “I wanta introduce myself, I’m Arnold Friend and that’s my real name and I’m gonna be your friend, honey, and inside the car’s Ellie Oscar, he’s kinda shy” (Oates, 2008).
Through the plot structure, the author suggests that violence against women is in fact not a normal or regular phenomenon; neither it is “the personal business of the couple”, which should be silenced and resolved by the two, given that women, regardless of age, behavior and attitude towards cross-gender relationships, have human dignity and thus do not deserve the fate of being abducted and molested. The author successfully interweaves the plot with the historical context, explaining the roots of the equal rights movement and justifying its legitimacy, appealing to the strongest emotions of the public, or commonly shared love for children and willingness to protect their lives as a “sacred value”.
In parallel, the movement included the broadening of women’s economic rights. The growth of international businesses lured females to labor market, as opposed to housekeeper’s lifestyle, limited to children, kitchen and church. The Equal Rights amendment was adopted by the Congress after a long confrontation and itself produced substantial public resonance, as the traditional roles of males and females were actually revised and fixed in legislation. Uneven salaries by the gender criterion and the refusal to give women an access to higher managerial positions became illegal (Lockwood, 2006, p. 23; Hochschild, 2000, p. 93).
In the short story, the author provides a lucid description of Connie’s mother, who seems a traditional housekeeper: “Her mother was so simple, Connie thoughts, that it was maybe cruel to fool her so much. Her mother went scuffling around the house in old bedroom slippers and complained over the telephone to one sister about the other, then the other called up and the two children complained about the third one” (Oates, 2008). The description appears to be extremely grotesque and so peculiar that it is possible to suspect the author simply mocks women’s excessive commitment to family and tendency to sacrificing employment and social life for babysitting and housekeeping (Lockwood, 2006, p, 1231). Connie, the protagonist, is also definitely ironic about her mother’s outlook and behavior: “Connie’s mother kept dragging her back to the daylight by finding things for her to do or saying suddenly, ‘What’s this about the Pettinger girl? “(Oates, 2008).
The society, transforming “from inside”
It needs to be noted that the Connie’s family is pictured exceptionally through the main character’s eyes, so the fact that Connie recollects mainly those aspects of their coexistence, which she does not accept or which she considers too primitive and boring, point to the fact that Connie is a product of the new equal rights policy that enables women to be more involved into society and more freedom of choice. This strong divergence between the mother’s and the daughter’s standpoints shows also the conflict between the two generations of women, the conservative and the liberal. In fact, there was a number of women in the 1960s, opposed to the new rights and duties to be granted to females, since they were not able to realize for themselves how they would live in the future (Hansen, 1990, p. 75; Parpart et al, 2000, p. 413), who would provide for the family and whether their spouse would be willing to stay with them under the new policy. According to the story, Connie’s mother is moralistic and therefore appears extremely concerned about her daughter’s reputation : “good girls”, to her view, are supposed to avoid infatuations with males and spend weekends at a family barbeque parties with aunts, cousins and sisters: “Her parents and sister were going to a barbecue at an aunt’s house and Connie said no, she wasn’t interested, rolling her eyes to let her mother know just what she thought of it. “Stay home then, “ her mother said sharply” (Oates, 2008). This conflict of views might be seen either as generation gap, which begin to make increasingly more troubles because of the objective sociopolitical situation and the radical change in the core attitudes, values and beliefs concerning woman’s status (Blain, Clements & Grundy, 1990, p.1221).
The issue of cross-gender relationship is also covered in the short story. The new equal rights policy of the 1960s implied the corresponding treatment of women, prescribed to men; in particular, it was no longer appropriate to comply females, referring to their gender. However, it was extremely difficult to rebuilt the implicit aspects of discrimination, which was often kept inside homes and communities and did not reach the necessary level of publicity. For instance, the antagonist, or Arnold Friend, obviously builds his harassment on Connie’s gender and beauty, which turn into Connie’s vulnerable points. Basically, in order to incite interest in his personality, Friend begins a friendly and unconstrained conversation, expressing to Connie his admiration and appreciation of her appearance. Gradually, he intrudes into her psyche, mixing her thoughts to chaos: “I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all, and specially Arnold Friend. If the place got lit up with a fire, honey, you’d come runnin’ out into my arms, right into my arms an’ safe at home – like you knew I was your lover and’d stopped fooling around” (Oates, 2008). This psychological line of narrative elucidates how man can “capitalize” on woman’s physical weakness and emotiveness.
In the general social context, it would be also useful to describe Connie’s family, positioned as a typical American household of the sixties. The girl’s parents have lived together quite long and seem bored by one another, since father spends increasingly more time at work and does not engage with his daughter’s daily matters, whereas her mother is excessively superficial in childrearing and fails to develop sensitiveness and address the current social issues in her relationships with the children. Connie’s older sister, June, is twenty-four, still lives with her parents, works as a high school secretary and spends evenings exceptionally with her female friends. Family bonds seem weakened, as compared to the pictures of joint Sunday activities, involving several generations, depicted by the earlier literature (Parpart et al, 2000, p. 387; Lockwood, 2006, p. 289). Each of Connie’s closest relatives lives their own independent life and all of them are not actually happy with the perspective of spending the whole day together at the barbecue.
The youth subculture
Given the drastic social changes and the domineering state of uncertainty, the American dream, the cherished ideal of the older generation was gradually devaluated by youngsters, who were quite numerous after the post-war baby boom. The Vietnam War, the Cold War and the threat of armed attacks forced young people to join grass-root movements and avoid setting long-term goals for the whole life, as their parents did in the young years. A number of peace organizations also propagated liberal approach to sex and light drugs. By the 1960s, with the advent of new contraception, sex became more accessible and therefore, more widespread, especially among young people, so it became popular amongst adolescents to engage with excessively close romantic relationships, instead of their immaturity for new responsibilities. Connie represents this new generation of people, already cynical and disappointed, prematurely aged by war and social cataclysms. This uncertainty of the young years is reflected in the following passage: “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbling, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head […]” (Blain, Clements & Grundy, 1990, p.1221; Hochschild, 2001, p. 118). As one can assume, the author pays attention to the temporary state of transition to a new polity, during which the main core values are lost and the new ones are still not set – this is actually the state Connie and other teenagers are enduring.
Oats successfully stresses the main points of suburban life of the 1960s in the towns where “nothing was happening”, whereas the country was being rocked to its foundation by equal rights movements, the war and related threats as well as by the revolutionary youth subculture. The central focus of the plot, however, is placed upon the pure and naïve girl, abused physically and psychologically only for being beautiful. With respect to the nature and form of the harassment, it is possible to assume that the writer urges that such both explicit and unspoken aspects of cross-gender relations be reviewed so that women can feel more confident and self-respectful when building relationships with men.
Oats, J.C. “Where Are you Going? Where Have You Been? “ Retrieved October 1, 2008, from < http://jco.usfca.edu/works/wgoing/text.html>
Hansen, K. Women, class, and the feminist imagination: a socialist-feminist reader. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Parpart, J., Connelly, M., Connelly, P., Barriteau, V., Eudine, E. Theoretical perspectives on gender and development. Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2000.
Blain, V., Clements, P. and Grundy, I. The feminist companion to literature in English: women writers from the Middle Ages to the present. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Hochschild, A. The time bind: when work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2001.
Lockwood, B. Women’s Rights: A Human Rights Quarterly Reader. The John Hopkins University Press, 2006.