Analysis of the Main Characters in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”


“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a short story, written by Joyce Carol Oates. It firstly appeared in 1966, in the edition of Epoch Magazine. Although it is small in size, it is great in themes, symbols and ideas. Despite its laconic structure, the story represents several characters, which personify different types of people with their individual habits, views, interests and problems. From this point of view, it is interesting to examine them and find similarities with the everyday life.

The main objective of this research is to examine the personalities of main characters, responsible of the development of the plot. In addition, we will discuss the main themes, idea and motives in the story, which make it so significant for the American literature, in general. Furthermore, this research will pay attention to the usage of different literary techniques, tools and methods for the sake of creation the unique atmosphere and tone of the story.

Main Idea and Themes

The value of the story is determined by the great diversity of topics it reveals. In fact, the story by J. C. Oates gives a deep insight in the issue of human relations and behavior. It investigates the theme of gender conflict, the problem of maturity, the role of women in the society and the attempts to get independence. All these themes are harmonically revealed with the help of various symbols, allusions and peculiarities of main characters. We can say that there are no excessive or odd details in Oates’ story. All motives and literary techniques greatly contribute to the development of a particular atmosphere and tone of the story.

This story teaches the readers not to hurry up with making decisions and conclusions. It shows the risks of the two-fold nature and immature behavior in serious situations. The author wants to emphasize the need to follow the natural development and combine desires with personal possibilities and opportunities. In addition, she claims that the lack of knowledge and experience results in the other problem, connected with the confusion of dreams and reality. In fact, the conflicts and questions of maturity and entering the adulthood form the main idea of the story, which is fully implemented with the help of main characters.

From this point of view, it is essential to discuss the features and peculiarities of main characters in order to understand the plot and idea of this work. They help to draw readers’ attention on the important social and personal aspects and provide an insight into their models of behavior and thinking. In fact, it is possible to say that the main characters play the paramount role in the development of the plot and conflict, in the story.

The Contradictory Personalities of Main Characters

Connie is a protagonist of the story. Her character is rounded and revealed in many details. From the text, we get to know that Connie is a 15-year old pretty girl, who likes to daydream and imagine her future. She has “dark blond hair” and wears “pull-over jersey blouse” suitable both for home and walking. Being a teenager, Connie does not pay much attention to the housework and prefer doing nothing serious at home.

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It is possible to assume that such behavior is caused by Connie’s immaturity. She just begins to realize the peculiarities of the adulthood, but cannot cope with them at all. She likes to flirt with boys and see their admiration with her personality. At the same time, she is not ready for any relationships. Connie’s character is very unstable and dynamic. She is torn between the desire to look attractive and the need to protect her personal life from the public. This is the main conflict of Connie as the individual, who learns to behave in the completely new surroundings.

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The other side of the conflict depends on her alienation from the reality. Connie dreams of romantic moments, love and easygoing future. In reality, she encounters the different treatment and attitude. Connie is not ready to accept all the features of the adulthood and, finally, she wants to return into her childhood again.

While Connie represents innocence and naivety, there is another character, who personifies the opposite features. It is Arnold Friend, the acquaintance with whom was a turning point in the story. According to some researchers, Arnold Friend represents the evil and darkness (Wegs 99). The critics (M. Urbanski, J. Wegs, T. Quirk) assume that the initial purpose of Arnold Friend was to seduce Connie and make her a victim of his plans and wishes.

At the same time, it is important to pay attention to the similarity of Arnold Friend with the musical idol of teenagers of that time, Bob Dylan. In fact, the author reported that the songs of Bob Dylan served as an inspiration for this story. Without doubts, we can notice several similarities in the appearance of Arnold Friend and Bob Dylan. For example, he “had shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig” (Oates 40), “long and hawklike nose (Oates 42), and his lashes were “thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material” (Oates 45). Not surprisingly, a man with such appearance can attract the attention of the teenage girl. Similar interests and musical preferences make Connie agree on Friend’s suggestion and leave with him. Nevertheless, the critics suggest more profound motives, which explain Connie’s actions.

We can see that the controversial personalities of main characters form the basis for the conflict emergence. Since we observe two oppositions, which do not agree on a compromise, it is possible to surmise the appearance of a prolific conflict. Connie and Arnold had something in common. They were both keen on music and depended on it, to a great extent (Healy 39). They had similar interests and preferred identical music compositions. In fact, music plays a great role in the life of the main characters. Connie, being a teenager, considers music to be a tool of self-actualization and realization. Arnold Friend personifies her idol of music and shares her interests. Without doubts, these similarities forced her to leave home with a stranger.

Secondly, both of them are rebels against the social system. Connie possesses great potential and force, which she does not know how to control (Urbanski 78). She behaves spontaneously and hastily, trying to win independence and freedom (Paris 247). On the contrary, A. Friend clearly knows his wishes and the ways of getting the desirable outcome. His confidence and determination impress Connie and make her believe him. Thus, we can say that, having similar objectives, Connie and Arnold demonstrate different ways of their achievement. Connie obviously lacks the experience and knowledge while Arnold seems to be disappointed with his life and looking for the new interest and hobbies.

In other words, the acquaintance and relations between Connie and Friend personify the collision of immaturity and maturity, innocence and wickedness, dependence and freedom, uncertainty and confidence. Connie has too little experience to respond to the situation appropriately while Arnold is not virtuous enough to behave fairly. The relations between the protagonist and antagonist determine the development of the plot and show the main themes and conflict of the whole story. The description of their thoughts, motives and actions considerably contribute to the discovery of the main idea.

The Role of Minor Characters

C. Oates represents some minor flat characters in the story. These are Connie’s parents and sister. The relations within Connie’s family help to comprehend her upbringing, social position and outlook. Moreover, they reveal some traits of Connie’s character.

Connie’s sister June is a pride of the family as she is always ready to support and help. Perhaps, it is the reason explaining Connie’s unwarranted aggression and anger toward her sister and even mother. The critics suggest that such behavior witnesses Connie’s desire to rebel against the commonly accepted norms and rules. In fact, it is very typical for teenagers, who do not know how to combine their enormous desires with limited possibilities (Quirk 88).

The relations between Connie and her mother are also somewhat unpleasant. Her mother keeps praising June for her efforts and achievements, causing, in such a way, the rivalry between two sisters. According to Kurkowski (2011), the family surrounding is not fruitful for Connie’s self-actualization and formation of personality. As she does not trust her relatives and does not share her problems with them, she begins to remove from them and lead a separate life. Such a situation is very difficult for a teenager, who has no living experience and skills to overcome problems and cope with the difficulties.

Thus, the introduction of a minor character is important for the understanding of protagonist’s living conditions and family relations.

Textual Analysis

The literary style of J. C. Oates is very rich and profound. She utilizes different expressive means and stylistic devices in order to make her story impressive and influential. The story is told from the third person narration, omniscient point of view. Such a strategy allows the author to represent the emotions, feelings and actions of different characters. Moreover, it helps to win the readers’ trustiness and reliability.

When speaking about expressive means, we should state that J. C. Oates uses plenty of epithets, rhetorical questions, paraphrases, personifications, metonymies and repetitions. Special part belongs to the usage of grotesque in the story. Actually, it is a literary technique, which aims at the creation of an absurd or fantastic effect in the literature. In this very case, we can observe grotesque in the description of Arnold Friend, who personifies beauty, evil, love and lust, in one manifestation (Wegs 100). Additionally, grotesque can be noticed in the description of the restaurant, which is supposed to be a sacred building for Connie and her friends.

In addition, J. C. Oates implements dialogues in the story, which make it dynamic and active. Generally, the story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is full of different literary techniques, which make it interesting for readers. Additionally, all of them contribute to the comprehension of the main idea and themes.


To sum up, the story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by J. C. Oates reveals many important social and individual problems, connected with the discrepancy between the possibilities and desires. The author wanted readers to pay attention to the problem of maturity and the importance of solid family background and education. She shows that the lack of proper knowledge and models of behavior can lead to serious consequences and outcomes. She also wanted her readers to understand the necessity to help children and teenagers to find their place in the life and determine their objectives and purposes.

All these themes and ideas were successfully revealed with the help of the main characters. The analysis of their personalities leads to the profound comprehension of human relations and models of behavior. Additionally, a great role in the story belongs to different symbols and literary techniques. With their help the author managed to create a unique masterpiece, which explains the serious problems in the interesting and approachable way.

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