Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Essay by G. J. Weinberger

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 3,309 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by G. J. Weinberger

SOURCE: "Who Is Arnold Friend? The Other Self in Joyce Carol Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,'" in American Imago, Vol. 45, No. 1, Summer, 1988, pp. 205-15.

In the following essay, Weinberger analyzes the doppelgänger motif in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," highlighting its implications about violence and sexuality.

When Connie faces Arnold Friend, she faces her other self, in Oates's treatment of the Doppelgänger motif, which informs such well-known works as Poe's "William Wilson," Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," and Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," among many others. The principal outward difference between these and Oates's version, Connie's alter ego being of the opposite sex and extremely threatening, results from Arnold Friend's representing not only a protagonist's mythic, irrational side (one of several characteristics he shares with his literary forerunners), but also a cluster of insights into the violence and sexuality of adulthood. His indeterminate age, somewhere between eighteen and thirty, emphasizes the transition which Connie must undergo, one reflected in the future-past duality inherent in the title of the story.

We first see Connie at home, an ordinary middle-class setting, complete with a mother who runs the household and nags, an older "maiden" sister, and an uninvolved father who appears only to work, eat, read the newspaper, and sleep. Together, these people drive away, out of the story, to a conventional Sunday barbecue. Connie's father, like her friend's father who chauffeurs the girls to the shopping plaza, "never bothered to ask what they had done." The father's lack of involvement allows Connie a relative degree of freedom. No one ever asks, "Where are you going, Where have you been?"

The house and the domestic environment represent the known, the rationally apprehensible, much like the law in "Bartleby." Within this environment, Connie is a conventional adolescent girl. She is vain and messy, and bears herself differently at home and abroad. She and her mother share the occasional good moment as a reprieve from the usual arguments, which also serve to set limits for Connie. She may tell a fib here and there but she gets home shortly after 11 P.M. Connie is additionally controlled by her mother's constantly comparing her to her sister June and by June's working at her high school. But while she may have little power at home, Connie certainly does have some—over boys. This too is conventional, especially in view of the relative maturation of the sexes, and represents her first tentative experiments with adulthood. Connie is on the threshold: her hair and her walk both attract attention and she is willing to assume risks, "ducking fast across the busy road" to the hamburger drive-in "where the older kids hung out." On the night Connie meets Eddie, she and her friend run across the highway "breathless with daring," to a world of bright lights and music.

There is popular music everywhere in this story. Music is the medium through which adolescents attempt to derive the meaning of life and it is in a music-induced trance-like state that Connie later sees Arnold Friend. Music takes on an almost religious significance—"the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon"—and Wegs [in Journal of Narrative Technique 5 (1975)] sees a grotesque religious parody in the entire drive-in episode. But Bob Dylan, to whom the story is dedicated, and whom Urbanski [in Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978)] acknowledges as one "who contributed to making music almost religious in dimension among the youth," does not write typically adolescent music. His work often deals with types of evil ("Blowin' in the Wind," "The Masters of War"), sexuality ("Lay Lady Lay"), or change ("The Times They Are a' Changing"). Thematically, then, the music points at the serious world beyond adolescence, even if the drive-in crowd listens merely to amplified sound. In its loudness, accompanied by bright lights, it has elements of orgiastic abandon. After the drive-in episode, when she is back at the plaza, amid shops (symbols of commerce, of order), Connie is too far away to hear the music.

The function of the drive-in episode is not limited to introducing the music and bright lights and the almost cinematic effect of unreality which results. More important is Connie's seeing the shaggy-haired boy who later reappears as Arnold Friend, just as the vacuous smile of the hamburger boy atop the bottle-shaped drive-in building reappears as Arnold Friend's dangerous smile. The black-haired boy is merely a boy uttering an adolescent, would-be macho remark, but he provides the impetus to the rest of the story, involving Connie's trance, wherein she has her vision of the evil and often irrational world of adulthood to which she crosses over. To put it in R. D. Laing's terms, her "earliest phantasies are experienced in sensations: later, they take the form of plastic images and dramatic representations."

Significantly, when the boy in the golden car tells Connie, "Gonna get you, baby," Eddie, Connie's companion, does not notice. Eddie's being presented as an individual promising no particularly perceptive gifts—"He sat backwards on his stool, turning himself jerkily around in semi-circles and then stopping and turning again, and after a while he asked Connie if she would like something to eat"—is important because it leaves Connie as the only person who notices the boy and hears his remark; this accords with the element of private vision shared by many protagonists in Doppelgänger stories. Thus, for instance, William Wilson is surprised that the officials at his school remain unaware of his double's designs; the lawyer in "Bartleby" must consult his assistants to validate his perceptions of his recalcitrant copyist; and Conrad's captain wonders if Leggatt is visible only to him.

Arnold Friend does not exist—which makes him no less "real," since "phantasy is a mode of experience" (Laing). "He" is simply Connie's projected other self, depicted in Oates's way, with a heavy emphasis on evil, violence, and the threat of rape (if not death) which Connie must acknowledge. As Arnold Friend tells her, "This is your day set aside for a ride with me and you know it." The cost of refusal is failure to attain adulthood, as illustrated by the twenty-four-year-old June who works as a school secretary, still lives at home, and who obediently, and inappropriately dressed, goes to the family barbecue. To warn Connie against such a refusal is the function of Ellie Oscar. With his radio and sunglasses, and his readiness to employ violence, Ellie is an extension of Arnold Friend, but he also represents the alternative to him. His clothes, for example, and his general vapidity attest to a forty-year-old perpetual adolescence which is underscored by the sexlessness of his neuter name. His status is illustrated by Arnold Friend's telling Connie that Ellie will sit in the back seat during their ride, in the role of child vis-à-vis the two "adults." Ellie apparently understands only when spoken to in adolescent clichés. In the extraordinary paragraph near the end of the story, when Arnold tells him off with an extensive series of clichés, there appears a further purpose: a kind of exorcism of these phrases for the benefit of Connie, who is leaving behind the world where they are commonly heard.

Connie's refusal to participate in the family barbecue shows her growing sense of power and independence and, more important, leaves her at home alone, a situation emphasized by her mother's "Stay home alone then." Of course, it also leaves her more vulnerable: "… at adolescence we observe relative ego weakness due to the intensification of the drives, as well as absolute ego weakness due to the adolescent rejection of parental ego support" (Blos, The Adolescent Passage [1979]). The daydreams, the music, and all the rest follow—

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 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; 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.

Then, after turning on the radio, "to drown out the quiet," and paying close attention to the music, as instructed by the disc jockey, she

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.

Her entry into her trance—or her dream—is followed immediately by the car coming up the driveway.

The ambiguity of the passage where Connie enters her trance, which leaves room for other interpretations of this story (such as Wegs's and Urbanski's), is strongly reminiscent of the questions Hawthorne leaves us with regarding the consciousness of Young Goodman Brown in the forest. More important, however, is that Connie is alone, a prerequisite for facing one's other self. Thus, William Wilson and his double speak to each other only when they are alone together; the lawyer ensconces Bartleby on his side of the folding doors in his office; the captain takes the unusual step of going on watch and is therefore alone to receive Leggatt; and Crane's Potter, who in the company of his new bride comes upon the rampaging Scratchy Wilson, "exhibited an instinct to at once loosen his arm from the woman's grip."

The creation of Arnold Friend in Connie's mind is made possible by her reaching the appropriate time in her life. In this regard, Arnold Friend's name—"a friend"—as a common slang expression for the menstrual period, supports the theme of impending adulthood. Arnold's form, as noted earlier, is borrowed from the shaggy-haired boy in the drive-in; however, unlike the boys she knows, Arnold Friend, who is not a boy, is beyond Connie's control, although, because of his "source," he looks conventional enough.

She recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn't want to put into words.

The adolescent boy's conventionally displayed sexuality here is serious beyond anything in Connie's prior experience. She recognizes no pattern: "… all these things did not come together." Arnold Friend does not stop at slippery smiles. He is all too willing to put the matter into words: and, unlike Bartleby, Scratchy Wilson, or Leggatt, he is not affected by the world of order. As Connie soon learns, he is beyond the control of police or parents.

Arnold is unable to enter the house which represents Connie's old environment as well as order, like the shops at the plaza, but only for as long as Connie does not attempt to use the telephone. Besides, he does not have to enter: "I ain't made plans for coming in that house where I don't belong but just for you to come out to me, the way you should." In other words, Connie is expected to step into adulthood voluntarily. Certainly, her merely material home (she has lived in it only during her adolescence, between the ages of twelve and fifteen) is no match for the forces of adulthood: "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."

The kinship between this "friend" and Connie—her name signifies constancy to the process of growth to adulthood—is actually established early in the story. The curious phrasing of Connie's mother's chiding her daughter, "Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you?", is directly related to Connie's first words to Arnold: "Who the hell do you think you are?"; both depict attempts to discover an emerging or new identity, in acknowledgment that adolescence "is essentially a time of personal discovery." Likewise, Connie's wishing her mother dead and her telling friends that her mother sometimes makes her want to throw up, represents not only conventional adolescent jargon and escapism, but also her preparing to leave her childhood (and her dependence on her mother) behind. Arnold Friend's threat later in the story that her family may be harmed reflects her adolescent hostility and symbolizes her unconscious knowledge that in her passage to adulthood the old ties must become as dead for her. This is underlined shortly thereafter in Connie's realization, "I'm not going to see my mother again…. I'm not going to sleep in my bed again."

Connie's appearance early on also foreshadows her transition from adolescence to adulthood: "She wore a pull-over jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for everywhere that was not home…." Moreover, her "trashy day-dreams" which her mother complains about hail from a realm of feeling and darkness with which Connie is as yet unacquainted:

But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July. Connie's mother kept dragging her back to the daylight by finding things for her to do….

In a similar passage, when Connie agrees to spend the evening with Eddie, she goes with him, "her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music."

The "tiny metallic world" of Arnold Friend's sunglasses which mirror everything in miniature, and in which Connie sees her blouse reflected, is related to the mirror at the end of "William Wilson" and to the place in "The Secret Sharer" where the captain and Leggatt rest on opposite ends of the skylight, creating a mirror image of each other. At first inscrutable, Arnold Friend without his sunglasses is spectral, qualities designed to heighten the sense of unreality—"he came from nowhere and belonged nowhere" (like Bartleby)—which in turn is supported by references to the possibility of his wearing a wig and by our being told unequivocally that "His whole face was a mask."

Because Connie is not an initiate into the secrets of the world which Arnold Friend represents, she appears briefly unable to read what is clearly written on his car: his name, the numerological "secret code," and, around a dent on the left rear fender, "DONE BY A CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER." This last inscription is important because it hints at the essentially anti-woman attitude of the adult world. Women are not, and are not allowed to be, in control. They are its quintessential victims, even if the violence is occasionally masked. As Arnold Friend tells Connie, "I am always nice at first, the first time"; but later, when she is unable to call her mother, Connie "felt her breath jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend were stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness." When she looks at the car again, she notices on the front fender the inscription "MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS," an obsolete adolescent expression, clearly pointing to Connie's leaving the world she has known. Significantly, she looks at the inscription "for a while as if the words meant something to her that she did not yet know."

Connie's formal initiation begins when Arnold Friend draws his X-sign in her direction, at which moment the music from inside the house and from the car blend together. As the encounter proceeds, it becomes more and more apparent that Arnold exists only in Connie's imagination. She never turns down his invitation to go for a ride: she gives no answer the first time and says "I don't know" the second. At first, Arnold appears to be an inch or two taller than Connie, but it becomes evident that later that they are of equal height. He knows everything about Connie—her name, her friends' names, who she was with the night before, where her family is, what they are wearing, what they are doing—because he is she. Thus, while it is tempting to think of Arnold Friend as Satan, unable to cross the threshold uninvited, Connie is actually face to face with a part of herself. Potential adulthood has always been part of Connie's make-up, as it is of every adolescent: Arnold Friend tells her, "Sure you saw me before…. You just don't remember," and, "I know everybody." After the blending of the music, and after his voice, orchestrated by Connie, has, in fact, become the voice of the disc jockey, she becomes dizzy, sees him in a blur, and "had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real."

Arnold Friend's voice, at various times monotone, lilting, or chanting, is related to music; and like music, it serves to link adolescent pop culture in general with the threatening adult world. Thus, when he asks here, "Don't you know who I am?" she hears him sound like "a hero in a movie" speaking too loudly. Soon after, when Connie has begun to accept the inevitability of her change of world, he uses "a gentle-loud voice that was like a stage voice" to tell her, "This place you are now—inside your daddy's house—is nothing but a cardboard box I can knock down any time. You know that and always did know it."

This decisive insight on Connie's part—since she is Arnold Friend—follows closely Arnold's telling her "It's all over for you here," her necessarily fruitless attempt to cry out for and phone her mother—what could she possibly say to her?—and her dawning awareness: "… deep inside her brain was something like a pinpoint of light that kept going and would not let her relax." The change is immediate—when Arnold Friend runs his fingernail down the screen the noise does not make Connie shiver, "as it would have the day before"—and leads to Arnold's penultimate voice:

His words were not angry but only part of an incantation. The incantation was kindly. "Now, come out through the kitchen to me, honey, and let's see a smile, try it, you're a brave, sweet little girl and now they're eating corn and hot dogs cooked to bursting over an outdoor fire, and they don't know one thing about you and never did and honey, you're better than them because not a one of them would have done this for you."

Realizing then, if only in a hazy way, that each person must undergo the rites of passage alone, with only one's other self to help, Connie, brushing the hair out of her eyes in order to see more clearly, crosses the threshold and goes out into the sunlight, into the vast, threatening adult world. The last paragraph in the story reiterates the uncaring nature of the world. As soon as it becomes apparent that Connie is leaving the house, Arnold Friend falls back on a cliché, "My sweet little blue-eyed girl," mouthing it with "a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes."

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This section contains 3,309 words
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