|Arnold Friend has a thing for pretty young girls.|
Such a strange title and an even stranger short-story. Since no character actually asks these two questions, to whom is it addressed? This is one of those short-stories that revels in ambiguity and is open to interpretation. Perhaps I am reading too much into the significance of the title but Joyce Carol Oates must have had her reasons for choosing it. I have come up with a few possible explanations but cannot settle on any definitive answer. My first thought was that the questions are directed towards the reader but that does not make much sense. Then I got to thinking that it must come from the female protagonist of the story, which is a little more plausible but that still feels wrong for some reason.
Connie is a 15 year old girl going through the confusing and often difficult age of puberty: hormones are raging, she is obsessed with her self image, enjoys hanging out at the mall with her friends, is discovering boys, likes being flirtatious and even has a rebellious streak going on towards her parents (especially the mother). Connie is discovering her own sexuality is undergoing the transition into womanhood. Even though the story is pulsating with sexual undertones, it is never explicit. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Connie is lounging around the house alone after the rest of her family have left to attend a BBQ and a mysterious car with two passengers suddenly pulls up her driveway. One of them gets out of the car and Connie thinks she recognizes him but can't quite place it. He has has a creepy look about him with shaggy black hair, tight jeans and wearing sunglasses. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend (his last name is clearly meant to come across as ironic), begins to flirt a bit with Connie before quickly going into complete pervert-mode. He wants Connie to take a ride in his car with him, offers declarations of affection, tells her they are destined to be together. At this point she is more than a little freaked out and starts to panic. Arnold Friend may not be so friendly after all. She threatens to call the cops and then...well, things get a little weird. So, going back to my initial hypothesis: is the title of the story supposed to come from Connie? If she is addressing Arnold, it seems unlikely. Such inquiries reveal a sense of personal attachment or general affinity towards the intended recipient, which Connie does not feel towards him. However, what if the title refers to rhetorical or internalized questions she would have liked to asked her parents before they left her home alone and Arnold Friend showed up at her doorstep? Maybe. The problem is, she already knew that they were going to the BBQ, therefore such questions would be irrelevant. Unless...Connie is envisioning an idealized outcome in her head where her parents come home just in the knick of time to save her from Arthur Friend. The first question would not make much sense in this particular scenario but the second one does. She realizes how much she actually misses her family and repents her foolish and insubordinate behavior: "Where Have You Been?...I was so worried. Don't ever leave me home alone again, ok? (embraces her mother). Fade to black.
Still not convinced. Ok, what if the title is spoken or thought of by Arthur Friend instead? See, she desperately wants to get away from him but he knows that he has the upper-hand so he asks her with a mocking grin: Where Are You Going? I cannot think of a valid reason why he would ask the second question unless it was: "Where Have You Been...All My Life? As a possible sex-offender, rapist or murderer, it is conceivable that Arnold Friend would utter something sinister like that. Yes, I am picking at straws at this point. In fact, I give up trying to figure out what the title means and if anyone out there would be so kind as to enlighten me, it would be greatly appreciated. It's bound to be something ridiculously obvious and I am going to come across as a doofus for not figuring it out from the get-go.
Title aside, I am still left with more questions than answers from this bizarre and unsettling story. Joyce Carol Oates dedicates this story to Bob Dylan. Is there any correlation between his music and the story? Arnold tells Connie that the numbers 33, 19 and 17 painted on his car are a "secret code." Of what? Arnold's companion is a weird looking kid name Ellie who also wears sunglasses and carries a portable radio. What is up with this dude? It is suggested that his relationship with Arthur is submissive but his actual significance to the story is inexplicable to me. The best I can come up with is that he is Arthur's partner in crime. They roll around the country seducing young girls, taking turns to rape and murder. Is Arthur supposed to be an homage to the unnamed misfit found in Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man is Hard to Find?" Both characters are creepy and twisted in their own way, justifying their obscene actions as moral. The ending is purposefully written to be ambiguous, leaving the reader to ponder Connie's fate. Is Oates making a feminist or anti-feminist statement here? Hollywood even adapted this story into a movie in 1985 starring Laura Dern. How the filmmakers managed to pull this off is beyond me.
Overall, this story left me rather ambivalent. Often anthologized and widely popular amongst readers since its publication in 1966, it surely must have generated a lot of controversy at the time but feels dated, a time-capsule of sorts that is bound to a specific time and place: 1960's America and the sexual revolution. The "show, don't tell" technique is effective enough to generate curiosity in the reader but if Oates was going for heightened suspense, the story misses the mark. The premise is a little too over-the-top to be taken seriously. To my mind, the only way to read this story and get anything out of it is to read it as a parable or allegory. What type exactly, you might ask? That depends entirely on your own interpretation. I am just trying to figure out what that damn title means.