Identity In Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been

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Appearance and identity go hand and hand in today’s society. Joyce Carol Oates’s, “Where are you going, where have you been?” tells the unsettling story of a young girl’s struggle with identity during a time of social change and vulnerability. The story’s protagonist, Connie, is a beautiful yet self-absorbed fifteen-year-old girl whose main concern revolves around her appearance. As she attempts to navigate the world around her, she meets Arnold Friend, a disturbing but intriguing man who targets and ultimately claim’s Connie as his own. Concepts such as manipulation and independence that Connie strives to understand, exemplify the realistic and sometimes scary aspects that today’s youth are forced to manage. Many scholars, through studying the complex and intricate details throughout the story have identified a correlating relationship between a woman’s appearance and her identity. In an attempt to highlight this problem in society Joyce Carol Oates uses nonfiction elements as well as incorporating contrasting ideas of appearance and deception to convey messages about society, youth, and identity.

Much like the mind of a typical young adult, Connie identifies her self-worth with her physical beauty. Appearance and her desire to be attractive to others are at the root of not only her family conflicts but also her inner conflict of innocence and identity. Throughout the story, Oates makes it clear that Connie’s attractiveness is the foundation of how she portrays herself and gives her a sense of control over the people in her life. In the opening of the story, Connie accuses her mother of being jealous of her vanity saying, ‘she knew she was pretty and that was everything”, thinking her mother’s beauty has since faded. This ongoing conflict between Connie and her mother is a power struggle based on appearances. Connie, as the one who still has her physical beauty, is seen as the one with power over her mother. In Connie’s mind and throughout much of society, beauty correlates with power and vice versa. This addiction to appearance and control has in many ways shaped how she views herself as a person. In many people, this power may appear as confidence, but in Connie, it’s displayed as ego. Connie, a teenager, is learning and adapting to society while also attempting to establish her identity through the attention she gets from her appearance. She searches for validation from the boys at the drive-in restaurant and ends up encountering Arnold Friend in the process. Though Connie’s experience with Arnold may seem extreme when compared to everyday interactions, ‘Oates devises the situation to illustrate how unstable identity can make an adolescent – especially a girl’ (Kathleen Wilson 261). This highlights how Connie’s constant obsession with her physical appearance ultimately leads to the loss of her identity. Though in Connie’s mind her physical beauty is her identity, her self-centered and superficial thinking is what leads her to accept Arnold’s facade. Though Connie’s obsession with appearances and power gives the allusion to identity, it instead distracts and pushes her further from who she truly really is.

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Despite her outward desire for attention and physical beauty, Connie’s appearance is also deceptive. When reaching beyond her rough and self-centered exterior there is a side to Connie that is different than when she is out in public. When she is at home, she presents herself as much more childlike and innocent than the confident and egotistical appearances that she displays with friends or in front of boys. Through Connie’s changing identity Oates demonstrates that appearances can often be deceptive and dangerous. Her personality,’…looked one way when she was at home and another for anywhere that was not home…’, proving just how misleading Connie’s appearance can be (27). She is not only dangerous to the people around her, but it also negatively affects how she views herself. It’s this deceptive and almost seductive outward appearance that draws Arnold Friend towards Connie. In many ways, Connie’s change in personality, from home to society, clearly demonstrates her search for identity. Like many teenagers throughout society, Connie’s self-confusion leads to many of her rebellious and thoughtless actions. Instead of the mature and powerful personality that she believes to portray, ‘Connie comes across as a teenager trying to define herself in the context of her times’ (Joyce Moss and George Wilson 365). Connie wants to appear alluring and confident to her friends and boys, but her innocence and youthful appearance become apparent when she is confronted by Arnold Friend. Oates uses the deception of Connie’s personality to show that appearances can’t always be trusted and that people’s inner personalities are often different than what they present on the outside.

Just as Connie’s changing personality can be deceptive, Arnold Friend’s outward appearances cannot be trusted. Arnold Friend’s deception escalates throughout the story and takes a sinister turn when he shows up at Connie’s house. At first, Friend approaches Connie like a normal teenage boy. However, it becomes clear that his car, clothes, and even his way of talking to Connie are all a part of his carefully created disguise. Arnold Friend assumes many identities throughout the entirety of the story. He uses his outward appearance to draw Connie closer as she, ‘…liked the way he dressed, which was the way all of them dressed’ (36). By externally embodying the typical teenage ideal he is appealing to Connie’s vanity and her need to be liked by men. As Connie starts to realize that he is not who she thought he was his disguise starts to slowly fade and it becomes increasingly more apparent that he intends to harm Connie. Studying him more closely, Connie realizes that his personality is not only deceptive but that his physical appearance also seems fake. The evil that Arnold Friend possesses helps make up the many different identities that he portrays. However, it in many ways challenges Connie’s identity. Before meeting Arnold Friend, Connie had both a confident exterior and mind. Though misguided, Connie had an understanding of what she wanted and who she thought she was. It wasn’t until meeting Arnold Friend and seeing his deceptive nature that she lost all aspects of her personality. Arnold Friend caused Connie to question her existence and ‘At the conclusion Connie had lost all identity except that of a victim…’ (Joyce Moss 71), demonstrating not only how Connie’s sense of self is gone, but also how she became what Arnold Friend made her be, a victim. Oates uses this deception and manipulation towards Connie to again emphasize that appearances are not to be relied on and in many cases, like Connie’s, can be both physically and mentally dangerous.

Using topics related to teenage sexuality and emotional intimidation Oates can recall how appearances play an important role in the process of forming our identities. Like much of society today, Connie believes that her self-worth comes from her physical beauty. This addiction to appearances and power is used to distract her from who she truly is. Though Connie wants people to only see her outward beauty, her appearance is in many ways deceptive. When at home she presents herself as much more reserved and quiet compared to the confidence that she displays when out in public, demonstrating her search for identity. Not only is this the cause of Connie’s self-confusion but it’s also what causes her to fall for Arnold Friends’ facade. Arnold’s appearance, just like Connie’s, is also very deceptive. He uses his physical appearance as a disguise in an attempt to draw Connie closer. By using his different personalities as a way of appealing to Connie’s need for attention he can challenge her identity as well. Overall, Oates uses Connie’s superficial thinking and double-sided personality as well as Arnold Friend’s deceptive nature to highlight the dangers that appearances have in society. Her spin on a realistic story emphasizes that although appearances can in many ways provide validation and power, they must not be relied on, for they are often deceptive, dangerous, and even fatal.   

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