[(essay date spring 1999) In the following essay, Slimp contends that what the character of Connie experiences physically in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" "leads her to an increasing awareness of the horrors of human existence and a resulting growth of her spiritual nature."]
One of the most arresting features of Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is the way in which the story's powerful theme about the spiritual condition of late-twentieth-century American culture is conveyed with an almost palpable intensity. One can visualize the squalid hamburger joint, hear the blaring of Ellie's radio and the touch of Arnold's finger on the screen door. Most amazing, the reader experiences, even with multiple readings, a tightening of the stomach and quickening of the pulse as it slowly becomes clear exactly what Arnold is up to. Just as the sheer physicality of the narrative helps the reader confront the cultural wasteland that Oates believes our society has become, what Connie experiences physically leads her to an increasing awareness of the horrors of human existence and a resulting growth of her spiritual nature.
This interrelation of the physical and spiritual--in a story that Oates herself has described as "realistic allegory," "a mode of fiction to which I am [...] partial"1--is illustrated in the author's handling of an old trope common to many languages and many views of reality: the equation of physical breath with spirit. In Greek, for example, one word for spirit is πνεuμα, which happens also to be the word for physical breath and, at times, for wind. So also in Latin, where spiritus means both breath and spirit.2 Throughout this story, Oates uses the traditional association of breath and spirit, in a manner appropriate to a story "rich with the imagery of life's deceptions and perils,"3 to help delineate Connie's progress in her understanding of the evils of the world and the consequent growth of her soul.
As the story opens, Connie is shallow and vapid, believing among other things that the height of human suffering is the annoyance she feels at her mother's chiding. So shallow are her emotions that she responds to her mother's corrections by saying that she would like to die, that is, literally to lose her breath. As the second sentence of the story puts it, "She [...] had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck [...]." As a shallow laugh, a giggle is a gesture emphatically not drawn from the depths of the soul. A little later, Oates makes the same point more explicitly when she writes of Connie's "high, breathless, amused voice" (732). And on the fateful day at the drive-in restaurant, Oates says of Connie and her friend that "they ran across [the busy road], breathless with daring" (733). At the beginning of the story, Connie's lack of breath symbolizes the lack of spiritual development of one absorbed by trivia.
As the story progresses, however, and as she begins to experience true evil and to grow spiritually as a result, Connie registers a growing capacity for breath. The first intimation of her increased ability to breathe comes, appropriately enough, at the moment she first encounters Arnold Friend:
Connie couldn't help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music. She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face a few feet from hers.
The Sunday when Arnold comes to call, Connie is once again described as lacking in breath and air: "And Connie paid close attention [to the music], 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" (735). Oates here emphasizes a room without air, without spirit; what breathing Connie manages is manifestly shallow. But then the pace of the story increases, and Connie gradually gains perspective, understanding, spirit, and breath. When she first recognizes a moment from her past as significant, the moment she first saw Arnold, "she remembered him even better, back at the restaurant, and her cheeks warmed at the thought of how she sucked in her breath at just the moment she passed him" (736). After she begins to recognize the importance of the passage of time, an awareness that comes with her sudden recognition that Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar are much older than they appear, she begins to feel "a little light-headed. Her breath was coming quickly" (739). At this point Connie has come to experience evil as an unsettling phenomenon; it remains for her to experience the full horror of her encounter with human malice.
Eventually Arnold threatens to enter the house if she attempts to call the police then predicts that Connie will sooner or later come out to him. Connie's panic mounts; "She was panting" (740). The climax of the story comes in a blast of breath, which announces to the reader that Connie has at last developed a soul, has achieved a depth of spirit in the way that most human beings do--through the experience of suffering that brings enlightenment and a proper ordering of one's relationship to the world. When she attempts to use the telephone, Connie finally shows a depth of soul that allows her to cry out from deep within: "She began to scream into the phone [...]. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend were stabbing her with [...]" (742). A few lines further, Oates says that "[Connie] was hollow with what had been fear, but what was now just an emptiness. All that screaming had blasted it out of her" (742). Her screaming, born of her encounter with evil, results in her trying to establish a proper relationship with another human being--in this case, her mother. That her attempt has succeeded is shown when she sacrifices herself by going out, at the end of the story, to meet her fate, thereby sparing her family a violent and deadly encounter. She has shown herself to be a fully breathing human being, one who has, in a moment, developed the spiritual life lacking in her former existence.
1. Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (New York: Dutton, 1989) 317.
2. That the close connection of the two ideas is no mere coincidence is evidenced by the same relationship in Semitic languages: Hebrew lexica define ruach as both spirit and breath. Similarly, the Japanese word kaze serves the same dual function.
3. Walter Sullivan, "The Artificial Demon: Joyce Carol Oates and the Dimensions of the Real," Joyce Carol Oates: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1987) 8.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." Short Fiction, Classic and Contemporary. Ed. Charles H. Bohner. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1994. 732-43. All quotations from the short story are from this edition.