Oates, Joyce Carol: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been (1966)

Well hello!

It’s been entirely too long since I last wrote a blog post! I actually felt I was doing well for a while – nothing compared to the relentless posting schedules other bloggers manage to adhere to, but OK enough by my standards. And then…well let’s just say life happened – as it does.

Since my last post back in September the new semester started – a fact that is only marginally interesting for me, as I’m currently working on my master’s thesis and hence don’t have classes any longer. However, I was offered a position as tutor this semester, which I gratefully accepted, since a) I was in need of a job anyway and although I wouldn’t go as far as to say tutoring pays well, it does pay a little, which is more than I’m currently in a position to turn down, and b) I really enjoyed teaching tutorials last semester.

My personal life hasn’t exactly decided to give me a break either. Add to that the daylight saving time depression that tends to set in every year as soon as the clocks are set back and everything seems to be drenched in darkness, as well as the lingering guilt stemming from my barely existing progress on my thesis, and you have a great pile of Meh! that I’m still working my way out of.

Next step: Finally write about literature again! Today I want to discuss the short story that we’re reading in the introductory lecture I’m tutoring: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates. Since this post will contain spoilers from this point forward, I’m hereby issuing a fair warning. However, as the story is indeed very short, you could easily grab a cup of coffee, quickly read it and then pop back here if you like. If you google the title, you can find a pdf version of the story in two seconds. I’ll wait. 😉 If you don’t care about spoilers, you can simply scroll down where you’ll find a summary of the story as well as the discussion I promised.

Welcome back! How did you like the story? I must say: I don’t think this is necessarily the greatest short story of all time. In case you didn’t read it: The story is about Connie, a fifteen year old girl who is obsessed with her appearance, likes to go to the shopping centre, the cinema, etc., and who occasionally sneaks off to meet up with cute boys without her parents knowing. So far so normal. She also doesn’t get along great with her family – also normal – , and is relieved to be spending a Sunday by herself while the rest of her family visits some relatives for a barbecue. She spends the time listening to the radio and daydreaming, until a car comes up the driveway. In the care there are two male characters who try to convince Connie to go cruising with them. Normal? Maybe – if it didn’t turn out that the two of them are in fact ten to twenty years older than Connie and behave more and more threateningly by the sentence. Connie’s family home is in an isolated area with nobody close by who could hear her and come to her rescue, and the doors aren’t sturdy enough to keep out an intruder, so that ultimately Connie doesn’t see another choice than giving in the the men’s request. The story ends before it becomes clear what is going to happen to her after she is abducted by the two men in the car, but from the whole set-up and feel of the story, it seems reasonable to assume that it doesn’t end well.

So why do I want to talk about this short story that will never become one of my favourites? Here’s why: there is something in the way the plot is set up that surprises and that held a shocking revelation for me as a reader. As I said, the whole story transmits a certain atmosphere, a sense that something bad is going to happen at the end. However, the actual ending came as a surprise to me (and to all the tutorial students I discussed the story with). I was expecting Connie to get into trouble – I just also assumed that it would be because she’d do something stupid, like getting into the wrong person’s car. The way in which the story threw my assumptions back in my face illustrated how deeply ingrained the practice of victim blaming is in our society – and in our minds*.

*or at the very least in my mind. Although reading the short story with my tutorial students has proven to me that I’m not alone here, which is sad as much as it is a relief.

Fiction has an interesting way of holding up a mirror to ourselves sometimes, and sometimes we may see things we don’t want to see. If you asked me on any given day whether a girl or woman could be responsible for having something bad happen to her at the hand of another person – in all likelihood a man -, I’d reject this notion as wrong and unacceptable. However, in this fictional context I didn’t think twice before I decided that I didn’t like Connie, that something bad was going to happen to her and that she seriously had it coming for being such a naive, arrogant twat.

It seems like I – and I’m guessing society as a whole – still have a long way to go here, and although I’ll admit that I never particularly liked Joyce Carol Oates’ writing – too moralistic for my taste -, this might be a good time to give her another Pulitzer, as I think that we’ll need people like her in the future: people who stand in for their values and belief systems and aren’t afraid to make their readership uncomfortable if it serves to remind them of their own.

Did you read the story? How did you react to it? Did you have a similar experience reading it? 

And to end on a lighter note: What’s your favourite strategy for staying warm and cozy these days? Books, blankets and hot tea – or grog – for me!


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