Media can have a tremendous impact upon our lives without our even knowing it. It can bring about emotions, convince us to make a purchase and helps shape our impressions of the world around us. In Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, the main character, Connie, is strongly influenced by the media as she moves throughout her world. As the story develops, Connie’s emotions and actions can be seen to be influenced by the music she hears, the words she reads and the images she is used to seeing as she refers to these things in making her assessment of Arnold Friend.
Connie’s use of music as a means of defining her world is illustrated very early in the story. She is capable of walking in a way that was “languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head” and her sense of excitement and pleasure at the teenage restaurant is closely linked to the music that throbs through it. “The music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.” Connie’s dependence on the music also extends to the DJ, ‘Bobby King’, whose orders seem to be followed religiously as well. After telling the girls to pay attention to a song, “Connie paid close attention herself, bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself.” This is the same music that she hears coming out of Ellie’s transistor radio.
Connie is also influenced by the words she sees written all over Arnold’s car, which helps to provide the initial impression that he is around her same age. These words first suggest that Arnold will be a friend to Connie simply in spelling out what he says is his real name – Arnold Friend. The numbers on his car don’t mean much to Connie other than that they might be some sort of secret code, but this does not put her on her guard. A notation at a crushed fender, “DONE BY CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER” brings laughter to Connie’s mind and places her at somewhat more ease. Although she doesn’t feel quite comfortable about Arnold, these slogans painted on his car, such as “MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS”, provide her with a sense of the familiar that keeps her talking with the increasingly disturbing man.
Finally, Connie orders her world by the things that are most familiar to her, which are the fashions and styles she sees in magazines, on television and on the backs of her friends. She judges Arnold based upon his similarity to what is expected of a person her age. “Connie liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed: tight faded jeans stuffed into black, scuffed boots, a belt that pulled his waist in and showed how lean he was, and a white pull-over shirt that was a little soiled and showed the hard small muscles of his arms and shoulders.” As she continues assessing his appearance, she begins to realize he is slightly out of touch with the appropriate in a way that dates him as much older and only then begins to feel fear.
Although she recognized many things about him, from the music on his radio to the slogans on his car to the clothes on his back, Connie’s understanding of the media causes her to realize there is something false about Arnold although she can’t quite determine just what it is. “She recognized most things about him … But all these things did not come together.” Connie’s highly developed sense of current media nags at her that something is out of joint, but by the time she figures this out, she has already fallen into Arnold’s trap. Arnold, well aware of adolescent weaknesses to the media, uses every element to his advantage, including adopting the voice of the DJ to coerce her into doing what he wishes.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The Best American Short Stories. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.