A death not in Vain: Analysis of Where are you going, where have you been?

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From Jesus dying on the cross thousands of years ago to more modern examples such as a teacher at Virginia Tech shielding students from a wave of bullets, history has been filled with self-sacrifice. In these acts, one forgets their needs and even in the case of Jesus and the teacher loses their life, not because it is wasted but rather sacrificed for a greater cause. People who are truly kings among men both in fiction and the real world, for they are people who find the courage to put themselves in harm’s way to save someone else whether they knew them or not. In Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where are you Going Where Have you Been?” this particular idea of self-sacrifice is explored through Connie, a fifteen year old in her own little world who gives up her innocence and life to save her family. Joyce Carol Oates was born June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York (Contemporary Authors Online para. 2). After writing her first novel at fifteen she went to Syracuse University on a scholarship where she began what has been a long extensive career as a writer (Contemporary Authors Online para. 2). “The following year she earned a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin and married Raymond Smith, a former English professor” ( Contemporary Authors Online para. 3).  She has earned numerous awards including the O. Henry Special Award as well as the  American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, Richard and Hinda Foundation Award, American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, the Boston Book Review Fisk Fiction Award, and the first award which set it all off the Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest  ( Honors and Awards). She has two grown children and teaches at Princeton University to this day (Contemporary Authors Online para. 4.). In 1963 she wrote one of her masterpieces, “Where are you Going Where Have you Been?”, a story about Connie which begins like an ordinary story but sure does not end that way. Connie is your classic fifteen year old who twirls her hair daydreaming about love with a typical family of that time. She makes a decision to stay home from a picnic and comes face to face with a choice after an unexpected guest, ironically Arnold “Friend”, comes to her house. He begins seducing and harassing her until she ultimately submits herself to him in an effort to save her family.  In Oates’, “Where are you Going Where Have you Been?”, Connie’s sacrifice and ultimate martyrdom in the hands of Arnold Friend can be compared to Joan of Arc and her innocence and fight for Christianity which also leads to her death.

The hero of the story Connie surprisingly is not your typical candidate for a martyr. A martyr by default has characteristics of being caring, giving, loving, self-less, intelligent, and destined. Our title character seems anything but any of these things especially destined. Our story begins with Connie’s description and we immediately see her innocence and self-absorbed character contrary to that of a martyr who would be self-less and giving. “…she knew she was pretty and that was everything” (Oates para. 1). She is without a doubt someone who is not likely to play the role of a martyr because she is just not of that strong a character for she cannot care about others. In fact, she could care less about her parents whom she ultimately saves. Her dad just comes home, reads the paper, and completely ignores Connie (Oates para. 3). He is not making the effort but then neither is Connie. As for her mother, Connie herself says she wishes she was dead (Oates para. 3). Although that may not be meant to be taken seriously, it shows us that Connie is distant from her parents and does not seem to have a reason to save them or her sister June. She constantly makes fun of and laughs at how June is a 24 year old who does not know what she is doing observing this: “…and in the back seat was poor old June, all dressed up as if she didn’t know what a barbeque was, with all the running yelling kids and the flies” (Oates para. 9). This shows that Connie thinks her sister is basically one big joke. Korb argues “she is suffering not from a malicious desire to be cruel, but merely from romantic delusions in her search for a ‘sweet, gentle love’ the way it was in movies and promised in songs” (para. 5). In this desire, she is just your average teenage and not capable of anything extraordinary. Therefore, Connie clearly needs to make some changes to live up to this title as a martyr.

Furthermore, when the car pulls up and Arnold Friend comes out all Connie seems to care about is her appearance (Oates para. 12) for Connie sees only one thing and that is herself, not realizing the danger coming her way. This is a key reason why she does not seem like a candidate for a martyr. In fact, it is not until nearly the end where we see her desperation force her to come to a realization, an epiphany which turns the story. At this point, Arnold has gone from just asking her to come with him, to making sexual references, and then threatening her directly. Oates scares us and Connie with these few simple words “Promise not to come in unless you touch that phone, and I’ll keep that promise” (para.113). The tension continues to build up but it is when Connie’s family gets directly threatened that Connie really gets petrified. Oates keeps the tension high for after going in the house and initially deciding to call the police, Connie in agony puts down the phone almost as if to signal a shift in not only the story but her individual character (para 123-124). Hence the epiphany previously mentioned; Connie morphs. When she comes outside she gives in to Arnold’s demands, the fiend gets his way. If Connie is a martyr for a cause and Arnold is this cruel, unforgiving, creepy man that perhaps he represents the evil that Connie has chosen to fight. Connie could just as easily have waited for her family to come, or even called the police. There are in fact numerous courses of action that Connie could have potentially taken. Like a true sacrificial person she willingly gives herself up and that is where the shift of character truly shows.

On a completely different note, the patron Saint Joan of Arc exhibits the common traits of a sufferer for a cause. She by contrast is religious, intellectual, hardworking, and most importantly destined. At age thirteen she begins to hear voices, supposedly from Saint Michael, about fighting for the French (U X L Biographies para. 6). She goes to the King to be the commander of the French army without hesitation. Joan of Arc then fights in the battle of Aquitaine and brings a huge victory for France. She is a brilliant leader and truly seems heaven sent. All this seems too good to be true, and it is as the tide turns on Joan and she is tried as a witch, surrendering to the King (U X L Biographies para. 7). She is imprisoned, lied to, and kept there until her trial and wears her armor as a sign of rebellion while in prison. Joan of Arc had no way out, but although she could have resisted she gave into the kings demands and was burned at the stake for being a witch. There was so much she could have done, for example running away or fighting until the very end but she ended her life on a quiet note, until her ultimate end. Only later was it recognized that she really was divinely sent and a martyr. Therefore in 1920 Joan of Arc became a saint (U X L Biographies para. 11). Joan truly was a story book version of what a good martyr should be.

Consequently, Joan’s actions of attempting to rescue her mother country France end up being her demise. By scrutinizing her life one thing stands out and that is she did not need to die, it is perhaps best stated in Romans 5:6, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for our sins.” Joan of Arc came at the precise time that the French really needed her and by doing so only received punishment which she agreed to. Although everyone wanted her burned at the stake, they clearly forgot all that she did for the country of France. Like a true martyr, she despite the faults people might have had, was ready and willing to die for her country. Joan takes on the true characteristics of a martyr by symbolizing change and sacrifice in an unforgiving world. It looks like other options were not even considered. She knew what she needed to do which was to take a stand for her morals and if that meant death so be it.

Although Connie may seem unqualified to be sacrificial she and Joan of Arc have much in common that sets them apart as martyrs for a cause. In one corner we have Connie. She is our outsider but really pulls through at the end. Arnold Friend is evil and testing her by trying to lure her to his car, a passage to Connie’s death. She goes not because she wants to, but because she wants to save her family from the same fate she is about to endure. At the beginning, we would not even think it was the same Connie but at the end she does a 180 and completely surprises the audience with her self-less act. Similarly, Joan of Arc, although she was more likely, gives up her life for Christianity and her country of France. Charles giving Joan a suit of white gold which resembles the gold lettering on Arnold Friend’s car. Both colors seem dazzling and inviting at first but the armor betrays Joan and the car is just a part of the evil that is Arnold Friend. The enemy in both cases has these fancy things to offer but in the end they turn out to do nothing towards the causes of saving either of our heroines’ lives. Also, similar was the fact that there was no one there to rescue them. In Connie’s case she is out in a rural area with no way to signal for help, while Joan of Arc is in prison and worse off because even though there are people all around no one will defend her. Finally, and mostly importantly their contributions were only recognized once they were gone. Connie through out the story is thought of as a brat and Joan of Arc worse yet as a witch. It is only after they sacrifice themselves do we realize what a contribution they have made. Through their valiancy,  they at the young ages of seventeen and fifteen, conquered fear and paid willingly with the biggest most precious sacrifice of all – their lives.

We can now see how both our heroes conquered evil for a greater good. In Oates’ “Where are you Going Where Have you Been?” Connie transforms from this bratty pest who thinks about shallow things to a young woman defending her family like Joan of Arc who sacrifices her life for a greater cause as well, Christianity. These two adolescent girls are both extremely young but they are clearly chosen to do some good in the world, even if that means death. Connie is not Jesus or even Joan of Arc. She is like you and me, ordinary. She does not fight into battle against the English or burn at the stake for her actions.  In fact, She lacks many qualities we look for in our everyday hero, how ever overrated that may be it is the truth. Her actions however are unmistakably unique and self-less. She manifests in herself traits she does not show in the surface; she goes from being a nobody to being a somebody, somebody worthy of your time to discuss. She is someone that is now worthy of picking apart and discovering why she gave herself up that quickly. She saw the option if she stayed. Knowing the consequences would be grim, something greater than herself burst inside her. That something was what Joan of Arc had inside herself as well – wisdom, and it is this wisdom that these two young heroes who are polar opposites share in the end that saves more than one life.

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