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The Use of Symbolism in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", by Joyce Carol Oates

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In any work of literature, the use of symbols and imagery adds layers of meaning to the author's account. Symbolism gives the reader so much more to consider than just what the piece first appears to be saying, and it opens up many interpretations, which can lead to stimulating discussions. There is an abundance of symbolism in the short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. A fifteen year old girl, Connie, is abducted from her home by two men, Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar, and while there is no violence actually written into the story, it is evident that Connie will not come to a good end. Oates leaves the ending open, allowing the reader to imagine what comes next. Most would say that Connie is definitely going to be killed, but the story can also be interpreted as a dream depicted through the symbolism of death and religion.

After Connie's parents and sister have gone to the family barbecue, she sits out in the sun, "dreaming and dazed," suggesting that she is drifting in and out of sleep, or at the least, very calm and relaxed. Connie goes into the house, turns on the radio, and gets on her bed, paying "close attention (to the music) herself, 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." This beautiful description implies that she has gone to sleep while listening to the music and disc jockey on the radio. When Connie is at the door talking to Arnold, his friend Ellie Oscar is sitting in the car listening to the same radio program. The music and chat Connie is hearing from Ellie's radio may actually be her own radio integrating into her dream. Possibly, subconsciously, she is feeling bad about her familial relationships and that is what causes her to dream about sacrificing for the family, because deep down she really does love them and would die to protect them.

Right from the very beginning there is a feeling that Connie is going to die. In the introduction paragraph she is spoken of in the past-tense, in a way that seems to be a foreshadowing of what is to come. There are several references to flies as well. Connie and her mother have a bad relationship. Sometimes "they were almost friends, but something would come up-some vexation that was like a fly, buzzing suddenly around their heads-and their faces went hard with contempt". When Connie is thinking of the barbecue her family is attending, one of the things that comes to her mind is the flies that will also be there. For lack of anything better to do, Connie pretends to chase away flies when she is standing at the screen door talking with Arnold. The mention of flies brings to mind death and decay. While the shopping plaza is usually a symbol of freedom for Connie and her friends, when the girls are picked up there late one night, the empty lot looks faded and ghostly to Connie when she looks back through the car window. This may well be a premonition of her impending doom. The first time Connie sees Arnold Friend he says "Gonna get you, baby", and when he is at her house he draws an X in the air. These are definitely a warning of what is to come. Just as death is unavoidable for all of us, as the story goes on, we know that is is inevitable that Connie will come out of the house and go with Arnold.

In the Christian faith, God allows us to use our own freewill as to whether or not we will follow Him. Arnold waits for Connie to use her freewill as well. Although he knows that Connie is powerless to disobey him, he needs her to make the choice for herself to follow him. And, just as Jesus was sacrificed to save the world of its sins, Connie goes with Arnold and allows herself to be sacrificed to save her family from any harm. Like Elijah in the Bible, it is almost as if Arnold's gold car is a chariot of death ready to whirl Connie away. He says this is the day set aside for her to ride with him, as if he already knows it is her destiny. Arnold is all-knowing, omniscient; he is familiar with everything about Connie and her family and friends and knows everything that is going on. As it is plain to see that he is evil, this reminds one of a demon.

The author gives us a lot to consider. Is it possible that the whole story is just a dream, as so many readers over the years must have fervently hoped, while reading this piece? Perhaps the story is a parable, warning young women of the dangers of desiring love and sex too early in life, of losing one's innocence in adolescence. Or the moral of the story may be to love and cherish your family and friends. Maybe this story is a reminder to be careful of strangers. Regardless, in the end, there is only one outcome and that is that Connie is going to walk out the door, go with Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar, and become a victim of rape and murder. We do not know and can only guess what Oates' intentions are, but the use of her interesting symbolism and imagery seems to suggest that causing the reader to wonder and imagine IS her intention.




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