It's All Over Now, Baby Blue: Psychoanalyzing Connie in Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

By Nicole Holmen
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

It is perhaps an understatement to say that the character Connie in Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has a lot of issues. Oates has provided the perfect character to undergo a healthy dose of psychoanalytic criticism. Connie’s problems with her family, social life, and the people who, however unwillingly on her part, come to control her future are examples of some of psychoanalytic theory’s most prevalent ones.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” opens with a short physical description of the narrator, Connie, in the form of a comparison to her mother. Connie, who is 15 and very beautiful, has a habit of checking her face in mirrors to reassure herself that it is still as beautiful as it has always been. Her mother disapproves of this habit:

“‘Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?’ she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too…but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie” (Oates 249).

This habit of always needing to bolster the knowledge that she is beautiful is an indication that Connie is suffering from insecurity, or having an “unstable sense of self.” Lois Tyson describes this as “the inability to sustain a feeling of personal identity, to sustain a sense of knowing ourselves (Tyson 16). Connie’s description of her beauty being “everything” can be interpreted to mean that she would feel worthless without it, that she is nothing without her pretty face. This insecurity makes her completely vulnerable to the will of others, and is one of the things that eventually leads her to run off with Arnold Friend at the end of the story, a mysterious character whose purpose for kidnapping Connie is not clearly stated, but can be inferred easily; Connie is beautiful, and therefore desirable, for all the wrong reasons.

Connie’s insecurity about her own self-worth also falls under the category of low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is defined as “the belief that we are less worthy than other people” (Tyson 16). Especially noteworthy about this psychological disorder is that it causes the sufferer to think that they deserve whatever ending they get. “Indeed,” Tyson writes, “we often believe that we deserve to be punished by life in some way” (Tyson 16). Since Connie falls into the low self-esteem category, it is possible that she feels this way about her life. Her fractured relationships with her mother, father, and sister certainly seem to indicate that Connie is used to, and even accepts, the fact that she is completely responsible for her fate.

Perhaps caused by Connie’s insecurity and low self-esteem, or perhaps coming from another source entirely, is Connie’s severe fear of intimacy. Fear of intimacy is defined as “the chronic and overwhelming feeling that emotional closeness will seriously hurt or destroy us and that we can remain emotionally safe only by remaining at an emotional distance from others at all times” (Tyson 16). The examples of Connie’s fear of intimacy are numerous throughout the story. Her frequent excursions with the boys she meets at the drive-in restaurant certainly indicate a fear of intimacy, as there is never any indication that she is actually interested in any of them or that she ever sees any of them for more than one night. Connie’s friends, who the reader doesn’t even know by name, all seem to be rather mercurial; there only seems to be one of them who Connie hangs out with on a regular basis, and then only because the girl’s father drives them to the mall and doesn’t question them about what they do every night. Her extremely casual reference to her “friends” (“She and this girl and occasionally another girl went out several times a week…” (Oates 252)), is another indication of Connie’s fear of intimacy; by not forming any true connections to her girlfriends, she is able to keep herself emotionally distant from them.

Also worrisome, however, are her relationships with the members of her family. Her observation that she only ever sees her father at supper time and that “he didn’t bother talking much to them” (Oates 250) clearly indicates that the feeling is more than mutual. This is her only reference to her father throughout the entire story, and it seems that far from being bothered by the absence of her father, Connie is perfectly content to never grow close to the man. Her relationship with her sister, June, also seems to be rather nonexistent. Through Connie’s eyes, June “was so plain and chunky and steady that Connie had to hear her praised all the time by her mother and her mother’s sisters” (Oates 250). What could possibly be explained away as a simple case of sibling rivalry is better diagnosed as another facet of Connie’s fear of intimacy. Connie is afraid to be close to anyone, even her sister, and so she determinedly clings to the idea of her sister’s faults so as not to see June as she truly is: a sister that Connie could love and be close to. Connie’s relationship with her mother, though nowhere near as distant as the ones with her father and sister, is equally a part of her fear of intimacy. Connie is extremely contemptuous toward her mother for always nagging her and favoring June over her; she even goes so far as to wish that her mother was dead. While this may seem like a typical rebellious teenager’s reaction to her mother, it truly hints at something deeper. Connie’s fear of intimacy leads her to retreat emotionally even from the person she should be the closest to: her mother. Normally, the bond between mother and daughter is a sacred one. However, with Connie and her mother, it is anything but, and this is entirely due to Connie’s fear of intimacy. This fear, this defense that Connie has developed, is another reason that she ends up with Arnold Friend in the end.

Readers of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” will ask how it is that Connie ends up leaving the safety of her house to run off with the mysterious stranger, Arnold Friend, at the end of the story. Some will theorize that this shouldn’t be surprising; after all, Connie often runs off with strange men for no apparent reason. Why should the arrival of Arnold Friend be anything but typical for her, despite the man’s great difference in age? This theory completely ignores the psychological disorders that Connie has. Her insecurity, her low self-esteem, and her fear of intimacy all aid her in her unconscious decision to leave her house and go with the devious Arnold Friend in his gold convertible jalopy. After all, it is not as though Connie does not realize that Arnold Friend is a dangerous man; she is immediately wary of his presence when he shows up in front of her house (Oates 254), the knowledge that he is much older than her puts her on her guard even more (Oates 259), and she repeatedly warns them that they should leave, eventually threatening to call the police (Oates 262).

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