Satan Drives a Convertible
Writer’s comment: Of all the different types of writing, the one I hate the most is the writing that is done for a grade. I have hated it for as long as I can remember. There were deadlines to meet, my audience had a significant influence on my work, and too many times, the topic was more effective as a tranquilizer than as a learning experience. In high school especially, certain essay topics were thrown at me that were so drab and obscure that a research paper on Bushman holidays or the history of airline sickness bags began to look appealing.
I made the best of these situations by writing from unorthodox viewpoints and presenting arguments that were completely off the wall, but had enough supporting evidence to fill the required amount of space. My method didn’t go over well all the time. My twelfth-grade essay about the patriotism associated with giving someone “the bird” crashed and burned. But an unusual approach was usually the most effective in painting a clear picture of what I was trying to say, even if it meant simply taking an obvious argument and tacking on new, hidden evidence to clarify the picture. This was my goal in “Satan Drives a Convertible.”
Instructor’s comment: This extraordinary textual analysis, written in response to an English 3 (Introduction to Literature) assignment, pursues the clues of demonic possession in Oates’s complicated story with exactly the right balance of pleasure and paranoia. Spencer follows his line of argument like a feverish miner tracing a vein of gold into a darkening tunnel. His focus is relentless, his explication thorough. Readers familiar with Oates’s marvelous story of teen passion will be impressed by Spencer’s clever connections and insights, to say nothing of his poetic turns of phrase like the one which concludes the essay. His essay serves to remind us that the best writing springs from a personal, idiosyncratic response.
—Elizabeth Davis, English Department
Her name is Connie, and she is not unlike many girls of the time she lives in. She is vain, she is constantly at war with her family, and she is in an incredible rush to grow up. Her race to maturity is the trait focused on in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” It splits Connie into two different personalities: “One for home, and one for anywhere that was not home” (431). Everything about her—her walk, her smile, and her laugh—metamorphoses as soon as she steps out the front door. The child is hidden, the seductive young woman emerges, and the world of the “big kids” is more than willing to take her in. This world is what she thinks she wants, until the day a shiny golden convertible pulls into her driveway and the the mysterious Arnold Friend emerges.
Through Arnold Friend, Connie learns that her rush to grow up is foolish and that she is trying to jump into a world that she knows nothing about and that could be potentially dangerous. She ultimately releases her dream and clings to her family as never before, realizing that their firm grasp on her is not for their benefit, but her own. Joyce Carol Oates’s vivid description of Arnold Friend carries the most emotional freight, as the evil behind his apparent glamor brings about Connie’s change. Though he takes the outer appearance of a normal boy, everything about his behavior suggests that he is the Devil himself in disguise.
The most obvious aspects of Arnold Friend that suggest that he is the Devil in disguise are his physical features. For example, several references are made to the abnormality of his feet. As he walks about, he stumbles awkwardly as his feet buckle beneath him, constantly forcing him to cling to anything within his grasp for support (438). Connie notes from time to time that his feet seem to be deformed in some way. One of his feet seems to be bent inward, and his boots are apparently stuffed with something to fill the extra space. Several artistic works have depicted the Devil as a middle-aged, sharp-featured man who walks on the haunches of a goat. Oates’s periodic referral to Arnold Friend’s foot abnormality suggests a parallel between his portrait and that of Satan.
Oates also highlights the aura of evil around Arnold Friend’s appearance by stressing how deathly pale his skin is and how his eyes look like “holes that are not in shadow but instead in light” (435). The sunglasses that conceal Arnold Friend’s eyes also drive Connie to a degree of queasiness, mainly because all she can see in them is a distorted reflection of herself. He could be looking at anything: her deep brown eyes, her quivering body, or perhaps her very soul.
The devices that Arnold Friend uses to tempt Connie also suggest that he is the Devil. As the Devil beguiled Eve with a shiny and mysterious apple in Milton’s Paradise Lost, so does Arnold Friend beguile Connie with his shiny and mysterious car. Connie finds the car attractive not only for its dazzling golden paint job but also for the epigrams that Arnold Friend has written on its various parts. Some are humorous, such as the line that appears above a dent in the rear fender: “Done by crazy woman driver.” Others are more appealing for their mystery, such as Arnold’s secret code, “33-19-17” (434). Connie doesn’t realize the significance of the code, but the reader, after summing these numbers, recognizes it as Arnold’s silent advertisement for sex. Oates stresses Connie’s attraction to every aspect of the car: its beauty, mirth, and mystery. Though Connie continually refuses to go for a ride with Arnold Friend, the reader feels her interest grow and her resistance to the glamor start to falter.
Arnold Friend also attempts to seduce Connie by appealing to her in a lingo that she knows and loves: radio talk. Connie notes that the more Arnold Friend talks to her, the more he sounds like he is either reciting lyrics from pop hits or imitating a radio personality, such as the then popular Bobby King. This is especially obvious when he is addressing Ellie, the boy who stands by Arnold as Beelzebub stood by Satan. For example, when Ellie offers to jerk Connie’s phone out of the wall, Arnold first flatly orders him to shut up, and then continues with “Don’t hem in on me. Don’t hog. Don’t crush. Don’t bird dog. Don’t trail me” (439). If the Devil is to achieve his goal in seducing his victim, he must first be able to entice his target in a pleasing and familiar language. In Connie’s case, that language is radio lingo.
Arnold Friend’s wardrobe and overall appearance further contribute to the appeal of his snare. He is wearing “tight faded jeans stuffed into black, scuffed boots” and a white pullover shirt that emphasizes his muscle tone—somewhat like the wardrobe of George Michael, Bruce Springsteen, and many others in the music business (434). Oates’s dedication of the story to Bob Dylan suggests that Arnold Friend was molded from his image, and was intended to have the “rockstar aura.” Furthermore, Oates stresses that the more Arnold Friend speaks, the louder and more conspicuous the music from Ellie’s radio becomes. The volume of the music seems to correspond to Arnold’s power over Connie; her resistance level weakens as the music grows in intensity.
The Devil has been characterized many times as a sort of big game hunter in search of the trophies that would most glamorize his collection. He beguiles all but concentrates his focus on those that he finds attractive for some reason. Arnold Friend is comparable to the Devil in this respect. In his temptation of Connie, he eventually mentions that he knows her sister, and that he wants nothing to do with her: “There’s your sister in a blue dress, huh? And high heels, the poor sad bitch—nothing like you, sweetheart!” (437). With this, Arnold suggests that Connie is the ultimate prize, and that, like the Devil, he would not trifle long with someone who did not hold his interest, such as Mrs. Hornby: “She’s too fat. I don’t like them fat. I like them the way you are, honey” (437).
Arnold Friend’s likeness to the Devil strikes the hardest at the point of greatest conflict in the story, when his intimidating sermon shatters what little remains of Connie’s bravery and she frantically runs in her house, fumbles to lock the screen door, and curls up in an obscure corner of the house, cradling the phone(440). Arnold seems neither surprised nor disheartened. He calmly follows her but stops just outside her screen door, promising not to enter unless she tries to phone for help. The house is apparently a sort of sanctuary. As the Devil cannot tread on hallowed ground, Arnold Friend apparently cannot tread on the carpets of Connie’s parents’ home. Connie’s attempt to call her parents would probably have been equivalent to lowering the crucifix in the face of Dracula: once done, all powers of restraint on him would have been destroyed. Connie makes no attempt to call for help; she is so panicked by Arnold Friend’s dark enticements that all she can do is cry uncontrollably and whisper “mommy . . . mommy” as a condemned man would pray for salvation.
Arnold seems to realize that he must make her submit by her own free will. He knows, as the Devil knows, that a victim cannot be taken by simple brute force. His soliloquy near the end of the story is his silver-tongued attack on what remains of Connie’s defiance. As long as Connie has an ounce of resistance left, he cannot emerge victorious. The same is true about the power of the Devil over his victims. As the book of James professes in chapter 4, verse 7, “Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.” Arnold Friend’s power proves to be so strong that Connie, in the end, finally cracks and surrenders.
Joyce Carol Oates’s images of Arnold Friend, suggesting that he is the Devil in disguise, make the story both moving and successful. Connie’s fright at the face of the Devil is shared by Oates’s audience, making it easier for them to understand both the emotional impact of her struggle and the gravity of the lesson being taught by the story: things are not always as they seem. Connie’s fright at the discovery of Arnold’s true nature is comparable to Eve’s fright at the awareness of good and evil. Connie jumped into a world that was as appealing to her as the serpent’s shiny red apple was to Eve, only to discover that everything beyond the savory exterior was fraught with venomous poison.
Oates, Joyce Carol, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” reprinted in X.J. Kennedy’s Literature: An introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 5th ed (Harper Collins, 1991).