Hint of a Thrill

Rebecca Brickner

Writer’s Comment: My interest in psychology and fascination with human nature impelled me to write about Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” for my English 3 course. I found myself fully captivated and emotionally invested in the intricate way the author created her disturbing account of a based-on-real-life, malicious character who found a pleasurable thrill in holding power over those he could manipulate to his will. The assignment was to analyze how one of the stories we read for Tiffany Gilmore’s class fulfills what Raymond Carver considers a vital element of a good short story, the creation of “menace” or “tension.” I felt very passionate about this assignment having studied the statistics about and psychology behind rape for a research paper I wrote in high school; I also wanted to expand my knowledge of predatory behavior for a women’s self-defense class I taught around the same time. My personal investment and interest in this topic helped me to enjoy the process of writing this paper.

Instructor’s Comment: Raymond Carver suggested that “[t]here has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story.” Joyce Carol Oates’ disturbing story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is a quintessential example of the critical role tension plays not only in the evolution of the narrative, but as Rebecca Brickner points out, in the thrill and pleasure of reading. Rebecca was a reflective, thoughtful presence in our class and brought a level of sophistication and nuance to her exploration of Arnold Friend’s commanding, though dangerous, appeal to Connie and the reader. She explores the connections between power, menace and attraction even when we know it is façade. Rebecca’s essay balances textual support with lucid writing and convincing analysis, making it an outstanding example from our Introduction to Literature course.
—Tiffany Gilmore, English Department

There is something captivating about a story that makes its readers sit on the edge of their seats. It makes them block out the rest of the world as they sit up straighter in their chairs, gripping the pages slightly tighter. They are entirely engrossed as the author keeps them guessing about a darker truth they know will imminently be revealed. It is a thrill ride that entices readers, keeping them enthralled, hanging on every word in eager, and yet equally hesitant, anticipation of the inevitable horror the story promises. This skillful technique of layering a story with tension and impending evil is a key strategy for short story tellers. In Joyce Carol Oates’ bone-chilling short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” she intrigues her readers with a sense of menace, foreshadowing Connie’s tragic fate at the hands of Arnold Friend with eerie images of false comfort. 

Everything about Arnold Friend is enticing in a mysteriously fascinating and commanding way. Just as young, lovesick girls so often become infatuated with the ruggedly handsome bad-boy, Connie, too, is drawn to Arnold Friend’s confident and slightly threatening personality. He piques her curiosity as he seems to come out of nowhere to her driveway, expecting her to already know she is meant to go with him. Hiding himself behind large, reflective sunglasses, he makes it “impossible for her to see just what [he is] looking at” (275). Like the story’s readers, she knows that he is probably bad news, but she can’t seem to help herself from being attracted to him, just as she couldn’t help but glance back at him a second time as she passed him in the car. His demeanor and tone is both light-hearted and demanding at the same time as he jokes about his name: “I’m Arnold Friend and that’s my real name and I’m gonna be your friend, honey…” (276). While he is teasing, he is also commanding. He does not ask to be her friend, he tells her he will be. In an attempt to earn her trust and also to assert his ownership of her, he uses little pet-names like: “honey,” “sweetheart,” “my girl,” and “my Connie.” He attempts to create an intimate relationship between himself and Connie. His confidence and self-assurance make these little endearments sound less creepy and imposing than they really are. He draws her in with his confident bad-boy charms and keeps her interested by assuaging her uncertainty with his easy-going composure. His act, however, is such a perfect combination of enticing mystery and comforting appeal that it leaves readers with a gnawing sense of distrust and skepticism for his too-skillfully performed display of innocence. 

Oates reinforces this sense of uncertainty for her readers as she reveals alarming insights into Arnold Friend’s true character. He tells Connie that he “‘took a special interest in [her], such a pretty girl, and found out all about [her]’…in a simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song. His smile [assures] her that everything [is] fine” (277). He gains her admiration by flattering her with little compliments. He masks the threatening implication behind his works with his singsong tone and tops it all off with a sweet reassuring smile, using his good looks to his advantage. When Arnold Friend finally removes his sunglasses, Connie saw “how pale the skin around his eyes was, like holes that were not in shadow but instead in light. His eyes were like chips of broken glass that catch the light in an amiable way” (277). He vulnerably exposes his face, as if he is letting Connie in on one of his secrets in an attempt to earn her trust; but instead of eliminating some of the mystery about him, he becomes even more fascinating to her. His eyes hold both a sign of the threat he imposes like the sharp edges of shards of glass and the beauty he knows how to manipulate in a captivating way, like bait drawing in prey. This provocative imagery signals the sinister nature behind Arnold Friend’s bewitching allure. 

As his mysterious appeal begins to wear away, the author allows her readers and Connie to see glimpses of the true nature of the situation. Connie is no longer dazzled by Arnold’s charms and enticing demeanor. She begins to see the subtle hints in such clues as the words written on his car: “‘MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS’…an expression kids had used the year before but didn’t use this year. She looked at it for a while as if the words meant something to her that she did not yet know” (278). The words are familiar and should be reassuring, but they alert her that something is wrong even if she can’t identify what it is just yet. Her confusion helps keep readers ignorant as well, building the suspense for the reader and the very real threat for Connie. The author is laying the hints of doubt with all these “[things] that did not come together” (279). Arnold Friend’s cute little act is no longer sweet or amiable; it is slipping and showing the menace behind his intentions. Connie is no longer assured by his smiles, as they come “awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask” (281). His smile, like his innocent persona, is just a show, false and ill fitting upon his face. This imagery shows that the emotion behind his smile does not extend to the rest of his features as a true emotion would. His pleasing countenance is no longer comforting in its attractive appeal but instead is described as “the face of a forty-year-old baby” (279). Arnold Friend loses his attractive appeal and becomes creepy and disturbing as the sick truth begins to show through his façade. This deformed imagery, the mismatch of these contradictory descriptions, illustrates the author’s style of hinting at the evil hidden behind seemingly innocent pretenses. The truth becomes even more apparent as the discrepancies in his basely plotted act begin to show through. He is not as confident and sure of himself. His body language demonstrates his uneasiness as he stands “stiffly relaxed, pretending to be relaxed” and as he “[steps] toward the porch lurching” (281). His unsteady and uncomfortable movements show the stress of trying to keep up his performance. 

Arnold Friend’s uncertainty, while revealing in terms of his true malicious goal, is not nearly as threatening and terrifying as when he intentionally conveys his true desires. When Connie attempts to make excuses as to why she could not go with him, he laughs “as if she had said something funny. He slapped his thighs…The way he straightened and recovered from his fit of laughing showed that it had been all fake” (276). He does not attempt to hide that he is mocking her. He wants her to know that while he is trying to stay good-humored for her sake, he is very serious in his intent. Strategically, he strips away all of the comfort he had built up for her. He tears down her sense of home as a place of safety and warmth by reminding her that something as simple as a door will not keep him from her now that he is determined she is to be his. When she rushes to lock the door, he maintains his calm disposition as he says gently, “‘But why lock it?...It’s just a screen door. It’s just nothing….I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all and specially Arnold Friend’” (282). He is painting a picture for her of what will happen at each avenue of escape she considers, eliminating every chance of her getting away. He tears down her hopes of her family saving her in a mocking tone when he tells her that her “Daddy is not coming…” (282). He uses a very sweet term for her father as if teasing her for being a weak little girl. He is tainting whatever security that endearment held for her before, as if to say that sweet, innocent little girl who could depend on her daddy to save her is gone as well. 

At the moment of crisis in the story, she runs for her last hope of escape. Readers, too, hold their breath as she grabs the phone and prays that she will miraculously be saved somehow. But, regrettably, she is not so lucky. The story climaxes when she crumbles to the floor and cries out for her mother as “she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend were stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness” (284). Here the author foreshadows with a torturously vivid image of how Arnold Friend will take advantage of her. With this impending fate drawn to both Connie’s and the readers’ attention, the story seems to reach its resolution as it is made clear that there are no other options left for her. Having just gained full power over her by eliminating every avenue of escape, every last ounce of hope the readers and Connie had, Arnold Friend calls out to Connie to “‘get up all by [herself, and] she stood” obediently (285). Like a puppet, she is pulled up by the strings of his words, and she is powerless under his command. The story ends in foreboding tension as the readers watch the words on the page lead Connie out to her awaiting doom.

The imagery is bewitching and disturbing to readers. They want to turn away, but they can’t seem to tear themselves from the horror on the page. The author knows exactly how to pull at the readers’ emotions, much as Arnold Friend lures Connie with his sweet tricks. He fools Connie into trusting his false reassurances while conspicuously illustrating the severity of his intent to readers who are captivated by desperately wanting to know what will happen next. Joyce Carol Oates ingeniously grabs her readers’ attention by drawing them in with a threateningly mysterious and intriguing character, and then keeps them enthralled with hints of the impending doom destined to befall poor Connie at his hands. By effectively capturing their emotions, she causes her readers to become so invested in the story that they cannot help but continue reading in complete fascination up until the very end.