Breath, Reflection, and Giving Up
Perceiving life only as a reflection removes the beauty of spontaneity. At the very end of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where are you going, where have you been?” The protagonist, Connie, muses to herself about what she sees through the screen in her own front door, “So much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.” (353) Connie is 15 years old, living in small town U.S.A., in the late 1960’s and what has just happened is profound. Connie has expanded her vision to include something other than images of herself and this small town, and the world outside has become a brand new reality. The title of the story “Where are you going, where have you been?” implies that the reader might learn to pay attention to life and the directions it takes or will take. This will avoid the time honored complaint, “How did I get here?” or ‘How did this happen…to me?” It is like the lost pair of glasses that are found the very minute they are no longer being looked for. Often they have been right there on top of one’s head the whole time. Once the desperate search has been abandoned, mental space opens up and with that comes the realization. They weren’t seen in a reflection, they were found with the mind’s eye. Connie literally stands at the door to such a realization. In this story, what becomes apparent are the dangers of sleepwalking up to that door.
Oates uses vision and image to express the theme of character; about not minding our surroundings and the voids such a narrow focus can create. The reader is introduced to Connie with the first sentence: “Her name was Connie.” And with the next sentence Oates introduces the theme of Connie as observer: “She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous, giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.”(337).With this line, Joyce Carol Oates invites the reader to contemplate Connie as Connie wants to appear and as she sees herself: Pretty. We are then informed that this ‘outward’ prettiness is contrived. “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home.”
Here setting is introduced as home being a place different than the world. Away from home, Connie is able to manufacture her character based solely on looks. Soon Connie will lose these reflected images and in their place will discover the world anew. With her focus taken off her image, Connie will finally find images of life beyond what she has ever bothered to look for before.
The setting is important to this story as places don’t have to change for a character to change, “Connie couldn’t help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place: it might have been the music.” Her eyes wandered for possibly the first time and the joy she felt came from this unfocused way of looking at “this place.” Connie then, “drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive.” this shift in Connie’s awareness presents the perfect opportunity for Oates to introduce the antagonist Arnold Friend- to her and to the reader. And the reader takes a breath, as well; but for a different reason. Immediately the reader detects something sinister in Arnold Friend- A dark power. In an essay about this story, Stephen Slimp writes that Connie’s breathing is indicative of her spiritual growth and that it will “remain for her to experience the full horror of her encounter with human malice.” (Slimp)
The expression of this horrible side of humanity to a 15 year old girl’s world is elaborated on by Vipassana meditation teacher, Gina Sharpe who explains the spiritual benefits of healthy self-awareness in young women this way; “The mind does need to be cultivated. If the mind isn’t cultivated, then what happens is that we accept cultural definitions of beauty, of right and wrong, of good and bad…if we are aware of things as they are rather than projecting how they should be: that is grace, beauty. In a single moment- and in every moment-it’s possible to not know how things should be, to not measure or judge things. We get frozen in ideas from the past.” Connie becomes obsessed with looking for proof of her physical presence. And to Connie, even if that past was yesterday or an hour ago she is constantly freezing her physical presence through images in each and every turn she makes and every moment she can. The reader can agree that Friend’s power lies in his timing.
Possession and preservation is one theme within the story and it is also a moral within the story. A friend, Maude Wolf, in conversation says this about living within culture as a young woman:
“The story on some levels speaks of where we have been culturally in America – that it is commonplace in our communities to place an undue emphasis on the appearances of things – consider the ads you see in some magazines. [Such as the ads selling] a chance to own literature classics in a tastefully leather bound edition that will look great on the bookcase – implied that the possession of the book is what is needed – not what is actually inside the book that is considered a classic – our emphasis on physical attractiveness – this construct does not bear the weight of the world – an identity formed on appearances has no real strength…”
Through the ages of literature about children and for children, there is always a moral attached to the theme of self-possession. The moral warns of the possibility of self-destruction when we take our selves off the book shelf, when we strike out on our own, when we think for ourselves. Connie starts off, she is trying to escape the present which she was never really a part of- she has always been stuck in those mirrors. When Connie manages to step away from her reflection and takes that’ breath of joy’, she is immediately found by Arnold. And he reassembles her reality, “The place you are now- inside your daddy’s house- is nothing but a cardboard box I can knock down any time. You know that and always did know it. You hear me?” Arnold has already listed his judgments of Connie’s family: her sister Judy is a ‘poor sad bitch.” (347), her dad is “nice old bald-headed …” (351) her mom is ‘helping some fat women with the corn.”(347) Arnold uses harsher but similar words that Connie has used earlier: her once-beautiful mom ”if you could believe those old snapshots”(337), her “plain” and “steady” sister that is a secretary at the High school Connie attends, her father ‘who didn’t bother talking much to them”, and the “bright-lit fly-infested restaurant” (338) that Connie and her friends hang out at. Connie is now propelled by a reality that Arnold has pointed out as unsafe and ugly. Connie is repulsed by anything ugly and this makes the decision to leave with Arnold an imperative. There is nothing of her in this place. Now, it is the reader who takes a breath as it is apparent that Connie has only existed in the present, and it is a present which Connie has never had much appreciation for. Connie is not truly as content and carefree as she wants to appear, “Connie wished her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over” (337) Again, we take another breath- this one for Connie. The setting is beginning to lose its pretty veneer also.
This prevalent theme of observation and watching in this story is given its muse by Susan Sontag who said this about fiction, “Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate and, therefore, improve our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.” (Sontag, speech) And it is with judgment that Connie views her world. By staring at her image and searching the faces of others for so long, Connie has become frustrated from trying to see herself in this place, “Where are you going?” And that’s why it is no matter that Arnold doesn’t really see her, it may even be important that he not ‘see’ her, that the idea of her is sufficient for the both of them.
Arnold calls her his ‘sweet little blue-eyed girl,” which ‘had nothing to do with her brown eyes…” (353) add to that the fact that Connie suddenly can no longer see herself in the windshields of the cars at the familiar diner. In fact, Connie does not look at another reflection again- She has been released by the windshield’s blank reflections. But when she looks up from the pavement and sees Arnold and he says to her, “Going to get you, baby,” (337).” Then later when she looks up from the floor of her kitchen and she sees Arnold and Arnold don’t get the color of her eyes right. It doesn’t matter. She is already gone from this place. And since she has never contemplated the mirror’s authenticity and has only looked at it for validation (‘Where have you been’), she is left with zero know how on where to go from here. Connie needs to be told where she is to go. And she will be told. Not by family or friend but by Arnold friend. In the lyrics to The Pretender’s song, ‘Hymn to her’ we can find Arnold and Connie’s attraction.
Let me inside you
Into your room
I’ve heard its lined
With the things you don’t show
And she will always carry on
Something is lost
But something is found
They will keep on speaking her name
Some things change
Some stay the same.” (Shangri-la music, 1986)
This song follows story and this last stanza can be seen to express our optimistic hopes for Connie. As Susan Sontag notes, we ‘improve our sympathy” (Sontag) from knowledge of the fictions we have told ourselves and we take those fictions along with us on our journeys as a type of prophecy. Our sympathies also come from the familiar feeling of fear of beginning a journey. What if the journey leads to a void and only holds more “lost-ness”?
Eve Ensler, writer of Vagina Monologues has this to say on the topic of security:”What does one mean when they talk about ‘real security?’ She posits that with too much security as ‘concept’ we are left with a security that is denatured and”become(s) sound bites.” (Ensler, TEDtalk) This theory of thoughts and ideas not providing any genuine security may possibly allow a person to remove the obligation to contemplate consequences. In Connie’s reality, it is the consequences, both good and bad, that are on the other side of the screen door of Connie’s house, of the screen door that Arnold Friend is holding shut. And Friend has her complete attention with this expression of security. Connie does not to want to stay home any longer. But how can she leave, She is only 15 years old? Arnold Friend again provides the means- His jalopy. But Connie is not interested in cars. She is interested in boys, though, and speaks to Arnold through the screen door,
“But— how come we never saw you before?”
“Sure you saw me before,” he said he looked down at his boots as if he were a little offended.
“You just don’t remember…Don’t you know I’m your friend? Didn’t you see me put my sign in the air when you walked by?”
“My sign” and he drew an ‘X’ in the air, leaning out towards her.” (345).
And then a few minutes later he asks a foreboding question, “Don’t you know who I am?” (350).
Connie does not know who Arnold is but we might. In an essay by Brenda O. Daly the comparison of Arnold Friend as Satan and as an Angel of Death is brought up using a poem by Emily Dickinson. Daly writes:
“Oates articulates Connie’s “higher consciousness” through allusions to Dylan’s music and Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson’s carriage becomes the vehicle by which one imagines what Connie “sees” behind and on all sides of the f(r)iend. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” Death seems to be in the driver’s seat, like Friend.”(Daly, internet)
Arnold does not physically control or constrain Connie. Many times Oates describes Connie in motion; the perpetual motion of a 15 year old on summer break. Arnold friend forces her to do that herself- trapping her in the house, and then leaving the outcome up to her. And it is much more powerful- because it came from inside Connie. It is Connie’s choice. Connie could have completed the phone call, ran out a backdoor or upstairs, locked doors, got her dad’s gun, a neighbor’s gun, a knife from the kitchen drawer…Arnold is simply standing there, talking to Connie. Dickinson’s poem continues with, “He kindly stopped for me.” Has the character, Death stopped to give Connie with the brown eyes a ride?
This also leads me to wonder about Arnold’s power. By all accounts he is an ineffectual demon to someone like Connie. He drives a jalopy-not an Impala and even has his name written on the side, and also written on it are last year’s ‘cool’ sayings, he has a creepy sidekick, Connie notices that his feet “don’t appear to go all the way down into his boots” (I.e. he is wearing lifts), he doesn’t have a ‘reputation’ as a tough guy or rebel, in fact no one knows him. Connie knows everyone. Connie on the other hand ‘owns’ the boys, ‘owns’ her family, ‘owns the “bright-lit fly-infested restaurant”. There is no seduction here as is commonly thought. Connie is not attracted to Arnold… his lifestyle… nothing. With him either, he only once mentions Connie’s prettiness or image she has created. To Connie, Arnold lamely says, “Your cute.” So, she leaves because she is done here; not because she has given up or given in. Arnold is the means to her fiction, a ride to an authentic life. This is the 1960’s and running off with a boy would’ve been an appropriate excuse for disappearing.
As Connie steps through the screen door she has realized that the mirror, no matter how much we want it to, will never care what color our eyes really are.
Photos and photo montage by me except:
photo of woman: Gilbert Orcel from ana-lee’s blog: http://ana-lee.livejournal.com/94187.html?thread=949227
Daly, Brenda O. “An Unfilmable Conclusion: Joyce Carol Oates at the Movies.” Journal of Popular Culture 23.3 (Winter 1989): p101-114.
“Joyce Carol Oates.” http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/3706. Internet. 8 May 2006
Sontag, Susan. “Essay: The Truth of fiction evokes our common humanity.” Newsday. 29 Dec 2004.
Sharpe, Gina interviewed by Tracy Cochoran. Parabola. New York published by the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. Winter 2010-2011. Pg 28
The Pretenders. “Hymn To Her”. Sahngri-la music. 1986
Slimp, Stephen. “Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” The Explicator 57.3 (Spring 1999): 179- 181. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 70. Detroit: Gale, 2004.Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.