Despite the ongoing movements and societal changes toward the improvement of women’s rights in the patriarchal world, contemporary society remains highly impacted by misogynic attitudes leading to diminished female roles. The short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates presents a symbolic illustration of the topic of gender inequality through the description of a men-women interaction. Firstly, the author of the analyzed short story vividly shows how appearance and romantic relationships with men define female happiness and life fulfillment. Secondly, the womanhood and female accomplishment is set in a primitive, family-centered setting, which implies that a woman occupies a certain place that is stereotypical determined for her. Thirdly, the contemporary society’s men represented in the character of Arnold Friend control, oppress, and disrespect women enforcing the patriarchal type of relations. Thus, when analyzed through the feminist lens, Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, illustrates how the contemporary misogynist society cultivates oppressive attitudes toward women who fail to maintain independence and dignity.
Beautiful looks and success in men define happiness and personal accomplishment in women, which is the aftermath of the patriarchal society that sets appearance-related standards and expectations for females. Indeed, Connie is repeatedly scolded for spending too much time near the mirror, but she does not see anything wrong with admiring her own beauty and exposing it to others, especially boys. The girl thinks that “her mother [prefers] her to June just because she [is] prettier” (Oates 615). This example shows that happiness and life fulfillment are perceived by Connie as inherently connected with the beauty that helps build relationships with men. In addition, the young girl continuously dreams about meetings with boys and does not care much about the personality of a male individual who pays attention to her. Indeed, when Connie thinks about the boys she dated, all of them “[fall] back and [dissolve] into a single face that [is] not even a face but an idea” (Oates 615). The girl does not demonstrate enough self-respect to choose an interesting and worthy individual to meet but feels satisfied with any attention she gets because it is the way the society imposes the relationships to evolve. Thus, the attributes that define happiness for a woman in a patriarchal society are beautiful appearance and the ability to attract men’s attention, which implies women being subordinate to men.
As depicted in the short story, a woman in contemporary society is expected to occupy a strictly defined stereotypically indicated place in life that diminishes her opportunities for personal growth. The model of relationships between husband and wife in Connie’s family is very representative of the idea of non-importance of female activities for men. The father neither communicates with his wife and daughters nor demonstrates any interest in their lives; he only “[wants] supper and he [reads] the newspaper at supper and after supper, he [goes] to bed” (Oates 613). Consequently, the story demonstrates that men are generally not interested in women’s lives because they stereotypically assume that women are not capable of accomplishing anything worthy outside their designated place in life. Such an attitude is transferred to women; Connie’s character that represents women in the short story disrespects her mother for being too simple and interested only in the family life. Indeed, as Connie thinks, her mother is “so simple … that it [is] maybe cruel to fool her so much,” although the girl daydreams and does not worry about important issues herself (Oates 615). This example demonstrates how simple and depth-lacking her personality is even though she is appalled by these features in her mother. Therefore, the theme of women’s belonging to a certain primitive place in life is reinforced by men’s expectations and women’s living to those expectations.
The theme of men’s disrespectful, oppressive, and controlling attitude toward women is vividly represented through the character of Arnold Friend and his interaction with Connie. As a stranger, Arnold intrudes in Connie’s life without invitation or approval; on the contrary, he mysteriously learns personal information about her without her approval and forces her to be his. Indeed, while Connie says that she does not know who he is, Arnold says, “Don’t you know I’m your friend? Didn’t you see me put my sign in the air when you walked by?” (Oates 619). In such an oppressive manner, Arnold represents how all men treat women, assuming that women are obligated to respond agreeably to anything a man suggests. The ending of the story emphasizes the theme of control when Connie tries to call the police and withstand the intruder but fails to cope with her fear and surrenders. At this moment, she perceives herself as nothing more than “just a pounding, living thing inside this body that [isn’t] really hers” (Oates 623). This final scene represents the defeat of women in the stand between female and male rights in the patriarchal society. Thus, men tend to control women in every way, which cultivates a fearful, disrespectful, and oppressive model of relationships that women are forced to obey.
In summation, the analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” through the feminist lens shows that misogynist society imposes men’s oppressive attitudes toward women who fail to maintain independence and dignity. Women are commonly largely concerned with their appearance and attracting men’s attention, which defines their success in life. In addition, female accomplishment in life is stereotypically approached from the perspective of women occupying their place in life as those caring for families and homes. All of these are reflected in the oppressive and controlling attitude of men toward women, which causes women to fail to withstand and are forced to obey. The short story is a call for action and a vivid illustration of the complexity of the gender inequality problem that continues to be present despite many efforts made to eliminate it.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” An Introduction to Fiction, edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 10th ed., Pearson Longman, 2007, pp. 613–624.