Connie is a pretty fifteen-year-old girl with a “nervous, giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors,” as well as a tendency to “check other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Her mother, who “noticed everything and knew everything,” is irritated by Connie’s vanity and often tells her daughter to “stop gawking.” Connie believes her mother is critical because her own good lucks have long since faded, and, in Connie’s mind, being pretty is “everything.”
Oates immediately establishes Connie’s vanity, as she places huge emphasis on her appearances and her good looks give her a sense of power and status. Oates also makes clear, however, that this power is inherently tied to the opinions of others—a fact that makes Connie also appear vulnerable, insecure, and naive.
Connie has a contentious relationship with her mother, insisting that the latter makes Connie “want to throw up.” Sometimes, she even wishes both she and her mother were dead. Her mother also makes unfavorable comparisons between Connie and her plain older sister, June, whom she views as more reliable and responsible because she helps out around the house and is saving money. Connie’s father, meanwhile, is for the most part uninvolved with the family; after spending the day at work he is emotionally distant when he comes home, “when he came home he wanted supper and he read the newspaper at supper and after supper he went to bed.”
Connie has strained relationships with her mother and sister, which, combined with an emotionally-distant father, creates a sense that Connie is alienated within her family. In this way, Connie’s alienation gives her a false sense of freedom; while she is left to her own devices, she is also vulnerable. Arnold Friend will take advantage of both the vulnerability caused by Connie’s obsession with appearances and her estrangement from her family. Connie’s dramatic wish for death also foreshadows her tragic fate.
Connie often goes to the shopping plaza three miles away with her best girlfriend. They catch a ride with the friend’s father, who never bothers to ask about their outings when he picks them up hours later. Connie is aware of the attention she attracts while at the plaza, and notes that her appearance and behavior are very different to when she’s at home. She changes the way she walks, for instance, as well as her expression and her laugh to be less childlike. Sometimes Connie and her friend go to a drive-in restaurant near the plaza; one night, while they’re sitting at the counter and feeling excited while listening to the music, a boy named Eddie comes over to chat with them. When he asks Connie if she would like something to eat, she arranges to meet up with her friend later and leaves with Eddie to go to his car.
Connie presents a different version of herself when she’s home and when she’s out with her friends. Importantly, this change is not only rooted in appearance but in Connie’s whole demeanor. When she’s at home, she behaves in a way that won’t attract her mother’s criticism, but when she’s out she’s eager to attract attention for the validation it gives her. That her friend’s father doesn’t ask what they’ve been up to reinforces the sense that for all the power she thinks she has, Connie is still a child and is being left vulnerable to the world. Music is connected to Connie’s pleasure in this moment, as it will be throughout the story. Finally, given how easily Connie and her friend arrange to meet up later, it seems that it’s normal for the girls to pair off with boys while they’re out.
On her way to Eddie’s car, Connie feels overwhelmingly happy, a feeling she connects to the music playing more than her excitement at being with Eddie, and sucks “in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive.” At that moment she notices a boy (later revealed as Arnold Friend) just a few feet away; he has “shaggy black hair” and his car is gold convertible jalopy. His staring at her and also grins at her. Connie turns away, but when she looks back, the boy is still watching her and says “Gonna get you, baby,” “wagg[ing] a finger” at her. Three hours later, Connie reunites with her friend, and the girl’s father picks them up. As they drive away, Connie observes that she can no longer hear the music from the drive-in restaurant.
Connie again connects pleasure with music and male attention, but this time the latter is unwanted. This time the boy—later revealed as Arnold Friend—has a predatorial presence, and the way he speaks to Connie is casually threatening. By noting that Connie can no longer hear music when they leave the plaza, Oates again underscores this connection between male attention and pleasure and music. Not only does the presence of music seem to conjure these things, but its absence also seems to signal a degree of calm, and there is a sense of order being restored as Connie and her friend are safely heading home, beyond the reach of music and boys alike.
Because it’s summer vacation, Connie is spending a lot of time around the house, dreaming about boys and the excitement of summer, while her mother continually gives her things to do and asks her prying questions about “the Pettinger girl,” whom Connie refers to as “that dope.” Sometimes Connie and her mother get along, and Connie thinks her mother prefers her to June because she is prettier than her sister, but any harmony between them is always short-lived.
It seems the Pettinger girl has gotten into some sort of trouble regarding sex and/or pregnancy, and Connie is careful to separate herself from this behaviour in her mother’s mind. This is another example of Connie’s ability to present a certain version of herself at home. Her assumption that her looks place her higher in her mother’s affection again emphasizes the importance she places on physical appearances.
One Sunday, Connie’s family go to a barbecue. Connie refuses to attend, however, rolling her eyes “to let her mother know just what she thought of it.” Connie’s mother snaps at her to “Stay home alone then.” Once her other family members have left, Connie sits outside to let her freshly-washed hair dry in the sun, again dreaming of boys she has met and how her experiences have always been “sweet and gentle,” the way it was “promised in songs.” When she opens her eyes she feels disoriented and decides to go into her bedroom to listen to music on the radio.
Connie willingly separates herself from the family; she is disdainful of the idea of going to the barbecue and would rather spend time home alone, perhaps an attempt to assert her maturity and independence. While she reflects on her previous romantic encounters, Oates demonstrates how popular music functions as a kind of prism through which Connie interprets her experiences. She also is clearly influenced by pop culture’s depiction of romance, which have led her to believe that dating and sex happen in a specific, “promised” way.
While listening to the music, Connie pays “close attention to herself” and once more feels an intense joy that seems to come out of the music itself. After a while, she hears a car come up the drive. Upon running to the window, she sees it’s not a car she recognizes and worries that she doesn’t look good enough to entertain visitors. Once the car comes to a stop, “the horn sounded four short taps, as if this were a signal Connie knew.”
Music is an important part of Connie’s relationship to her own body, and once again she observes how music seems to be a source pf pleasure. When Connie hears a car coming up the drive, Oates again references Connie’s fixation on appearances; rather than feel concern about an uninvited stranger, she worries that she doesn’t look good enough to receive anyone. That Connie “knows” the ominous “signal” from the horn suggests the inescapability of her abduction, foreshadowing how Arnold Friend will draw her out of her house.
Connie goes into the kitchen and watches the boys in the car through the screen door. She recognizes the driver as the boy (soon revealed as Arnold Friend) in the gold convertible car with shaggy black hair that looks like a wig. He begins talking to Connie through the screen door as though they had agreed to meet here at this time, apologizing for being late. Connie is careful not to return the driver’s friendliness and notices that the boy in the passenger seat hasn’t even looked at her. The driver now begins asking Connie if she’d like to go for a ride and draws her attention to his gold-painted car. Again, she is reluctant to speak with him, and he changes the subject to the transistor radio the passenger is holding. Connie realizes the music coming from the radio is the same as the music she’s playing inside the house.
The sinister element to Friend’s behavior continues, and the fact that his hair looks like a wig immediately suggests he is not the teenage boy he pretends to be. Connie is not entirely taken in by his attempts at casual conversation and intuits there is somethings strange happening. The fact that Friend’s radio is playing the same station as Connie’s is likely no coincidence; Connie, like many teens, identifies deeply with popular music, and Friend wants to ingratiate himself by pretending that he, too, is a teen who understands Connie’s emotional state and desires.
Connie is unable to decide whether or not she likes the boy and asks him about what’s painted on his car. He now very carefully gets out of the car and moves around it. He reads off the numbers 33,19,17, and then tells her, “This here is my name.” Connie can see that “Arnold Friend” is written on the side of the car. Friend adds, “I’m gonna be your friend.” Again, he asks Connie if she wants to go for a ride, and when she tells him no, he tries to entice her further.
Friend’s name is, like the man himself, deceptive: he is no friend of Connie’s. The numerical code is often interpreted to be in reference to two different biblical verses. The first, Judges (the 33rd book of the Bible if counting backwards from Revelation) 19:17 reads, “When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, ‘Where are you going? Where did you come from?’” Meanwhile, Genesis 19:17 reads, in part, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountains, lest thou be consumed.” Throughout the story Friend is suggested as an embodiment of evil, a notion bolstered by the inclusion of a religious allusion here that references the title of the story and could be read as a warning to Connie from God to leave, lest she be “consumed” by Friend; indeed, Friend will later sniff Connie as if she were food to “gobble up.” The way Friend speaks to Connie also subtly negates her agency or free will, which he will do throughout the story.
As Friend stands beside the car, Connie observes his appearance; he is dressed the way all teenage boys dress (tight jeans, boots, and a white t-shirt that shows off his muscles), and his face is somehow familiar. Calling her by name, Friend tells her, “This is your day set aside for a ride with me.” He begins laughing but stops so quickly that Connie knows it isn’t genuine. She asks how he knows her name, and he won’t give her a straight answer. Instead, he continues to pressure her to leave her house and come for a ride. When Connie again refuses, he takes off his sunglasses, and Connie notices that the skin around his eyes is very pale. Speaking in a “simple lilting voice” that reminds Connie of someone reciting a song, Friend begins telling Connie details about her own life.
Friend has made attempts to disguise not only his true appearance but his intentions from Connie by adopting the style of teenage boys so that he will seem familiar and unthreatening. His behaviour feels increasingly erratic, which suggests a loss of control and that his disguise is starting to slip, and that Connie will potentially glimpse his true nature. Connie’s repeated attempt to ask him a direct question is met with further deflection, though he takes off his sunglasses, perhaps in frustration, and in doing so exposes more of his true self to Connie. Again, however, Friend manages to conceal the sinister reality of his intentions by speaking in a way that resembles “someone reciting a song,” and so uses Connie’s love of music to distract her from the content of his words.
Friend lists the names of Connie’s friends and tells her that they’ve met before—she must just not remember him. He tells her again that he’s her friend, and that he made his “sign” in the air (an X) when she walked by him at the drive-through. Studying his appearance, Connie observes that she recognizes most things about him, but that “all these things did not come together.” She asks Friend how old he is; he stops smiling, and Connie suddenly realizes that he looks about thirty years old. He claims to be the same age as her—“Or maybe a couple years older. I’m eighteen”—but Connie remains doubtful. She notices his eyelashes are thick, “as if painted with a black tarlike material.”
Friend continues to engage in manipulative behaviour, telling Connie nonsensical things as though they’re obvious and normal. His disguise, however, remains unconvincing to Connie, so much so that she asks him straight out what age he is. This seems to break his concentration. Connie is now able to identify false aspects of his appearance, most importantly that he is a grown man and not a kid her own age, and that he has clearly made an effort to alter his appearance.
Friend abruptly begins speaking about the boy in the passenger seat, Ellie, who continues listening to the radio in a kind of daze until Friend pounds on the car to get his attention. When Ellie turns toward Connie, she is shocked to realize that he isn’t a kid either—he has “the face of a forty-year-old baby.” Connie begins to feel dizzy and tells the boys to leave, but Friend repeats that they are there to take her for a ride. He tells her, “Maybe you better step out here,” and Connie notices that his voice is now different. After Connie’s repeated refusals, Friend begins laughing, and Connie feels dizzy and fearful, thinking that he “had come from nowhere […] and belonged nowhere.”
As if sensing that he has revealed too much, Friend now draws Connie’s attention to Ellie. The realization that Ellie is also a grown man heightens Connie’s panic. Friend continues his attempts to coax Connie out of the house, but she is further alarmed by his change in tone and laughter. Connie’s observation that Friend “had come from and belonged nowhere” echoes the phrasing of the bible verse marked on his car, and in this way Oates again suggests that Friend as an incarnation of evil.
Connie claims that her father is coming home soon, but Friend says, “He ain’t coming. He’s at a barbecue,” going on to describe the barbecue with uncanny detail. Connie begins to feel lightheaded, and she and Friend stare at one another through the screen door. He tells her that he is her lover and describes how he will have sex with her. Connie becomes increasingly upset and threatens to call the police. After he nearly falls over, Friend smiles at Connie, and now she observes that his “whole face was a mask.”
Connie now fully intuits the danger of the situation. Friend’s knowledge of the barbecue and her family suggests he has been watching her (or has some sort of supernatural power), and underscores how alone and vulnerable—rather than mature and independent—she really is. He now becomes more explicit in his intentions, telling Connie things she can’t ignore or misinterpret. The sexual nature of his threats is doubly violent because it forces adult knowledge onto Connie; he seems determined to treat her like a woman when she is still a child. He nearly falls over, which suggests his disguise is becoming increasingly unstable. This is further underscored by Connie realizing his “whole face was a mask.”
Friend is unperturbed by Connie’s threats to call the police. Ellie asks if Friend wants him to pull out the phone, and Friend tells him to shut up. Friend tells Connie that he won’t come into the house unless she touches the telephone, and that she “won’t want that.” When Connie tries to lock the door, he describes how easy it would be to break through it, and that if the house were on fire, she would run out into his arms. His words and the rhythmic way he says them remind Connie of a song from the year before. Connie now asks Friend what he wants, and he replies, “I want you.” Again, she says her father is coming back and threatens to call the police, and again he is unperturbed, referring to his promise not to come into the house unless she touches the phone.
By ignoring Connie’s threats of the police, Friend confirms that he is not subject to, or at least does not see himself as subject to, the same rules and laws as she is. Ellie, conversely, seems without his own agency or free will, only speaking to ask Friend if he can do his bidding, and it’s plausible that, if Connie leaves the house and gets into the car, she will be under Friend’s control in the same way Ellie is. Friend’s words continue to be threatening, but again his lyrical way of speaking draws on Connie’s love of music and confuses her so that she’s unable to focus fully on the danger of her situation. Furthermore, the promise he wants her to uphold puts her in an impossible situation: although she is still inside her house and for the moment safe, she remains unable to seek the help that could bring this encounter to a close.
Friend repeats that that Connie should come out of the house herself, before asking “Don’t you know who I am?” and telling her, “You come out and we’ll drive away.” Ellie again offers to pull out the phone, and Friend again tells him to shut up before speaking in a nonsensical rush of words. When he recovers himself, he makes a veiled threat toward Connie’s family and further alludes to having sex with her, at which point Connie runs back inside the house.
Friend seems adamant that Connie leave the house of her own free will, opting to slowly manipulate her and emotionally terrorize her rather than bring her outside by physical force. The string of nonsensical language he utters seems to be further evidence that his disguise is wearing thin. This is underscored by the explicit threat to harm Connie’s family which, combined with Friend’s explicitly sexual implications, finally proves too much for Connie and causes her to act impulsively and run from the screen door back inside the house.
Connie picks up the telephone but can only hear a roaring sound and is unable to make a call, instead screaming and crying out for her mother. After a while, she regains her senses and can hear Friend telling her to put the phone back. She feels hollow and thinks of how she will never see her mother or sleep in her own bed again.
Connie is so shaken and traumatized she is unable to make a telephone call, and so it seems that Friend has already done sufficient emotional damage to Connie to stop her from acting in her own best interests. After losing herself in another trance, it is clear that she has undergone a real change: she is no longer resistant and complies with Friend’s instructions, and seems to have accepted her fate.
Friend tells Connie, “The place where you came from ain't there anymore, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out,” and describes how he intends to have sex with her in a sunny field. He tells her to get up and come toward him, and she obeys. As he coaxes her out of the house, Connie watches herself in the third person. Once she is outside, Friend croons, “My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” which has “nothing to do with her brown eyes,” and Connie observes the vast, unfamiliar landscape that she is walking into.
Now that Connie has decided to leave the house, Friend compounds her estrangement from her family, home, and childhood by negating her past and future. This alienation is reiterated by Oates’s description of Connie watching herself in the third person, and by Friend singing about a blue-eyed girl when Connie’s eyes are brown. The vast, overwhelming landscape could be a reference to adulthood and/or death, both of which are unfamiliar to Connie’s young mind and both of which she is being pulled towards nevertheless.