The teenage Connie frequently bristles against her mother, who attempts to control her daughter’s behavior and encourage her to be more like her responsible older sister, June. Yet where Connie seems somewhat at the mercy of her family at home, she holds an effortless kind of control over the boys she has sexual encounters with, and she takes pleasure in the simple sense of power this gives her. Oates introduces a subtler kind of control when Arnold Friend appears at Connie’s house, one that is more psychological and manipulative. The majority of the story consists of Friend convincing Connie to step out of her house, and though Friend does not yet physically touch Connie, he wears her resistance down to such an extent that, while she is not technically forced to leave the house, nor can she be said to do so of her own free will.
Judging from her relationship with her mother and her encounters with young men, it is clear that Connie is determined not to be controlled by anyone, and that she enjoys exercising power over others because it makes her feel independent and important. Specifically, she resents her mother’s attempts to make her conform to a certain version of femininity: to be humble, responsible, and domesticated like her sister. Her mother asks Connie, “Why don't you keep your room clean like your sister? How've you got your hair fixed—what the hell stinks? Hair spray? You don't see your sister using that junk.” Connie’s violent responses show how intensely she resents her mother’s attempts to control her. Not only does Connie tell her friends, “She makes me want to throw up,” but inwardly she wishes she and her mother were both dead: “Connie's mother kept picking at her until Connie wished her mother was dead and she herself was dead and it was all over.”
Compared to her relationship with her mother, the easy control Connie exerts over boys is both unspoken and uncomplicated. Oates describes how one boy, Eddie, whom Connie meets at the plaza, buys her food so that he can spend time with her and have some sort of sexual encounter. Connie also reflects that, when she has these encounters, they occur on her own terms. In this way, Oates establishes Connie’s understanding of control as based either in bullying and nagging, as when her mother repeatedly tells her how to behave, and also as a matter-of-fact process of exchange, as when she chooses whether or not to give boys what they want from her.
Arnold Friend’s method of controlling Connie is very different from how the reader has previously seen Connie interpret and exercise control, and a key element of Friend’s gradual psychological control over Connie is his use of repetitive and highly manipulative language. When he first arrives at Connie’s house, Friend behaves and speaks as though his presence makes perfect sense. For example, he apologizes for being late (as if she were expecting him), and claims, “This is your day set aside for a ride with me and you know it.” His outlandish and nonsensical statements are delivered in a matter-of-fact way, as though he is being reasonable and it is Connie who isn’t making any sense.
By repeating his instructions for her to come out of the house over and over, and by telling her what he is going to do to her as though there is no other possible outcome, Friend gradually wears down Connie’s sense of agency and her ability to make choices, all the while paradoxically telling her she will leave the house of her own free will. Friend seems to know that he can control Connie with his words: if she simply listens to him for long enough, the desired effect will take hold. Friend goes on to say, “I'll tell you how it is, I'm always nice at first, the first time. I'll hold you so tight you won't think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you'll know you can't.” Not only does he tell her these sexually explicit things as though there is no possible alternative, he suggests he will do away with her need to make choices. While the kind of control Friend wishes to hold over Connie becomes increasingly sinister, he presents Connie’s seemingly inevitable actions as a positive thing. Friend’s use of manipulative language makes her believe she not only has no other option than to go with him, but that she has chosen to go with him.
As the story comes to a close, Friend successfully manipulates Connie: he has worn down her agency and free will so completely that she is unable to act in her own best interests. After her long and irrational exchange with Friend, Connie runs back into the house and picks up the phone, ignoring Friend’s claim that he will leave her family unharmed unless she picks up the phone and tries to call the police. However, when she reaches the phone, she is paralyzed, and it seems that Friend has successfully gotten into her head. When Connie picks up the phone, “Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it.” Unable to dial a number or to speak, Connie simply screams against the sound of the dial tone.
When Connie eventually leaves the house with Friend, she disassociates and watches herself in the third person: “She watched herself push the door slowly open […] watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited.” In this way, Oates suggests that though Connie is obeying Friend’s instructions, she is no longer fully present or in control of her actions. This is further insinuated by the suggestion that her identity is now irrelevant: “‘My sweet little blue-eyed girl,’ [Friend] said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes.” Although Connie used to be in control of all of her sexual encounters, her power is no match for Friend’s. Through psychological control and manipulation, Friend successfully robs Connie of her agency, innocence, identity, and presumably, her life.
Agency, Control, and Manipulation ThemeTracker
Agency, Control, and Manipulation Quotes in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
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. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it.
Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out; her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—“Ha, ha, very funny”—but highpitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms on her bracelet.
She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face just a few feet from hers. It was a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold. He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin. Connie slit her eyes at him and turned away, but she couldn't help glancing back and there he was, still watching her. He wagged a finger and laughed and said, “Gonna get you, baby,” and Connie turned away again without Eddie noticing anything.
He was standing in a strange way, leaning back against the car as if he were balancing himself. He wasn't tall, only an inch or so taller than she would be if she came down to him. Connie liked the way he was dressed, which was the way all of them dressed: tight faded jeans stuffed into black, scuffed boots a belt that pulled his waist in and showed how lean he was, and a white pull-over shirt that was a little soiled and showed the hard small muscles of his arms and shoulders.
“Yes, I'm your lover. You don't know what that is but you will,” he said. “I know that too. I know all about you […] I'm always nice at first, the first time. I'll hold you so tight you won't think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you'll know you can't. And I'll come inside you where it's all secret and you'll give in to me and you'll love me—"
Arnold Friend was saying from the door, “That's a good girl. Put the phone back.” […] She picked it up and put it back. The dial tone stopped. “That's a good girl. Now, you come outside.” […] She thought, I'm not going to see my mother again. She thought, I'm not going to sleep in my bed again.
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.