Joyce Carol Oates
Contributing Editor: Eileen T. Bender
Classroom Issues and Strategies
In a time of instant fare--both literal and intellectual--Joyce Carol
Oates is most demanding. Several of her more recent novels (she has published
eighteen as of 1988) are, like the nineteenth-century work she parodies,
voluminous. Oates has produced an amazing variety of excellent work in
all genres: novels, short fiction, drama, critical essays, poetry, reviews
of contemporary writing and ideas. She reads, edits, and teaches, currently
holding a chair professorship at Princeton University. She defeats those
readers who want artists to fit certain categories. Extremely well read
and at home in the classroom, Oates is often deliberately elusive.
While she calls her writing "experimental," Oates's individual
works are highly accessible--at least at first glance. Often, as in "Where
Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" they begin in familiar territory.
The central characters and the scenes are vivid and recognizable. Details
(in this case, the drive-in teen culture, the sibling rivalry, the snatches
of popular songs) enhance the sense of déjà vu. Yet
by the end, dark and violent forces surface to baffle conventional expectations
of both character and plot. Once again, the so-called "Dark Lady of
American Letters" creates a disturbance, challenging the reader to
think of both fiction and reality with new and deeper understanding.
Because of the variety of her work, Oates can be viewed as a "woman
of letters." Students will be interested in a writer who is constantly
engaged in public discussion (in print most frequently) of the arts: they
should watch for her letters to the editor, interviews, essays, and reviews
in the New York Times, and the popular press.
Oates's work itself can be approached at different levels of sophistication.
It is always interesting to explore the many allusive patterns in her fiction.
Several of her short stories are meant as explicit imitation of famous
forebears (e.g., "The Dead," "Metamorphosis," "The
Lady With the Pet Dog"), and those can be read in tandem to see the
complexity of Oates's relationship to literary tradition.
In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Oates makes
an ordinary tale extraordinary by juxtaposing two powerful legends: the
modern rock hero (the story is dedicated to activist-song writer Bob Dylan),
and the ancient demon lover. Drawing together these threads, Oates is able
to tell a chilling tale of a young adolescent, tantalized by glamorous
surfaces, unable to resist more satanic designs. In this case, the "accessible"
story needs to be peeled back, in order for Oates's intentions and the
full sense of the work to be understood.
In responding to this story, students are disturbed by the violence
that erupts from ordinary reality, and question its function or purpose--
especially if they view literature as a kind of moral lesson or as an escape
into a world elsewhere (the romantic paradigm). They will ask questions
about the author herself, surprised that so academic and soft-spoken a
person is capable of describing such violence in her stories. These responses
provide an ideal occasion to discuss the creative process, and the difference
between author and character, biography and literature, reality imagined
and imaginative reality.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
At the center of much of Oates's work is concern about the singular
power of the self, and the high cost of the struggle for autonomy. In this,
she is like those contemporary "third force" psychologists she
has studied and admired (chiefly Maslow and Laing) who posit a different
human ideal: communion rather than mastery. Readers might focus on the
patterns of selfhood and the possibilities for relationship in her work.
Oates also calls herself a "feminist" although she does not
like the restrictive title of "woman writer"; rather, she prefers
being described as a woman who writes. In her exploration of character
and relationships, the nature of love and sexual power are frequently at
issue. Again, this would be a fruitful topic for further reading and discussion,
using Oates's own essays on androgyny, feminism, and the special circumstances
of the "woman who writes" as starting point.
Oates is not only an avid student of literature and reader of history,
psychology, and philosophy; she is a keen interpreter of the contemporary
scene, concerned in her work with issues relevant to most modern readers.
Besides feminist questions, her work has dealt with politics, migrant workers,
medical and legal ethics, urban riots, and, most recently, boxing. Such
work is immediately accessible to students. It also allows Oates to expose
her own sense of the wonder and mystery of human character and personality.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Interestingly, among her "imitations" and allusive fictions,
Oates has tested almost every major literary school or set of conventions:
naturalism, existentialism, social realism, detective stories, epic chronicle,
romance. Presenting excerpts from Oates's novels would not only show her
versatility, but would convey the way literature has an important and imposing
influence on the modern writer.
While the story in this anthology unfolds chronologically, and appears
conventional, the more surrealistic subtext imposes itself and frustrates
the fairy-tale or "happy ending" quest. The subversion of one
convention by another here is not only interesting in its own right, but
enforces Oates's thematic design.
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is of course a
contemporary story; yet it also rests on a diminishing sense of recent
history. It was written for an audience who had a vivid sense of the tumultuous
American 1960s, with its antiwar activism, folk and rock music, and emergent
"youth culture." If indeed the hippies of that time are the yuppies
of today, it would be important for students to reacquaint themselves with
the work Bob Dylan (the story's dedicatee) and others represented, as well
as the perilous uncertainty of those times, which would have heightened
the risks of adolescent passage.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
While Oates has been variously compared and contrasted with Eudora
Welty, William Faulkner,
John Steinbeck, and
even Theodore Dreiser,
one of the more interesting writers with whom she might be compared is
(Oates even wrote a moving poem about her, following O'Connor's death.)
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" can best be compared
with O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," in which gratuitous
and even mindless violence bursts through and destroys the pious confidence
of O'Connor's ordinary country people. Both Oates and O'Connor emphasize
the reality and presence of evil. But in O'Connor's case, the imminence
of evil transforms visible reality into mere illusion. For Oates, naivete
(not innocence) is dangerous in a perennially fallen but vividly real world.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
Questions useful before reading the selection would concern the
two "legends" that are important to the story: Dylan and Demon.
1. Why is this story dedicated to Bob Dylan?
2. Who is Arnold Friend? Do you think he is appropriately named? What
is the significance of his car? His clothing? His language?
3. When and why does Connie begin to question his identity? What impact
does her confusion have on her own personality? How are "personality"
and "identity" displayed and defined in this story?
Additionally, students may need more background on Dylan and the '60s
to understand Oates's view of the demonic aspect of those times in America.
In dealing with this story, students might be asked to put themselves
in the place of Connie's sister or one of Connie's "real" friends,
describing Friend or their perception of what has happened. The title should
be discussed. Students can be asked to find the Dylan lyric that gives
the story its title, play it for the class, and lead a discussion of the
culture and politics of the 1960s; photographs of that time could be especially
useful in picturing the look and style Friend tries to emulate. Students
might write about the danger of "codes": their power to distort
Another approach could be aesthetic: specifically, viewing the story
not as realistic but surrealistic. Here, paintings of modern masters such
as Magritte or Dali could illustrate the hauntingly familiar contours of
the surrealistic imagination--another possible written assignment. Oates
herself refers to an earlier surrealist, Bosch, in the title of an early
novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights. That painting might generate
a lively discussion of Oates's vision of evil.
Bender, Eileen T. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist In Residence. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1987.
Clemons, Walter. "Joyce Carol Oates: Love and Violence." Newsweek,
11 (Dec. 1972): 72-77.
Creighton, Joanne. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.
Friedman, Ellen. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Ungar, 1970.
Kazin, Alfred. Bright Book of Life. New York: Atlantic/Little,
Norman, Torburg. Isolation and Contact: A Study of Character Relationships
in Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories. Goteburg, Sweden: Gothenburg
Studies in English 57, 1984.
Wagner, Linda. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston:
G. K. Hall, 1979.