Once Upon a Time at the Drive-In Diner
A loving brother and sister go for a nice stroll in the woods. Another sweet little girl braves the deep, dark forest to take food to her tired, bed-ridden grandmother. Both the girl and the siblings will find refuge in their trips through the wilds. To the girl bound for Grandmother’s house, that refuge is her destination. To the brother and sister it is a magical house made of gingerbread and other sweets. But both of these promised lands turn out to be guises for the sinister.
The stories “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are instantly recognizable to anyone with English as their first language. These two stories, along with many other similar fairy tales, have made their way from German origins into the foundations of the American cultural consciousness. They have traveled by way of cartoons and “easy readers,” not to mention a sizable German-American population. The original versions of these stories are far more gruesome than the watered-down pop culture takes most people are familiar with. They are in fact quite disturbing. There are also universal themes in these tales. They are cautionary; they advise the pure and innocent against the dangers of unknown places and strangers. This is the heart of the story. The rest is window dressing to be rearranged as the author sees fit, be it the lost brother and sister and the gingerbread house, the young girl taking treats to grandma, or a pretty teen tanning on a Sunday afternoon, as is the case in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Oates’ story may seem on a casual reading a disturbing literal narrative of a single sinister happening but in many ways the story is a close relative to a tale of the Brothers Grimm, albeit one with some modern twists.
The protagonist of this story is Connie, a girl of fifteen. Connie is pretty and vain. It is stated plainly in the first paragraph, “she knew she was pretty and that was everything.” For all her vanity, Connie is the representation of innocence in this fairy tale. Her day-dreaming about boys and love was always “sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs.” Connie is on the edge of the adult world, but her perception of it derives from fantasies and secondhand sources. What are movies and songs but shared day-dreams? Her idea of love remains pure and in this she is innocent. Even in the name she has chosen, Oates infuses the story with fairy tale symbolism. “Connie” is a nickname for “Constance,” an English name meaning “constant” or “universal.” Connie is every pretty adolescent girl; she is the very idea of beauty and naiveté. Since she is a universal representation of adolescence, then Oates is suggesting that not only is innocence a defining characteristic of youth, but vanity as well.
Hints to Connie’s fairy tale status can also be found in her familial relationships. She is at odds with her mother, who was “pretty once too . . . but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.” The jealous and wicked mother-figure is a common occurrence in the old stories. Connie is a modern day Snow White being persecuted by her wicked mother. Connie also has a sister who is “plain and chunky” but is the favorite of her mother. June is a mirror-image of Cinderella’s sisters in that she is the one who does all the work and not Connie. Still, the favored sister dynamic endures. All of these facets come together to create the modern spin of the fairy tale princess, the little girl lost. It is not just in Connie that the fairy tale essence of the story can be found, however. Were that the case, any of these parallels could be mere coincidence. As the story unfolds young Connie will become lost in the woods, where she meets a big, bad wolf.
The wood in which this young girl becomes lost is the world of adulthood and sexuality. Oates represents this concept in a few different ways. One is a literal location, the strip with the movie theater and the drive-in diner. It is in this place that the big, bad wolf catches the first glimpse of his chosen prey. Also in this place is music, “like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.” In a sense, the music is also the woods, as it is sited as the primary source of Connie’s fantasies about love and sex and desire, the seductive fantasies that promise how sweet it will be. Another guise of these woods is Connie herself, whose vanity makes her wish to be seen as adult. “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home,” the narrator tells us. Connie has a developed idea of what is desirable, but does not fully understand what the effects of such desire can be. By way of her vanity, she has become lost in her self. In fact, Connie fixes her hair and worries about her appearance just before the crucial wrong turn. Present, as always, is the music.
There is a small but crucial passage just before Oates introduces Connie to her antagonist. Her family has left for the cookout, though in a real sense it is Connie who has departed from them. She has made an active decision to not attend and has even had to argue with her mother for it. It is at this point that the little girl departs from the world she knows and wanders off into the woods. “. . . and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was . . . the asbestos ‘ranch house’ . . . startled her – it looked to small. She shook her head as if to get awake.” This is the crucial passage. On one level Connie has simply been out in the hot sun and is dazed when she comes to. On another level, she is waking up from the dream of childhood into the reality of adulthood. Adults frequently find when visiting places they remember from their youth that things are not as big as they recall, elementary school rooms being a prime example. But on a different level still, the level on which Oates is constructing her fairy tale, the house has literally changed; it is no longer the safe place of home that Connie came from, but an apparent refuge hiding the sinister into which she is going. It has become Grandmother’s house or the house of gingerbread. When Connie enters this house she soon finds the evil that has been hiding, her very own big, bad wolf. He drives a gold jalopy and calls himself Arnold Friend.
All fairy tale villains are, in essence, Satan. There is a charm to them, something enchanting or desirable. This is not to be confused with complexities that give depth and humanity to other literary villains, however. Despite this charm they are evil though-and-through. Arnold Friend is no exception. Similar to Connie’s name, Arnold wears his role right there on the surface – he is an old friend. In fact, he is the oldest. There are even a few hints within the story that Friend may be more than figuratively inhuman. Arnold draws an “X” in the air and it appears almost real, to hang there after he is finished. He lurches and wobbles in his boots which don’t quite fit right. “One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle.” The image suggests that no foot could be in that boot, but maybe a hoof or even a paw could be. There is a clever image used in the description of Friend that specifically suggests the wolf when his nose is said to be “sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up.”
Every child knows that the big, bad wolf was tricky and dressed up in Grandmother’s clothes to try and claim his prey. Arnold Friend is no different. He is described as being dressed like “all of them dressed,” meaning the cool kids, Connie’s peers. His deceptive boots have been mentioned already. Friend may be wearing a wig to appear to have to loose, wild hair of a teenage boy. Certainly his clean-shaven and creepy friend Ellie is only playing at youth, having the face of “a forty-year-old baby.” Friend’s guise runs even deeper than the mere physical, though. He drops popular song lyrics into his conversation. He uses the slang that went out of date last year. He is close enough to contemporary to appear, at first glance, like one of the young, but look a little closer and the seams of the costume begin to appear.
Oates’ fairy tale has a decidedly eerie ending. There is no woodsman to bring the wolf to a vicious end; no twist of fate to send the witch to cook alive. Friend does get Connie. Her literal fate is not exactly clear, though enough is suggested to know that it holds nothing good. Yet there is a level to the story on which Friend is not just a big, bad wolf, but is in fact the dark side of the adult world that Connie has been so enamored of. He is the brutal reality of desire and sex. Herein lays the moral of Oates’ modern fairy tale, and its cautionary warning as well. It is inevitable that the innocence of youth will be lost; the adult world is too full of hardship and danger for this fate to be avoided. Consequently, it is imperative that the young enjoy their youth and not be in too much of rush to be adults. Because it is the vanity of youth to believe that one can enjoy the fruits of adulthood without encountering its pitfalls, which is simply not the case.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is an excellent story that functions on many levels. The language of the narrative is rhythmic and effective. The tension in the central scene with Arnold Friend is palpable. The underlying morality is compelling and contemporary. Still, one of the most fascinating aspects is how it echoes the tales of dark forests and innocent maidens that have been a staple of European folklore for hundreds of years. Oates’ writes a complex story with all the trappings of those “simple” yarns, taking off the character’s 18th century Bavarian costumes and putting them in 1960s Anytown, U.S.A. The resulting read is both deep and enjoyable. It has resonance because it has on foot in the modern and one in the timeless. One can almost see Oates, large leather-bound tome in hand and surrounded by a circle of rapt children, saying, “Once upon a time at the drive-in diner . . .”