Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

O'Connor's Mrs. May and Oates's Connie: An Unlikely Pair of Religious Initiates

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

O'Connor's Mrs. May and Oates's Connie: An Unlikely Pair of Religious Initiates

Article excerpt

When Joyce Carol Oates was asked in a 1969 interview whether she was like Flannery O'Connor, she responded,

I don't know. I used to think that I was influenced by O'Connor. I don't know that I am really. She is so religious, and her works have to be seen as religious works with this other rather creepy dimension in the background, whereas in my writing there is only the natural world. (Kuehl 307)

A few weeks later, Oates was to publish collection of stories (eventually titled The Wheel of Love) on the theme of love, including the much-debated, often anthologized "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Perhaps this story stands out from the others in the collection because of its uncharacteristic "other rather creepy dimension in the background." Critics cannot seem to decide whether Connie, the 15-year-old protagonist of the story, has had a dream, seen the devil, or simply been seduced and possibly murdered by a psychotic intruder. But one thing is certain. The story is fraught with religious overtones and nightmarish imagery, and it is doubtful that "only the natural world" is presented. Joyce Carol Oates's respect for Flannery O'Connor's work is well known, and despite Oates's claim to the contrary, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is very much like O'Connor's short stories, most notably "Greenleaf." Readers of O'Connor will recognize in Connie the shortcomings of such popular O'Connor figures as Mrs. Turpin, Hulga, and Julian. As in most of O'Connor's stories, the central character is self-centered, complacent, haughty, and essentially, though unwittingly, devoid of true moral conscience. But Connie and her story have the most in common with Mrs. May, the selfish widow of "Greenleaf." Both women are forced, in a moment of self-realization, to recognize the divine presence in the world; they must, if only for an instant, come to terms with moral responsibility and concern for affairs other than those of the self.

The plots of the two stories seem to have little in common; however, both are initiations of a woman who, in response to an intruder - a male sexual figure - is forced to see herself and the world as she never has before. Whereas O'Connor emphasizes the exposition of her story, concentrating on the events that lead up to Mrs. May's being gored by the Greenleafs' bull, Oates sustains the suspense of Connie's meeting with her abductor, suggesting that Arnold Friend's violation of Connie's mind and body, while seductively gradual, is nonetheless as violent as Mrs. May's death.

In Oates's story, Connie has chosen to stay home alone, having declined the offer to accompany her parents and older sister, June, on a family barbecue at her aunt's house. While she is drying her freshly washed hair in the sun, tuned in to a popular teen music station, a stranger, accompanied by a companion, drives into her driveway, claiming he has come to pick her up for a date. Connie has a vague recollection of having seen the stranger peripherally - and having snubbed him - the night before at the local drive-in hamburger joint. As the stranger, who identifies himself as Arnold Friend and his silent companion as Ellie Oscar, continues to pressure Connie into getting into his car, an old jalopy painted gold, Connie gradually realizes to her horror that the visitor is actually much older than he wants to appear. Connie becomes more and more frightened as Arnold Friend makes sexual suggestions and intimations that he is about to seize control of her mind. He has an uncanny knowledge of Connie's family and personal life and suggests that he may have murdered one of Connie's neighbors. After making a veiled threat to hurt Connie's family upon their return, Arnold manages to convince her to come out of the house and join him. She then crosses over into the other world of adulthood@ into the vast sunlit reaches of the land . . . so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it" (Oates 54). …

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