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One of the most arresting features of Joyce Carol Oates's short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is how the story's powerful theme of the spiritual condition of late-20th-century American culture is conveyed with an almost physical intensity. The story's interrelation of the physical and the spiritual is illustrated in Oates's handling of a familiar trope: the equation of physical breath with spirit. Throughout the story, she uses the traditional association of breath and spirit to help delineate Connie's progress in her understanding of the evils of the world and the consequent growth of her soul.
Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is a familiar story in the undergraduate curriculum, as this work appears in many of the textbooks used in first-year writing courses. Yet the story has a provenance that, though hardly unique, goes a long way in explaining the mysteries that surround Oates's otherwise curious adaptation of the initiation tale. Throughout this essay I offer that Oates's narrative is a product of Cold War America and, as such, depends upon a hermeneutics that typified America at mid century when atomic warfare was just a button-push away. This hermeneutics, which developed out of the "containment" culture of the first nuclear age, spread fear and paranoia by blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy, truth and falsehood. Critics of Oates's story, so often unmindful of the political culture and political history that gave rise to it, seem to have fallen into the trap that this hermeneutics has ever since occasioned. Reading this body of commentary on Oates's story in fact suggests that whatever riddles or secrets perplex her narrative can be, or perhaps ought to be, solved once and for all.Such a view, however, invites rethinking. As I argue, those riddles and secrets that trouble Connie's passage into an "adult," mid century America are to remain that—riddles and secrets. Only in this way—of Connie's not knowing and never knowing—does her journey into adulthood confirm the terror of her life as a child of Cold War "containment."
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