To be a woman extends past the anatomical description. Social expectations hinder a woman’s self expression from the moment she, as a newborn, is strangled by a pale pink blanket. In her short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates writes of teenage girl, Connie, who ventures out of the home to understand her true identity. However, exerting a more mature but falsified version of herself in public results in the arrival of Arnold Friend, a symbolic character who reflects Connie’s true subconscious desires. Similarly, in Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman” a nameless protagonist finds herself in the mountains accompanied by a seemingly inhuman male figure as she struggles to distinguish between myth and reality in understanding her identity. Both stories follow young women journeying to ease tension between their subconscious desires and social expectations who, by way of male influence, ultimately recognize a woman’s compulsion is to sacrifice self on behalf of family.
In Oates’ short story, Connie, a fifteen year old girl, struggles to align with the model of a perfect daughter her older sister has set. Twenty-four year old June is described as Connie’s antithesis: “Connie had to hear her [June] praised all the time[...]June did this, June did that, she saved money and helped clean the house and cooked and Connie couldn’t do a thing, her mind was all filled with trashy daydreams” (339). This contrast portrays Connie as a more immature and naive version of a woman, with desires unsupported by her family. Unlike her sister, regarded as a respectable young woman, Connie is vain with her priorities centered around social interaction and her outward appearance. In an effort to ease tension between her own desires and her family’s expectations, Connie develops two identities. Oates describes, “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home[…]her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home[…]but high pitched and nervous everywhere else…”(340). Connie’s internal struggle of exploring her maturity in public versus aligning with her family’s ideals at home leads to cognitive dissonance. Her inner conflict between desires of sexual expression and becoming a proper woman is exposed upon the arrival of Arnold Friend.
Similarly, Silko’s “Yellow Woman” follows a nameless protagonist on her quest to self discovery. Silko blurs the lines between myth and reality to highlight the challenges a young woman experiences in expressing her inner desires. The woman begins her mysterious journey by the river, away from her home in the city. There, she is accompanied by a unknown man who suggests she is the Yellow Woman and he is ka’tsina from the myths her grandfather told. Unsure of her identity she pleads, “...and I will be sure I am not the Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw” (452). This excerpt displays discrepancy between her understanding of myth and reality, as well as a disconnect between the past and the present. This inner disorientation prompts her journey to self discovery. The myth’s connection to both her new identity and her family history forces her to consider the role her family plays in forming her personhood. She fights the notion of being the Yellow Woman in an effort to discover her true self, separate from the family. This idea is also highlighted as she rationalizes leaving home stating, “There are enough of them to handle things. My mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else…”(455). As the woman ventures farther away from the city, she becomes more unsure of reality and disinterested in venturing home. Her detachment from the family and specifically her child—always referring to him as “the baby”—reveals her discontent with her current life and explains why she is so drawn to the mystery of the man in the mountains.
On the other hand, the female protagonist in Oates’ story is anything but drawn to the mysterious male figure who, like ka’tsina, attempts to guide her in her journey. Arnold Friend arrives when Connie is home alone. His ability to visualize exactly what her family is doing and the inhuman nature of his description, including pale hole-like eyes , hoof-like feet and a “slippery smile”, points to his personification of the devil (345, 347). When Connie asks of the purpose of his visit, he explains he is her lover and that although she is yet to understand what that means, she soon will (349). This encounter symbolizes Connie facing her subconscious desires for sexual expression. In exerting a maturity publically, she is now forced to recognize the falseness of her portrayal and accept her sexual inexperience. Oates writes, “She put her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible, something not meant for her”, further proving Connie’s immaturity by describing her childlike reaction to Friend’s proposal (350). Furthermore, Connie’s familiarity with Arnold Friend as shown through the music he plays, the sing-song way he talks, and his symbolic mirrored sunglasses prove he is not simply a representation of the devil, but he is Connie’s own devilish desire in flesh. Friend’s vehicle features the numbers 39, 19, and 17 painted on the side, which point to a biblical verse including the phrase, “Where are you going, and where have you come from?” similar to the title of Oates’ work “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This allusion fuels the devil connection and is echoed when Connie considers who Arnold Friend is and where he has come from. Oates writes, “...she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music was so familiar to her that it was only half real” (349). Connie recognizes her similarity to Friend; he hasn’t come from anywhere because he is within her. Representing her desires and belonging nowhere, Connie’s description of Friend points to the absence of complete self expression for women in society as they are too often defined by the male gaze.
Comparatively, the mysterious mountain man aligns himself with the mythical figure ka’tsina who lures woman from the city to the mountains. Silko uses indirect characterization to yield a dreamlike portrayal of the man stating, “I stared past him at the shallow moving water and tried to remember the night, but I could only see the moon in the water and remember his warmth around me” (451). The warmth the protagonist feels reveals her sexual connection and attraction to the strength and control of this inexplicable being. However, lack of his physical description and repetition of his disappearances and reappearances contributes to a spirit-like characterization as opposed to an actual human being. Struggling to discover her own identity, the woman ponders her relationship with the man. Her repressed subconscious desires are exposed in her decision to stay with the man, engaging in an inappropriate affair. She describes her inner discord by stating, “I walked beside him, breathing hard because he walked fast, his hand around my wrist. I had stopped trying to pull away from him, because his hand felt cool…”(452). In exerting control over the woman, the spirit leads her along her journey, and she chooses to follow. She is entranced by his presence, ironically experiencing more freedom than her family obligations allowed at home. His hold on her points to a woman’s role in society. She must be guided by a man to come to discovery; discovery that is not her own.
In both stories, symbolism contributes to the character’s understanding. Music accompanies Connie throughout her journey evolving as she faces her subconscious desires in the form of Arnold Friend. Music contributes to the overall mood throughout the text. Prior to the arrival of Arnold Friend the music is dependable (340) but when he arrives playing the same station she was listening to, the mood shifts as the music intensifies. This intensity allows Connie to realize that the sexual expression she sought was not what she truly wanted to receive. In the end of Oates’ short story, Connie must decide whether to leave with Arnold Friend, saving her family member’s lives, or wait for their return.
Similarly, in “Yellow Woman” the river symbolizes the woman’s journey to self discovery. Rivers are archetypal for cleansing and bringing new life. Thus, beginning and ending her journey using the river as a guiding force symbolizes the woman’s spiritual renewal upon leaving the city and enlightenment on her way home. Arriving home, she finds her family performing their typical tasks: making dinner and tending to the child. There is a sense of confinement in the cyclical nature of these practices that the narrator is unsatisfied with, but she enters anyway.
Both women venture out from entrapment in the home to an outer world of experience and freedom in an effort to understand their identity and unobstructed desires. By interacting with inhuman male forces, they come to a realization about what it means to become a woman. Connie and the “yellow woman” encounter their sinful desires, leading them to abandon their true identities in an effort to become socially acceptable women. Although they are unsatisfied with the social expectations that bind them to the female condition, like staying in the home or being a proper young woman, they recognize womanhood is rooted in sacrifice. To become a woman is to sacrifice self.
Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 338-355.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Yellow Woman.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 450-459.