On Tuesday, I wrote about the ways that The Blood Brothers’ “The Salesman, Denver Max” musically fits the tone—the ebbs and flows—of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I didn’t expect to add another blog post on this story, but after teaching it, I recalled how much the story warrants multiple examinations. With that in mind, I want to write about one of the most enigmatic aspects of the story, the numbers on the side of Arnold Friend’s gold jalopy.
When Connie asks him what the stuff painted on his car means, Arnold goes through the various sayings and eventually comes to the numbers 33,19, 17. He tells Connie, “Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey” (1007). He glances at her to see what she thinks about the numbers, but Connie does not exhibit any thought in regard to the numbers and their possible meaning. Arnold doesn’t mention the numbers anymore, and we do not hear or see them at any other point in the story. However, it appears that they have some symbolic meaning, at least to Arnold because he tries to see if Connie can crack the code.
I have seen various ideas about what the numbers represent. One thought argues that the numbers represent a woman’s measurements, but these measurements would result in a woman/girl with disproportionate measurements. C. Harold Hurley posits that the numbers carry a sexual connotations because when added together they equal 69, a sexual position. This reading makes sense in the context of the story and in relation to Arnold’s continuous claims that he will teach Connie about lover, and specifically sex. He tells her, “Yes, I’m you’re lover. You don’t know what that is but you will. . . . And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give into me and you’ll love me—“ (1012). These lines, along with Arnold’s other actions, back up viewing the numbers in relation to a sexual term; however, the most convincing interpretation of the numbers comes from the Bible.
Mark Robson reads the numbers in relation to Judges 19:17 which reads, “When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, ‘Where are you going? Where did you come from?’” The man’s questions, of course, directly correlate to the title. But how do we get to Judges 19:17 from the numbers painted on the side of Arnold’s car. Robson suggests counting backwards 33 books from the start of the New Testament. This would place the reader at Judges. The last two numbers, of course, refer to the chapter and verse. Hurly questions this reading asking why Oates would have the first number in reverse and the second and third in the proper sequence for the chapter and verse. I understand this question, but I have a thought regarding the ordering.
Before responding to Hurley’s question, we need to look at the story that occurs in Judges 19. The story occurs in the days when Israel had no king and they had turned from God. A Levite goes to Bethlehem to get a concubine who left him and returned home to her father. After spending six days and nights with the girl’s father, the Levite, the concubine, and a servant set out to return home. As dusk approached, they entered Gibeah and sat in the town square waiting for someone to offer them a place to stay. This is when the old man approaches and asks the Levite the question in verse 17.
While at the old man’s house, a group of men come to the door and demand that the old man send the Levite out to them so they can have sex with him. The old man refuses and offers his “virgin daughter” and the Levite’s concubine. The Levite sends his concubine outside, and the men rape and abuse her all night. She collapses at the door, and in the morning, the Levite finds her and tells her to get up. When he realizes she is deceased, the man places her on his donkey and returns home. When he arrives home, he takes out his knife and cuts the concubine into twelve parts, sending the parts to the tribes of Israel.
The gruesome story related in Judges 19 has elements that correlate to Oates’ tory, especially considering the rape and death of the concubine and the imminent rape and possible death of Connie at the hands of Arnold at the end of the story. We also see aspects of the men who gather outside the old man’s house in relation to the way that Arnold stands outside Connie’s house saying he will not come in unless she decides to call the police. These all seem well and good, but are they enough to really buttress and argument that the numbers represent Judges 19:17? Remember, Hurley questions why Oates would have the first number count backwards and the second two numbers in their proper place. I think I may have an answer to this question.
If we recall, the events in the story take place on a Saturday night and Sunday morning/afternoon. When Connie and her friends go to the drive-in, “They went up through a maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of night to give them what haven and blessings they yearned for” (1004). In this description, numerous words point to the spiritual feelings the girls get as the enter the drive-in: “sacred,” “haven,” blessings.” Immediately after this, Connie hears music in the background, “like music at a church service” (1004). For Connie and her friends, the materialistic culture and its buildings are their sanctuary and church service, devoid of God and Christian beliefs.
Recall too that when Connie’s family goes to the barbecue, the narrator notes, “none of them bothered with church” (1005). Connie and her family live their lives without God, just as the Israelites did during the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges. If this is the case, then they would be moving away from God, thus moving backwards towards that old fiend Satan who many argue Arnold Friend represents. This is something I have only started to think about, so it is not fully fleshed out, but considering the references to religion and Connie’s lack of it, this makes sense to me.
I think there is more regarding the story of the Levite and his concubine in relation to Connie as well, but I will not talk about that today. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 1003-1016.
Oates repeats the phrase “never bothered” three times in the story in relation to the fathers not bothering to pay attention to or guide their daughters and not going to church. Then Oates shows that Arnold Friend seems to provide the opposite–he takes a “special interest” and finds out about Connie’s interests and friends and gives her the attention, compliments, and affirmation she never receives from her father or family. Connie is vulnerable to this attention and has been groomed by her family’s neglect and the love “promised” in pop songs to long for a “savior” like Arnold, who is the culmination of the promises of her cultural “religion.” (The diner is referred to as a “sacred building” and the music “like music at a church service, it was something to depend on.”) That’s why Connie’s first word is “Christ” when she sees Arnold pull up to her house. Oates has said that this story was inspired by the early 1960’s serial killer Charles Schmid and the ordinary middle-class girls who became enthralled with him. She is clearly exploring possible cause and effect in this story–the neglectful, clueless family, oblivious of cultural shifts and a new teen subculture that fills spiritual voids for teens. So, the allusion to Judges helps serve this purpose, showing that fathers like Connie’s father might as well be handing over their virgin daughters to dangerous men like Arnold.
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