Oct 19, 2010

Notes on Antigone

Antigone is a tragedy of clashing personalities. Creon, the dictatorial leader of Thebes, is intoxicated with his own authority. His word is law, and the state is embodied in his person. Athenian audiences would have understood Creon as an illegitimate, unwise, impious ruler; the antithesis of the Athenian democratic ideal. In the wake of the attack of the Seven Against Thebes, the Thebans have won the day, but at great cost to Oedipus's sons. Eteiocles, ally of Creon, has died in battle in the arms of his inimical brother Polyneices. Because Polyneices was allied with the enemy, Creon has decreed that he shall not be buried, left to rot outside the city gates, while his brother will be given a state funeral with the highest honors. Creon has his political reasons for issuing this edict. He is trying mightily to right the ship of state, to reinstate law and order in Thebes. He needs to consolidate power around him, even if it requires the institution of martial law. Thebes has been cursed for too long. It requires a strong man like Creon to get it set right again. The refusal to bury Polyneices would have been regarded as a rash, extreme act on his part, but in Creon's mind, extreme times demand extreme measures. Anyone attempting to bury the body will be executed.

Creon's main rival in the play is Antigone, Oedipus's daughter and fiancee of Creon's son Haemon. Antigone is a force to be reckoned with. She has promised her brother Polyneices that she will give him a proper burial, and she has no intentions of quitting now. Nothing can stop her, not even the bullying Creon. Sophocles uses the character of Ismene in this play as a foil to Antigone. Ismene is reluctant to defy the law, much to Antigone's chagrin. Later in the play, when Creon suspects Ismene has also played a role in the crime, she lies to him, admitting she did help. She wants to be at Antigone's side, to share her culpability, but Antigone steps in to take all credit for herself. In part, this might be driven by a sisterly love to spare Ismene, but there's also the sense that Antigone is proud of her solo act, and wants to be martyred for this cause. No one is going to steal the show from her.
Fundamentally, the play dramatizes the thematic clash between one's duty to the state and loyalty to the family. Sophocles wants us to think about how far a citizen will bend following orders, even if it means denying the close kinship bonds of sisters, brothers, fathers, and sons. Antigone is willing to be martyred for her cause, for her close blood ties to her brother. We also witness an inverted loyalty of Creon to his state, for his family is sacrificed in the process. Antigone honors her broken family; Creon's family is broken by his honor to the state.

The play's plot moves swiftly, economically. When the play opens, Antigone is plotting to violate Creon's unfair decree. In her conversation with Ismene, we discover her fortitude, her singleminded purpose: death with honor. The chorus of Theban senators sings of the recent victory in battle and of the wish for peace. Creon marches onto the scene declaring his political philosophy: he will not rest in the face of brewing mischief. His role as leader is to restore order, even if it means ruling with an iron fist. A sentinel reports that someone has thrown dirt on the body of Polyneices. Creon assumes a man has performed the deed, and threatens death to the guards if they don't capture the perpetrator. After the first stasimon, the sentinel returns with the captured Antigone, who has been caught in the act. The second episode centers on the dialogue of Antigone in Creon. He asks her why she did it. She is defiant. Creon feels his manhood has been called into question, and he shows himself to be quite the male chauvenist. How dare a woman defy his man power. He will not show mercy. He will not back down. He will make an example of this girl. After the second stasimon, we have the third episode, which contains the intense dialogue between Creon and Haemon, his son. Haemon approaches his father with respect, but he wants to persuade him to change his mind. His plea is eminently sensible, rational, and with the best interests of his father at heart, and yet Creon turns a deaf ear to the appeal. In fact, he goes ballistic. The converation devolves into a shouting match, bitter with generational conflict. After this scene, Antigone comes on stage to deliver her farewell address to the chorus. She wears her punishment like a badge of honor. We have one final exchange before she leaves to be buried alive in a cave. In this play the time is out of joint. The dead go unburied and the living are buried alive. It is not until Tiresias takes the stage that Creon will be swayed to change his mind. And it does not happen instantly. Basically, the blind prophet tells him that the altars have been defiled by the birds and dogs who have feasted on Polyneices' rotting corpse. The gods are frowning again upon Thebes. Creon resists this advice, until Tireias hurls the prophecy at him that his child will pay the price for this unjust death sentence. Creon finally relents, but it is too late. Antigone has hung herself, Haemon discovers the body, spits in his father's face, draws a sword and attacks his father, who runs away, whereupon Haemon kills himself. ON hearing the news, Creon's wife Eurydice silently goes to her room and kills herself.

One question suggested by the play is this: in what cases is civil disobedience acceptable? Are there instances when it is fitting to defy authority? To break the rules? To disobey?

Lest we think Antigone to be the pure, righteous, and courageous heroine of this drama, lets remind ourselves that she too is a tragic figure. If Creon's hamartia was excessive authority, Antigone has her hamartia too. It can be found in the chorus's observation that her self sufficiency has been her undoing. Her error has been self-righteousness, so sure that she is right that she cuts herself off from human contact, from her sister, her fiancee, leaving her alone and leaning away from the living, towards the dead. She is a law unto herself. By the play's end, Creon has proved to be open to reason; he does change his mind (too late, alas). But Antigone is never open to deliberation. She knows she's right. Is she over confident? Although we probably take her side in the argument, she fails to recognize that there are other options. Perhaps by allying herself with Ismene, Haemon, and Tiresias, that they collectively can move Creon to relent, thus saving her life, her marriage, and continuing her lifeline. By being so certain of her mission, she guarantees a tragic outcome. She never really doubts herself, and because of this, she never hesitates and loses the opportunity of being rescued. There is a little bit of the suicide bomber in Antigone, isn't there? It's a dangerous thing to be so sure you're right.

As for Creon, there's a bit of George W. Bush in him. He's the decider, the man whose certainty in authority has disastrous consequences. At least with Creon, we can say that he admits the error of his ways.

What makes this play a tragedy? I think it has something to do with the characters of Antigone and Creon. The two strictly hold their views; both are inflexible, unshakeable, stubborn, and immoderate. There is no middle ground for them to come to terms. Each is an extreme – opposite poles repelling the other. Antigone represents the commitment to blood ties, the call of family and personal conscience. She cares little for the edicts of the state and appeals to a higher power (the gods), divine law, which says that the dead must be given proper burial. On the other side, Creon is the man of politics, the representative of state power. He has political reasons for refusing to bury Polyneices. He wants to send a stern message to the people of Thebes: you better not think about fomenting any more civil wars or this could happen to you. This is a thoroughly political strategy. To the Greeks, who were a political people, they also would have recognized this policy as being unwise— it shows an unhealthy disrespect for the gods. Man usurps the power over the dead; moreover, Creon has taken lawmaking into his own hands. He is a budding tyrant. His word becomes law. This is also a problem. He overreaches and pays the price. 

So when we have these two strong forces opposing each other, neither of them budging an inch, we have a tragedy in the making. The tragic plot will unfold inevitably, springing straight out of the characters in the play. There is no turning back in this sort of tragedy. Creon refuses to listen to his son Haemon's reasonable and emotional appeals, even if his adherence to the letter of the law means the destruction of his own family (and ultimately destabilizing the state, for the state afterall is composed of so many families); Antigone's self righteousness and stubborn will leads her to sacrifice her life for her family, even if it means ostracizing herself from the very family she has left (Ismene and Haemon). These opposing forces are locked in a death grip. When Creon finally relents, it is too late. 

There are some other conflicts worth discussing too:  the battle of the sexes – male vs. female (Creon is quite misogynistic); old vs. young (experience vs. naïve idealism); life vs. death.  

Creon Antigone
old  / young
realist idealist
male / female
political religious / domestic

Questions raised by this tragedy:
To whom do you owe more allegiance, the state or your family, or the civil authority or your personal authority (conscience)?

Are you as an individual willing to do things that the state tells you to do, even if you don't believe they're right? What kind of society will that sort of acquiescence lead to?

Should religious tradition and strongly held personal beliefs be able to supersede the civil law? Won't this lead to anarchy, civil disturbance, social unrest, factionalism, even civil war? 

Is law and order more important than moral righteousness?  

Are some causes worth dying for? 

What modern analogues are there for these characters? 
Transpose Creon and Antigone to the Iraq war. Creon as Saddam or Bush. Creon "supports the troops," opposes protestors, calls them anti-patriotic, wants them put in jail. Antigone is the anti-war activist – opposing the war on moral grounds. She would be a human shield. She would suffer the consequences for proclaiming her personal morality as more just than the political situation. 

What makes these characters tragic heroes?
Creon's tragic flaw is his inflexible and austere approach to power, represented by his extremist edict. He is a strong leader, but not a good one. He's blind to the "beyond the pale" nature of his rule. His punishment fits the crime. By denying the rights due to family, he loses his own family. The tragedy with him is that he recognizes his weakness too late. We witness his tragic pain. His strength is a sign of weakness. 

Antigone's tragic flaw is her self-righteous extremism. Although her cause is just (one can argue the justness of her cause at least), her pride and commitment to the cause makes her feel superior to her sister and fiancee. She has a martyr complex. When she's walled in the cave, she hangs herself because she has a death wish, an ironclad will to "make her point." It will not do to have the edict repealed. She must die the martyr, even though this means depriving herself of her fiancee and remaining family. There is an irony here – by championing the cause of her family, she alienates herself from that family forever. She dies with dignity, but it is a death that ultimately was unnecessary. But she can't see that Creon would ever change his mind, just as she would never give an inch herself. That's a bit of blindness in action. 

Haemon is tragic because he is caught in the middle between father and fiancee. His father won't listen to reason, won't pity him either. His fiancee doesn't love him enough to dissuade her from her death wish. He kills himself because he can't go on living without Antigone, and he can't go on living with such a father. 

The play is a political parable, isn't it? What is it telling us about the right way to lead a state? The laws should be followed, but not when they're unjust? 

Why is Antigone willing to give up her life for her cause? Would you do the same? Is her sacrifice worth it?

See Patricia Line's "Antigone's Flaw" for a perceptive analysis of Antigone's hamartia.
See also Richard Jebb's commentary at Perseus.

Notes on Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson"


Sylvia: the narrator and protagonist, a sassy, defiant African-American girl who resists the educational overtures of Miss Moore. The story's plot centers on a "teaching moment" or pedagogical breakthrough, where Sylvia is disturbed out of her complacency, having been exposed to the other side of the social ladder.

Sugar: one of Sylvia's better friends, a sidekick if you will. Sugar noticeably picks up on Miss Moore's lesson faster than Sylvia, and she even defies Sylvia's authority in the process, which contributes to Sylvia's feelings of disruption.

Flyboy, Fat Butt, Mercedes, Rosie, Junebug, Q.T.: other children who accompany Miss Moore on the field trip to F.A.O. Schwartz

Miss Moore: college educated woman who "gives back" to her community by volunteering to assist with the children's education. Ostensibly, or at least viewed from the narrator's perspective, Miss Moore is the antagonist of the story. She is preventing the children from having fun on their own terms, saddling them with boring, pointless instruction. When we step back with the understanding that Sylvia's point of view is limited and unreliable, we recognize that Miss Moore is an actual ally to the children; her mission is to raise their consciousness, to teach them to recognize the social inequality endemic to America. She adopts techniques reminiscent of Paulo Freire's problem posing methods, as discussed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Instead of teaching the children knowledge in the abstract, e.g. arithmetic, Miss Moore forces them to apply their math skills to real world, practical situations: paying a cab fare and calculating the 10% tip, pricing the items in the toy store, which serves as the basis for a larger life lesson about equal opportunity, thus making the children understand their disadvantaged position on the social scale. Her toughest sell is Sylvia. At the end of the story, Miss Moore has triumphed, in that Sylvia is determined to think the problem through and moreover do something about it.

The plot of the story takes the form of a journey from the Harlem ghetto to downtown Manhattan (F.A.O. Schwartz) and back. The cab ride to the store helps to build the dramatic tension (can Sylvia calculate the tip?, will the children behave?). The crux of the action takes place at the store, from the outside looking in, and then inside the store proper. We see the children taken out of their comfort zone. They experience an alienation effect. What are these poor kids doing in a store with toys that they could never afford? Bambara evokes their growing awareness primarily through dialogue and descriptions of their reactions.

Bambara leaves little doubt as to the meaning of the lesson, and some critics might accuse her of being overly dogmatic; however, what rescues the story from heavy-handedness is the telling of the story. Putting it in the saucy words of the stubborn, bossy Sylvia, we get to share in an intimate way the sea change occuring within her. Imagining the story told in the third person would likely result in a pedantic exercise. Told in the first, the lesson feels like the beginning of a personal transformation.
Bambara makes effective use of imagery, especially in the toy store. The microscope, paper weight, and sail boat all have lessons to teach. The microscope has symbolic value, for in its ability to reveal what cannot be seen with the naked eye, the microscope objectifies what Miss Moore would have the children discover in themselves, their unseen, unnoticed, blindness to their own oppression. The paper weight helps them to realize that they have no papers worth holding down. And the $1000 sailboat makes them acutely aware of their economic deficits. "Where we are is who we are," the teacher says. And now the children realize what she means.

Notes on A Lover's Discourse

In A Lover's Discourse, Roland Barthes compiles a (non-exhaustive) list of "fragments" pertaining to the discourse oflovers. Barthes calls them "figures" -- gestures of the lover at work. I've listed them all below.  [source: A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.]

"I am engulfed, I succumb ..."

s'abîmer / to be engulphed

Outburst of annihilation which affects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment.

The Absent One

absence / absence

Any episode of language which stages the absence of the loved object -- whatever its cause and its duration -- and which tends to transform this absence into an ordeal of abandonment.


adorable / adorable

Not managing to name the specialty of his desire for the loved being, the amorous subject falls back on this rather stupid word: adorable!

The Intractable

affirmation / affirmation

Against and in spite of everything, the subject affirms love as value.

The Tip of the Nose

altération / alteration

Abrupt production, within the amorous field, of a counter-image of the loved object. According to minor incidents or tenuous features, the subject suddenly sees the good Image alter and capsize.


angoisse / anxiety

The amorous subject, according to one contingency or another, feels swept away by the fear of a danger, an injury, an abandonment, a revulsion -- a sentiment he expresses under the name of anxiety

To Love Love

annulation / annulment

Explosion of language during which the subject manages to annul the loved object under the volume of love itself: by a specifically amorous perversion, it is love the subject loves, not the object.

To Be Ascetic


Whether he feels guilty with regard to the loved being, or whether he seeks to impress that being by representing his unhappiness, the amorous subject outlines an ascetic behavior of self-punishment (in life style, dress, etc.).


atopos / atopos

The loved being is recognized by the amorous subject as "atopos" (a qualification given to Socrates by his interlocutors), i.e., unclassifiable, of a ceaselessly unforseen originality.


attente / waiting

Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns).

Dark Glasses

cacher / to hide

A deliberative figure: the amorous subject wonders, not whether he should declare his love to the loved being (this is not a figure of avowal), but to what degree he should conceal the turbulences of his passion: his desires, his distresses; in short, his excesses (in Racinian langauges: his fureur).

Tutti Sistemati

casés / pigeonholed

The amorous subject sees everyone around him as "pigeonholed," each appearing to be granted a little practical and affective system of contractual liaisons from which he feels himself to be excluded; this inspires him with an ambiguous sentiment of envy and mockery.


catastrophe / catastrophe

Violent crisis during which the subject, experiencing the amorous situation as a definitive impasse, a trap from which he can never escape, sees himself doomed to total destruction.


circonscrire / to circumscribe

To reduce his wretchedness, the subject pins his hope on a method of control which permits him to circumscribe the pleasures afforded by the amorous relation: on the one hand, to keep these pleasures, to take full advantage of them, and on the other hand, to place within a parenthesis of the unthinkable those broad depressive zones which separate such pleasures: "to forget" the loved being outside of the pleasures that being bestows.

The Heart

coeur / heart

This word refers to all kinds of movements and desires, but what is constant is that the heart is constituted into a gift-object -- whether ignored or rejected.

"All the delights of the earth"

comblement / fulfillment

The subject insistently posits the desire and the possibility of a complete satisfaction of the desire implicated in the amorous relation and of a perfect and virtually eternal success of this relation: paradisiac image of the Sovereign Good, to be given and to be received.

"I have an Other-ache"

compassion / compassion

The subject experiences a sentiment of violent compassion with regard to the loved object each time he sees, feels, or knows the loved object is unhappy or in danger, for whatever reason external to the amorous relation itself.

"I want to understand"

compendre / to understand

Suddenly perceiving the amorous episode as a knot of inexplicable reasons and impaired solutions, the subject exclaims: "I want to understand (waht is happening to me)!"

"What is to be done?"

conduite / behavior

A deliberative figure: the amorous subject raises (generally) futile problems of behavior: faced with this or that alternative, waht is to be done? How is he to act?


connivence / connivance

The subject imagines himself speaking about the loved being with a rival person, and this image generates and strangely develops in him a pleasure of complicity.

"When my finger accidentally ..."

contacts / contacts

The figure refers to any interior discourse provoked by a furtive contact with the body (and more precisely the skin) of the desired being.

Events, Setbacks, Annoyances

contingences / contingencies

Trivialities, incidents, setbacks, pettinesses, irritations, the vexations of amorous existence; any factual nucleus whose consequences intersect the amorous subject's will to happiness, as if chance conspired against him.

The Other's Body

corps / body

Any thought, any feeling, any interest aroused in the amorous subject by the loved body.


déclaration / declaration

The amorous subject's propensity to talk copiously, with repressed feeling, to the loved being, about his love for that being, for himself, for them: the declaration does not bear upon the avowal of love, but upon the endlessly glossed form of the amorous relation.

The Dedication

dédicace / dedication

An episode of language which accompanies any amorous gift, whether real or projected; and, more generally, every gesture, whether actual or interior, by which the subject dedicates something to the loved being.

"We are our own demons"

démons / demons

It occasionallly seems to the amorous subject that he ispossessed by a demon of language which impels himto injure himself and to expel himself -- according to Goethe's expression -- from the paradise which at other moments the amorous relation constitutes for him.


dépendance / dependency

A figure in which common opinion seesthe very condition of the amorous subject, subjugated to the loved object.


dépense / expenditure

A figure by which the amorous subject both seeks and hesitates to place love in an economy ofpure expenditure,of "total loss."

The World Thunderstruck

déréalité / disreality

Sentiment of absence and withdrawal of reality experienced by the amorous subject,confronting the world.

Novel / Drama

drame / drama

The amorous subject cannot writehis love story himself. Only a very archaic formcanaccommodate the event which he declaims without being able to recount.


écorché / flayed

The particular sensibility of the amorous subject, which renders him vulnerable, defenseless to the slightest injuries.

Inexpressible Love

écrire / to write

Enticements, arguments, and impasses generated by the desire to "express" amorous feeling in a "creation" (particularly of writing).

The Ghost Ship

errance / errantry

Though each love is experienced as unique and though the subject rejects the notion of repeating it elsewhere later on, he sometimes discovers in himself a kind of diffusion of amorous desire; he then realizes he is doomed to wander until he dies, from love to love.

"In the loving calm of your arms"

étreinte / embrace

The gesture of the amorous embrace seems to fulfill, for a time, the subject's dream of total union with the loved being.

Exiled from the Image-repetoire

exil / exile

Deciding to give up the amorous condition, the subject sadly discovers himself exiled from his Image-repetoire.

The Orange

fâcheux / irksome

Sentiment of slight jealousy which overcomes the amorous subject when he sees the loved being's interest attracted or distracted by persons, objects, or occupations which in his eyes function as so many secondary rivals.


fading / fade-out

Painful ordeal in which the loved being appears to withdraw from all contact, without such enigmatic indifference even being directed against the amorous subject or pronounced to the advantage of anyone else, world or rival.

At Fault

fautes / faults

In various contingencies of everyday life, the subject imagines he has failed the loved being and thereby experiences a sentiment of guilt.

"Special Days"

fête / festivity

The amorous subject experiences every meeting with the loved being as a festival.

"I am crazy"

fou / mad

It frequently occurs to the amorous subject that he is or is going mad.

"Looking embarrassed"

gêne / embarrassment

A group scene inwhich the implicit nature of the amorous relation functions as a constraint and provokes a collective embarrassment which is not spoken.


Gradiva / Gradiva

This name, borrowed from Jensen's book analyzed by Freud, designates the image of the loved being insofar as that being agrees to enter to some degree into the amorous subject's delirium in order to help him escape from it.

Blue Coat and Yellow Vest

habit / habiliment

Any effect provoked or sustained by the clothing which the subject has worn during the amorous encounter, or wears with the intention of seducing the loved object.


identification / identification

The subject painfully identifies himself with some person (or character) who occupies the same position as himself in the amorous structure.


image / image

In the amorous realm, the most painful wounds are inflicted more often by what one sees than by what one knows.

The Unknowable

inconnaissable / unknowable

Efforst of the amorous subject to understand and define the loved being "in itself," by some standard of character type, psychological or neurotic personality, independent of the particular data of the amorous relation.

"Show me whom to desire"

induction / induction

The loved being is desired because another or others have shown the subject that such a being is desirable: however particular, amorous desire is discovered by induction.

The Informer

informateur / informer

A friendly figure whose constant role, however, seems to be wound the amorous subject by "innocently" furnishing commonplace information about the loved being, though the effect of this information is to disturb the subject's image of that being.

This can't go on

insupportable / unbearable

The sentiment of an accumulation of amorous sufferings explodes in this cry: "This can't go on ..."

Ideas of Solution

issues / outcomes

Enticement of solutions, whatever they may be, which afford the amorous subject, despite their frequently catastrophic character, a temporary peace; hallucinatory manipulation of the possible outcomes of the amorous crisis.


jalousie / jealousy

"A sentiment which is born in love and which is produced by the fear that the loved person prefers someone else" (Littré).

I Love You

je-t'-aime / I-love-you

The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love-cry.

Love's Languor

langeur / languor

Subtle state of amorous desire, experienced in its dearth, outside of any will-to-possess.

The Love Letter

lettre / letter

This figure refers to the special dialectic of the love letter, both blank (encoded) and expressive (charged with longing to signify desire).

The Loquela

loquela /

This word, borrowed from Ignatius of Loyola, designates the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action: an emphatic form of the lover's discourse.

The Last Leaf

magie / magic

Magic consultations, secret rites, and votive actions are not absent from the amorous subject's life, whatever culture he belongs to.

"I am odious"

monstreux / monstrous

The subject suddenly realizes that he is imprisoning the loved object in a net of tyrannies: he has been pitiable, now he becomes monstrous.

No Answer

mutisme / silence

The amorous subject suffers anxiety because the loved object replies scantily or not at all to his language (discourse or letters).


nuages / clouds

Meaning and employment of that darkening of mood which overtakes the subject under various circumstances.

"And the night illuminated the night"

nuit / night

Any state which provokes in the subject the metaphor of the darkness, whether affective, intellective, or existential, in which he struggles or subsides.

The Ribbon

objets / objects

Every object touched by the loved being's body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it.

Love's Obscenity

obscène / obscene

Discredited by modern opinion, love's sentimentality must be assumed by the amorous subject as a powerful transgression which leaves him alone and exposed; by a reversal of values, then, it is this sentimentality which today constitutes love's obscenity.

In Praise of Tears

pleurer / crying

The amorous subject has a particular propensity to cry: the functioning and appearance of tears in this subject.


potin / gossip

Pain suffered by the amorous subject when he finds that the loved being is the subject of "gossip" and hears that being discussed promiscuously.


pourquoi / why

Even as he obsessively asks himself why he is not loved, the amorous subject lives in the belief that the loved object does love him but does not tell him so.


ravissement / ravishment

The supposedly initial episode (though it may be reconstructed after the fact) during which the amorous subject is "ravished" (captured and enchanted) by the image of the loved object (popular name: love at first sight; scholarly name: enamoration.


regretté / regretted

Imagining himself dead, the amorous subject sees the loved being's life continue as if nothing had happened.

"How blue the sky was"

rencontre / encounter

The figure refers to the happy interval immediately following the first ravishment, before the difficulties of the amorous relationship begin.


retentissement / reverberation

Fundamental mode of amorous subjectivity: a word, an image reverberates painfully in the subject's affective consciousness.


réveil / waking

Various modes by which the amorous subject finds upon waking that he is once again besieged by the anxieties of his passion.

Making Scenes

scène / scene

The figure comprehends every "scene" (in the household sense of the term) as an exchange of reciprocal contestations.

"No clergyman attended"

seul / alone

The figure refers, not to what the human solitude of the amorous subject may be, but to his "philosophical" solitude, love-as-passion being accounted for today by no major system of thought (of discourse).

The Uncertainty of Signs

signes / signs

Whether he seeks to prove his love, or to discover if the other loves him, the amorous subject has no system of sure signs at his disposal.

E lucevan le stelle

souvenir / remembrance

Happy and/or tormenting remembrance of an object, a gesture, a scene, linked to the loved being and marked by the intrusion of the imperfect tense into the grammar of the lover's discourse.

Ideas of Suicide

suicide / suicide

In the amorous realm, the desire for suicide is frequent: a trifle provokes it.


tel / thus

Endlessly required to define the loved object, and suffering from the uncertainties of this definition, the amorous subject dreams of a knowledge which would let him take the other as he is, thus and no other, exonerated from any adjective.


tendresse / tenderness

Bliss, but also a disturbing evaluation of the loved object's tender gestures, insofar as the subject realizes that he is not their privileged recipient.


union / union

Dream of total union with the loved being.


vérité / truth

Every episode of language refers to the "sensation of truth" the amorous subject experiences in thinking of his love, either because he believes he is the only one to see the loved object "in its truth," or because he defines the specialty of his own requirement as a truth concerning which he cannot yield.

Sobria Ebrietas

vouloir-saisir / will-to-possess

Realizing that the difficulties of the amorous relationship originate in his ceaseless desire to appropriate the loved being in one way or another, the subject decides to abandon henceforth all "will-to-possess" in his regard.

Commentary on "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"

A close reading of Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" reveals many layers of possible meaning, which makes it a fine example of literary ambiguity. You can read Oates's story as a crime story: a fictionalized account of a historical character (Charles Schmid, the Pied Piper of Tucson), or as moral parable: a cautionary tale for young girls (stay away from deceiving stalker types), or as a cultural document of the 1960's, in which the innocence of America (think Howdy Doody, the mouseketeers, teeny-boppers) was giving way to the more hard-edged, troublesome, turbulent, violent and unpredictable times (post-Kennedy assassination, the era of the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, sexual liberation, drug experimentation, and revolutionary politics) - an era that was being prophesied, announced, heralded, ushered-in by none other than Bob Dylan (among others), to whom the story is dedicated. You could also read the story from a feminist perspective (another social movement gaining credibility in the sixties) as an expression of the powerlessness and vulnerability of women trapped by their vanity (which is imposed on them by the cultural expectation that women must always be pretty), women who make easy prey for predatory males like Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is all of these things and more.

Four primary themes overlap in the story.

1. The theme of youthful, romantic fantasy. The illusory dreams of adolescence blind them to the harsh, dangerous world of maturity. We see Connie separating from the world of living under her mother's wing and breaking through to the other side of sexual maturity, adulthood and independence. Sexual desire can be deadly serious stuff. It takes this experience for Connie learn that. Until Friend pulls up the driveway, she has been flirting with sexuality. Now she will confront its harsher face.

2. The victimization of women is explored, and how men act as predators in our society. The story intensifies the fear and suspense associated with this power differential by putting Connie in an untenable, vulnerable situation from which she has no choice but to leave the house with Arnold Friend. So this story heightens our awareness of this problem. The story asks us: is Connie really independent? Has she left the mother's nest only to live under the protection of the domineering man?

3. The story represents a case study in manipulative psychology. Friend coerces Connie through intimidation and identification. He's tracked his prey, understood it, disoriented it, and is now prepared to go in for the kill. A true crime serial killer named Charles Schmid, the Pied Piper of Tucson served as the inspiration for Oates's tale. She makes Arnold Friend into a smooth talking, play acting, and ultimately menacing suitor. When interpreted from this angle, the story becomes a cautionary lesson: "don't let this happen to you!"

4. Dream allegory of death and the maiden. An allegory is a narrative with at least two layers of meaning: the literal and the symbolic. The story, when read as allegory, becomes a a kind of coming of age dreamscape where evil (or death) arrives to corrupts what is innocence. Death escorts the woman away from her childhood self. You might interpret this death literally or symbolically.

Joyce Carol Oates, in writing about her own story, has admitted to being inspired by Bob Dylan's music (songs like "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") and the Life magazine account of Charles Schmid's crimes. She has also expressed a fondness for Nathaniel Hawthorne's allegorical fiction - works such as "Young Goodman Brown," The Scarlet Letter, and others. She has said that in writing this story, she was writing a kind of allegory verging on parable, so this is as good a time as any to introduce the literary terms symbol and allegory. The two are closely allied, and it makes sense to discuss them together. A symbol is a person, place, or thing in a text that suggests meanings beyond its literal sense. Symbols can suggest many associative meanings, which makes them ambiguous by definition. The white whale in Melville's Moby Dick, for instance, is a classic literary symbol. Symbols are also distinctive in that their associative power is unique to the work of art at hand. They are not prefabricated symbols; they only work symbolically within the context of the story or poem. Writers invest ordinary things with symbolic value when required by the demands of their art.

Allegory is a lot like symbol; however, an allegory takes a person, place, or thing and gives it a single consistent symbolic value. Allegory is often used to set up moralistic fables or teach lessons (we call this didactic literature). There are always two levels of meaning in allegory: the literal, and the symbolic. In "Young Goodman Brown" by Hawthorne, the name of the protagonist is pretty obviously symbolic of the young, good, everyman. His wife "Faith" is, symbolically, his religious belief. Another example would be the book Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan, an allegory about the Christian's journey from sin to redemption. In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" you might interpret allegorical significance to Arnold Friend, the ironically named old fiend who represents the Devil or Death personified. If Arnold is death, then you must stitch together more allegorical symbols: Connie then assumes allegorical significance as the innocent youth being tempted by the Devil, or the young maiden being seized at the peak of her beauty by the old ravager, Death. The basic distinction to remember with symbol and allegory is that allegory is a more restricted, consistent, almost mechanistic use of symbolic representation, whereas symbol is a more ambiguous and suggestive usage.

Another kind of symbolic language we need to introduce at this point is the term archetype, which is a recurring symbol, character, landscape, or event found in myth, fable, art, music, and literature across many cultures and spanning many historical eras. One example of an archetype that applies to our Oates story is the Death and the Maiden theme. Representations of death seizing a young woman became quite popular during the Renaissance, but we find earlier examples of this archetype in mythology, such as the story of the abduction of Persephone (aka. Proserpine) by Pluto (aka. Hades or) Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, or Mother Earth. Persephone was abducted by Hades against her will and taken to the underworld in his golden chariot (cf. Arnold Friend's gold car), where he married her. Demeter was so sad at having lost her daughter that she lay a curse on the earth and a great famine ensued. Demeter appealed to Zeus for assistance, but Hades deceived Persephone into eating four pomegranate seeds, which meant that she couldn't leave the underworld even with the help of Zeus. Persephone persuaded Hades to let her return to the land of the living, on the condition that she would stay with him for 4 months; one month for each pomegranate seed she ate. Each year Hades fights his way back to the land of the living with Persephone in his chariot. Spring and summer follow. Come autumn and winter, he takes her back to the underworld, and the earth gets cold and barren. So this archetype of death abducting the young woman is as old as the oldest myths. Psychological and anthropological critics see archetypes as evidence that human beings share a "collective unconscious" or a reservoir of memories, symbols, and patterns common to the entire human race, and they have a fundamental meaning at a very deep level: they express our desires, our fears, our beliefs. Sweet-talking, smooth operator Devil figures like Arnold Friend are also archetypal: the serpent in the Adam and Eve story, the Devil in Milton's Paradise Lost, Mephistopholes in Goethe's Faust, and countless demonic villains from film and popular culture - there is something fundamentally common to them all. This is not to say that artists consistently use archetypes in exactly the same way every time. You should understand archetype more as a recycling of images and patterns from our common mythic heritage.

Finally, we might also interpret "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as a classic example of a "coming of age" story, also known as an initiation story. In such stories, the protagonist undergoes an important rite of passage, transformation, an experience of transition, usually from childhood to adulthood, or from innocence to experience. The story focuses on that turning point, that trial, or the passage from one state to the other. Reading the last page of Joyce Carol Oates's story, one can't miss the coming of age happening before our very eyes. Connie splits into two persons: one (the childhood Connie) watches the other (the grown woman) depart with Arnold Friend.

Even poems such as "On Turning 10" by American poet Billy Collins and "To a daughter leaving home" by Linda Pastan can capture smaller yet meaningful transition points in life. Life is filled with rites of passage, big and small: your 10th birthday, the day you first rode a bicycle without training wheels, the day you got your driver's license, your first job, the sweet sixteen party, the confirmation, the bar mitzvah, graduation, initiation into a secret society, marriage, the loss of virginity, your first car, your first apartment and first house, giving birth to your first child - all of these and more are transitional moments in your life where you pass from one stage of being to a new one. And literature is especially good at zooming in and magnifying those moments to find the drama and meaning in them.

Questions for discussion:
Start with the questions posed by the title. Where has Connie been (in her life)? Where is she going now? What makes this a coming of age story?

Do you detect any irony in name of our antagonist? (Irony is figurative language that says one thing while meaning its opposite). Arnold Friend is anything but a friend. Take the "r's" out of his name and you get "an old fiend".

Do you see Friend as being a symbolic character? The Devil? The violent side of American male identity? Death personified? Is he a projection of Connie's repressed desires for fast cars, loose morals, rock and roll, cruising, sexual liberation?

Why does Connie submit to Arnold Friend? Does she have any choice in the matter? Is Oates making a thematic point here, as in, Connie must enter the world of adulthood, sexual maturity, even the threatening world of male dominated society, no matter what? Is her leaving a sacrifice? A selfless act to protect her family from certain death?

In what ways was Connie "asking for it"? Is it fair to accuse the victim of culpability in her own seduction? 

There are many patterns of imagery worth noting. Look for descriptions of breath and breathing, of musical atmosphere, or ever present flies, of dreaminess.

Oates even offers some fascinating puzzles for us to ponder. What is the meaning of Arnold's numeric code on the car door? 33 19 17. Got a bible? Work your way backwards in the Old Testament to the 33rd book, 19th chapter, and 17th verse. Then read the story surrounding that verse and look for thematic links. Another interpretation is based on Connie's age of 15. Is she the next number in line?
Why is the story dedicated to Bob Dylan? (It's All Over Now, Baby Blue has been mentioned by Oates as an inspirational source). What role did Dylan's music play in the early and mid 60's? What was Dylan tapping into in songs such as "Hard Rain", "Mr. Tambourine Man", "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Like a Rolling Stone"?

Secrets in the Sand ( profile of serial killer Charles Schmid)
Smooth Talk: Joyce Carol Oates reviews the 1985 film adaptation and discusses her own story. Very useful.