“*BD* 11 1 86”: Duality and Contradictions

Sarah Rhoads

The short story “BD 11 1 86” by Joyce Carol Oates is incredibly compelling and filled to the brim with questions for the reader to ponder and debate over long after they have read the story. Danny Neuworth, the protagonist of the story, challenges readers to consider the morality and significance behind both his life and death. However, the story does not argue the point one way or the other, instead leaving it open to interpretation and discussion. With all of the contradictions, duality, and irony within the story, people will inevitably interpret the story differently and walk away with entirely different experiences. Because of these contradictions, the plethora of conclusions drawn all have their own merits and flaws, leading to a more nuanced discussion rather than coming to an absolute conclusion about the story.  Joyce Carol Oates’ “BD 11 1 86” is a prime example of a work filled with contradictions and possibilities for opposing interpretations, elevating its quality and providing the opportunity to debate and broaden ethical horizons.

Sometimes ambiguity in a story is unintentional, but as Oates explains in an interview with Susana Araújo written in the article “Joyce Carol Oates Reread: Overview and Interview with the Author,” the possibility for continuation and different ideas are built into her stories. She aspires for her characters to become more human and go beyond the restrictions of typical storytelling.

When you write a story, there is an ending that seems inevitable, but then when you think about it and leave with the story or the novel for a while, it seems to be possible to go on a little further… I feel that my characters… have a livingness and a psychology that overlaps the formal constraints of the fiction. So the characters can still keep on living (Araújo 5).

Oates’ characters continue to exist long after the story is over, and thus, their fate is left up to the readers to look at the evidence in the text and decide for themselves how the story ends. Is it a happy ending? A sad ending? What does it all mean? The answers will vary greatly depending on the reader and which aspects of the story they chose to focus on. There are so many different things that duality can represent, and none of them are necessarily wrong interpretations of what is happening. Contradictory interpretations can exist side by side, just like the contradictions in the story itself.

This diversity of conclusions works incredibly well for “BD 11 1 86.” The emotions, events, and conclusions contradict themselves in every sense of the word, leaving room for infinite meanings and no fixed significance. The duality of the story provides ample evidence for many arguments. Some of these arguments will be similar to each other, while others will be polar opposites. For example, within the context of this particular story, there will be people who will argue that it describes a bleak dystopia. In contrast, others will argue that the process for brain transplants is entirely reasonable and humane. It all depends on which aspect of the story is looked at, as it presents both of these arguments as equally viable possibilities. These coexisting contradictions provide the opportunity for a fascinating exchange of ideas and debate.

There are different ways people use irony and dualism in their writing, but for “BD 11 1 86,” duality is used in a very specific way. In their article “Between the Categories: Recent Short Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates,” Eileen T. Bender describes how dualism is often used to show the line between savagery and civility and how often that line becomes blurred. In the article, they note how “[t]he work of Joyce Carol Oates also registers this pervasive dualism… the interpenetration of old pieties and new visions” ( Bender 1). In other words, Oates’ stories, particularly “BD 11 1 86,” show what happens as old ideas and new ones collide, their balance, contradictions, and similarities. Within this collision, deciding where to draw the line between right and wrong becomes incredibly difficult and often impossible, depending on the interpretive stance taken. The story offers many questions, contradictions, and ambiguities, but it does not and can not provide a definitive answer to any of those questions.

Looking at the specific contradictions within “BD 11 1 86” yields a clear vision of how one story can have polar opposite meanings existing at the exact same time. The first and one of the most apparent dualities within the story is the contrast between life and death. Danny spends his life in fear of it being meaningless. Even though he is alive, he is not truly living. In contrast, it is only once he is dying that he believes he is truly living. He was dead in his life and alive in his death (Oates). This irony carries over into the rest of Danny’s existence and “BD 11 1 86” as a whole. From the behavior of the adults in Danny’s life to the emotions portrayed and felt, dualism is central to how this story is able to operate the way it does and becomes as compelling as it is.

The duality is there, but how does Oates so expertly craft it, and how does it compel the reader to ask more questions and search for answers? Despite their differences, some aspects of the human mind and perception remain relatively constant, and writers take advantage of that constant to invoke emotions, ideas, and questions within their readers. One such concept is in the idea of self, which Carl Nils Johnson explores in his study “If You Had My Brain, Where Would I Be? Children’s Understanding of the Brain and Identity.” The study found that “judgments of consistency are more readily affirmed when transformations are hypothetical rather than perceived, when referring to the self rather than another, and when concerned with attributes such as gender rather than psychological attributes” (Johnson 2). People develop a specific sense of self and often draw different conclusions on what would happen depending on who will be affected. Oates uses that knowledge to prompt questions within her readers and propose several meanings and answers without leaning definitively one way or the other, thus compelling critical thought and discussion.

One benefit of this duality and lack of a concrete meaning is that the story is able to attract a wide range of readers. This variety comes from the interest sparked through the different interpretations. It can connect with a lot more people because they can gain different things from the story depending on how they interpret it. Araujo points this out in her interview with Oates, noting “the way [her] work is able to target a double readership – both a popular and an academic readership” (Araujo 10). Not only is there duality in her writing, but Oates also has a sort of duality in her readership, as the story attracts both high and low-brow readers. Naturally, having a variety of readers lends itself to a variety in discussion and interpretation, which is incredibly beneficial from both an academic and practical standpoint. The fact that there is no absolute answer in “BD 11 1 86” makes it so that there will constantly be debate and growth through it.

Joyce Carol Oates’ “BD 11 1 86” provides readers with several possible interpretations, all equally plausible due to the irony and duality of the story. She does this intentionally and uses her understanding of human nature to present a captivating story that questions the lines of good and evil. All of this results in an intriguing and thought-provoking discussion that leads to growth and understanding. The ambiguity and dualism in “BD 11 1 86” allow for multiple interpretations of the text, leading to more compelling and nuanced discussions.


Works Cited

Araújo, Susana. “Joyce Carol Oates Reread: Overview and Interview with the Author.” Critical Survey, vol. 18, no. 3, Sept. 2006, pp. 92–105. EBSCOhost,

Bender, Eileen T. “Between the Categories: Recent Short Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 17, no. 4, Fall 1980, p. 415. EBSCOhost,

Johnson, Carl Nils. “If You Had My Brain, Where Would I Be? Children’s Understanding of the Brain and Identity.” Child Development, vol. 61, no. 4, Aug. 1990, pp. 962–972. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/1130868.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “*BD* 11 1 86.” The Atlantic, 10 Jan. 2020,


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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