New Criticism

New Criticism: BD 11 1 86 by Joyce Carol Oates

Laurie Beosch

Danny Neuworth is constantly second-guessing himself in Joyce Carol Oates’ BD 11 1 86. He asks repeatedly “What’s wrong with me?” and “What is in the confidential file?” He notices the uncomfortable looks on the faces of the adults he interacts with. He doesn’t find them trustworthy. They always seem to know something secretive about him and none of them want to let him know what it is. It’s likely that the adults in Danny’s life are trying to protect him from the truth, and that seems to be what this short story seems to be all about. In other words, is it better to tell the truth even if the truth is devastating? When I analyze BD 11 1 86, most all the adults in Danny’s life all find it easier to lie to him rather than tormenting him with the truth. The truth for Danny, after all, is terrifying. No one in their right mind would want to give news like Danny’s to a young 18-year-old man. It’s a lot like when parents have to tell their young children that their beloved pet has died. Many parents resort to running to the pet store to find the hamster or goldfish that looks just like the one that got into the rat poison or ate too much fish food. They can’t bare to see their children sad or grieving. So, they lie to their children because it’s better than letting them know that pets die.

“Well, I like to render experiences that may seem to be marginal and extreme in a very realistic and direct way, in other words, so that we are having the experiences, and, for the duration of the fiction, we are these people,” said Joyce Carol Oates. (Simeone).  BD 11 1 86 is one of those stories that is marginal and extreme in a very direct and realistic way. The story seems so realistic, the reader begins to believe that it could really happen in the not-so-distant future.

Danny Neuworth is a clone, raised to be a body donor, hence the initials BD next to his birthdate, 11-1-86. When the story begins, he is sitting in the guidance counselor’s office at Mt. Olive High school. He is unsure why is there. The counselor carries his file with her. He can see “BD 11 1 86 written on it. He recognizes his birthdate, November 1st written on it, but he doesn’t know what BD possibly could be. He begins to wonder. He wasn’t a troublemaker. His grades were fine, B-/C+.

When he first entered Mrs. Jameson’s office, she was frowning at a document in the file. She glanced up at him then with a look—veiled, startled. “Oh, Daniel. Come in.” Their conversation was stiff, awkward. If he didn’t know better, Danny would have thought the guidance counselor didn’t know him at all. Finally, he asked if there was something in his file: “I guess you couldn’t tell me, huh?”

Mrs. Jameson said quickly, “There’s nothing wrong, Daniel. Of course. What could be wrong?” A deep flush rose into her face. Her voice was oddly flat, toneless. (pg. 2)

Mrs. Jameson is very nervous when she discovers what is in Daniel’s file. She can’t reveal it to him, or she won’t. She’s not alone. When Danny approaches his teachers and his track coach for letters of recommendation for college, they act similarly to Mrs. Jameson, off putting and awkward.

There was Coach Diedrich, who became embarrassed and uneasy when Danny asked if he would write letters of recommendation for him, laying a hand on Danny’s shoulder with a warning not to be disappointed if he didn’t get accepted: “‘The race is not always to the swift.'”(pg.5)

Mr. Fackler, who’d often encouraged Danny as a reporter on the school newspaper, smiled strangely, sighed, and said yes, he supposed he could recommend Danny—”If you really want to go to college.” (pg. 5)

Danny wondered what both men meant by the words spoken to him as well as the other adults acting so strangely. Just like Mrs. Jameson, they couldn’t or wouldn’t reveal the truth. Was it to protect him from an ugly horrible truth or was it because they were restricted from doing so?

Mrs. Jameson finally scrambles up from her seat and quickly grabs some brochures of nearby state colleges and suggests that Danny apply because some of them don’t require high SAT scores.

“Remember, Danny,” she said, “You just have to be you.” (pg. 5)

Soon, the principal, Mr. Bernard asked Danny into his office. With a quavering voice, he told Danny that he was the recipient of the “Good Citizenship Scholarship”. (pg. 9) Even Danny, as naïve as he was, didn’t seem to quite understand how this could be. He wasn’t the best student nor was he the best athlete. The principal convinced him of the scholarship’s legitimacy by telling him that the school district implemented the program a couple of years earlier. This cover-up, this like that Mr. Bernard told was a lot like the classic story of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”.  In our culture, there seems to be a need for a “Santa Claus” or “Easter Bunny” and the like. It’s the big lie, the falsehood that no one seems to mind telling our children because it’s fun to see the excitement in our children’s faces. The idea of Santa Claus coming to our homes to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve is such a powerful fantasy, it seems everyone is in on the collaborative lie. It’s also so heartbreaking when it comes time to tell the children the truth. Yet, the truth is not so horrible; Mom and Dad are “Santa Claus”.

“Adults say things to you, and they seem to mean something else. Now, I’m an adult and I’m a professor, and there certainly are times when my students want to know if they should continue as writers, and secretly I’m thinking, Well, probably, you shouldn’t. But I never want to discourage anyone, so I say positive things. You know, the way they do to the boy in the story. I have to; I’m a professor. Also, I don’t really know them, much less the totality of their talent—and I feel that I can be wrong. In the story, I am both the boy and one of the teachers who’s not exactly lying to him but not telling the truth,” said Oates. (Moo)

In Danny’s case, Mr. Bernard tells Danny the “Great News” to shield him from the horrible truth. He even tells Danny that he can go to any college he wants, and his tuition will be paid for, plus room and board. He wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. The truth is, Danny would be sent to BIOTECHINC, where Danny would be examined and prepped to be a body donor, along with 55 other “scholars”.

Danny arrives by bus with the other “Citizen Scholarship” recipients at BIOTECHINC. He’s instructed to get on the bus, missing his graduation. He was told there would be a big news telecast about the Good Citizens who won the award at the end of the bus ride. When they arrive, they see that there is no news story to be had. He is sent into the BIOTECHINC building where he is given a full physical exam. As expected, they find him to be in excellent health. Finally, Danny meets a technician named Cale. For the first time in Danny’s life, an adult is being completely honest with him.

“BD. ‘Body donor.’ That’s why you’ve been brought to our Hardyston headquarters.” “Body donor? What’s … that?” “A body donor is a specimen who has been conceived, born, and cultivated for harvest. Your body was contracted for by a client of *BIOTECHINC*. Presumably a male whose brain will be transplanted into your head and attached to—well, the body that comes with it.” Cale said, unwaveringly. (pg. 13) If we were to use the example of the pet that passed away from earlier, the conversation Cale would have with his children might be just as uncaring and nonchalant.

“What happened to fluffy?” his child would ask.

“He got out of the cage, got into the rat poison, and croaked. So, I picked him up with the broom and dustpan and threw him in the trash,” he might say.

Danny was shocked and scared at the news Cale explained to him. Yet he was finally told the truth. Although the truth is devastating, there may be something refreshing about it. Cale may be the first adult to ever be honest with him. It may be exactly what Danny was needing.

“My belief is that art should not be comforting,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century; “for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” (Moo). Danny’s truth certainly is not comforting, but there is a provoking, disturbing emotion to it. It could be the disturbance Oates was trying to convey in her art.

On the other hand, it may be that the lie is what comforts us, it’s what we yearn for, like Santa Claus. In the end, Cale lies to Danny, possibly to hide him from the fact that he was about to die, and his body would be donated to someone else.

Danny shivered. In the distance he heard a sound as of amplified voices, or muffled thunder. He laughed. This was so weird! His throat was sore with laughing. “Okay, I get it. You’re joking? This is some kind of weird initiation, and people are laughing at me on TV?” Cale said, relenting, “Sure, Danny. I’m joking. That’s my job here, to joke. Prep you for TV. Next thing, you’ll want to lie on this table. Just relax, stretch your legs, and the makeup girl will be coming in. On TV your natural skin tone bleaches out. Guys don’t like makeup on their faces, but believe me, you need it. Even you.” Cale laid a warm, consoling hand on Danny’s shoulder. In that instant Danny felt comforted. Cale likes me. Cale is my friend. (pg. 15). Maybe sometimes the lie is more comforting than the truth. As soon as Danny heard Cale say he was joking, Danny was more relaxed, calm, comforted. Hooray, Fluffy is still alive, his fur just looks a little lighter than yesterday. That is a relief.

Work Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol “BD 11 1 86” The Atlantic

Magazine. 2005

Moo, Jessica Murphy. “The Art of the Unconscious” The Atlantic Magazine. July 2005

Simone, Lisa. “Interview: Joyce Carol Oates Discusses Her New Collection of Short Stories, ‘Faithless: Tales of Transgression,’ and the Importance of Setting When Writing Fiction.” Weekend All Things Considered (NPR)EBSCOhost, Accessed 27 Apr. 2023.


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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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