New Historical

Joyce Carol Oates and Society: New Historical Analysis of *BD* 11 1 86 

Damarus Chereji

In the later decades of the twentieth and up to the present twenty-first century, there has been change and debate over the fine lines of humanity and what it means to have rights over one’s body. Looking back to 1986, we can see the evolution of how society reacts regarding scientific use of human bodies and reproductive sciences, including taboos such as cloning and freezing human eggs for scientific research, taking human organs and fluids without consent of the patient and so on. We see the individual’s rights regarding the greater good and who gets to have a say in what is morally correct or societally beneficial and which voices are heard or considered, and of course how class contributes to those decisions.

We can also see how in the year 1986, there was an explosive change in numbers of children and infants entering the foster systems in the United States, which naturally can raise questions to why these two things were happening at the same time. These historical events and ideas connect well to author Joyce Carol Oates who writes about subjects such as these in her science fiction short story taking place around 2005. Joyce Carol Oates’s science fiction short story “*BD 11 1 86,” written in the middle of an era that saw income inequality rise to unprecedented levels in America, asks problematic questions about humanity and autonomy when considered through the lens of class. Using the lens of New Historical Criticism, we can see the conscious decisions that Joyce Carol Oates made when placing her story around the year 1986, considering what was happening at the time, which must have inspired the story.Let us take the 1980s, specifically what was happening in foster care. In the article “Foster Care in New York and Illinois: The Challenge of Rapid Change,” by Fred H. Wulczyn and Robert M. Goerge, their article addresses strange trends since 1986, such as the sharp increase in in the rate of placement among infants, towards a trend they dubbed as “no-parent” families. This article states that, “Infant admissions were stable from 1984 to 1986 and then increased at a rate that far exceeded the total caseload rate of growth” (Fred H. Wulczyn and Robert M. Goerge). In Oates’ story “*BD 11 1 86,” when the main character Daniel Neuworth is in the sketchy BIOTECHINC one-way glass examination room, near the end of the story, he is with a worker for BIOTECHINC named Cale, who says, “Eighteen is the optimum age. A great crop of you were born in ‘86” (Oates).

It is stated that Danny was in foster homes and group homes since he was a day-old infant, and he was told by one of his earlier caregivers, Mrs. Hurst, that his mother must have been an afraid young girl who dropped him off in a public area where he would be safe and cared for, though it seemed to him like a fairytale story, to which the scene where it is all told to him that it is not true leads to questions of the other foster infants that were admitted in the year 1986, all without parents, making it all too sinister. These infants being born only to be used as a “*BD*,” or body donor. The alarming increase in “parentless” infants and the fact that in Oates’ story many infants were born and admitted around the same time, for the same purpose has an uncanny connection that must have been conscious considering the historical event of the time.

Something that deserves some attention when looking at the connections of class and autonomy as well as human rights in the time Oates’ story takes place, is all the examples of prejudice and dehumanization as well as ostracization that Danny experiences from the adults in his life, who clearly know of his fate and of his worth as far as his existence goes. Mrs. Jameson, Danny’s high-school counselor, tells him, “Not everyone can be outstanding, Danny. In our American republic everyone is created ‘equal,’ but only politically-as citizens. Not as in other respects. At your age, you must know that” (Oates). The fact that she is telling him that he is lower than others to his face and then tells a young boy that he should just know that he is lesser and that is how it is, is clearly an act of prejudice and shows that Danny is not important enough to be considered one of those who are worthy to be equal with the common citizen.

Similarly, his teachers are openly reluctant to write recommendations for him as he seeks out college applications, and they give him no support or encouragement, in fact they give him the opposite and tell him it is not even worth shooting for state or community colleges, like that is unrealistic for him even though he is slightly above the average student intelligence and is dependable and ambitious, as these teachers openly encourage students with worse grades than his. He is made to stand back and watch all this happen in front of him and wonder why.Not only is Danny treated like this, but the whole class of foster children are treated like passing shadows. Danny’s foster family, the Stampfels consider, “Processing kids into and out of their lives like clipping toenails” (Oates). These kids are considered something as lowly as bodily debris, which is a mindset towards parentless children not only in this story but also in reality, for kids with a family are looked upon with more promise and yes, with more privilege. Without a family to back someone up, their voices may not be heard over those who do, those who have more promise, more worth, more chance than those who are discarded at an early age, or in Danny’s case, who was cultivated for purposes that he had no say in.

Sadly, Danny is looked upon as lower than his fellow foster children. In Oates’ story, Danny recalls that in the Newark home he was in as a young child, that he was the one of the few that never got adopted, even the children with disabilities were picked over him, to which he realizes that he was never even assigned interviews for prospective parents. He was denied even the possibility of adoption because his life is not his own, for his autonomy and choice are nonexistent; him and the other boys who were born the same day as him.

In 1986, a prominent ethical issue was the question of body rights under medical circumstances such as organ donors and patients who were having their bodies exploited without adequate consent or knowledge, which inspired the article “My Body, My Property,” written by Lori B. Andrews. Andrews brings some interesting points to the conversation of whether bodies should be deemed as property or not. Andrews goes into the history of body rights and how for a long time we have not had property over our bodies with shocking examples. An example that Andrews included was that in the in 1890 there was a man who sold the rights to his body after death, however, he tried to refund the money and to cancel the contract. Within this lawsuit, “the court held that he must turn his body over to the Institute and also ordered him to pay the damages for diminishing the worth of his body by having two teeth removed” (Andrews).

Andrews goes on to make the rounding point that, “It is one thing for people to have the right to treat their own bodies as property, quite another to allow others to treat a person as property” (Andrews). Something that strikes as odd is that Danny is made to have so many physical examinations, and of course his last examination, two days before graduation where they do unimaginable test on him with internal probes and nude photos of his body from all angles. There is also the way the doctor addresses him in such a weird way, “Neuworth, Daniel S.,” instead of something more casual like Daniel or Danny. In this exam, they do hours of x-rays and draw his blood. These are all things they have been doing to him throughout all the years of his life that he overlooked as part of the foster care experience, when really, they are taking advantage of him like property, and grooming him for their own monetary gain, like he is something to be cultivated, a crop, a source of fortune, not human.

The dialogue between Cale and Danny over the rights of Danny’s body tells what worth Danny has in his society. Cale says, “See, it isn’t as if your body was ever yours, Danny. You were planned, engineered, copyright *BIOTECHINC*, just like me (Oates). Danny begins to piece things together and think that he has worth still, to which he says that this would be considered murder, to which Cale answers by saying, “No. You and your siblings are property of *BIOTECHINC, and not independent entities. Without *BIOTECHINC* you’d never have been born” (Oates). This statement alone addresses that this *BIOTECHINC* institution throws all human rights out the window in the name of some scientific rights over human lives, cultivated for a purpose that serves others, and yes for monetary gain, which is cruel and cheapens the idea of the cultivated people’s lives.

Steven Lynn, in his book Texts and Contexts, specifically chapter six, which covers the critical lenses of Historical and New Historical Criticism, says some important points that contribute to Oates’ story in the regard of class and who and how people are heard through history and how that affects society through this specific lens. The Marxist theory could be applied to Oates’ story since “*BD 11 1 86” deals much with class and society dealing with monetary gains and differences in social classes, with higher status clearly benefitting from all the classes lower than them,  however, that idea is capitalist, and this story also shows how people delude themselves into thinking that that they can all be the same, like no one is special, that “You can only be you,” as one of Danny’s teachers liked to say, which is a lot like Socialism rather than capitalism that is more about going for your reams no matter where you start. According to Lynn, “Marxism is a theory of history, a way of thinking about labor, society, and economy that predicts the inevitable demise of capitalism” (Lynn, pg. 156). Lynn goes on to say that “The work of Marxist analysis involves understanding how a culture’s ideology creates the individual’s self-perception” (Lynn, pg. 156-157). In Oates’ story, there is a direct example to the exploitation of one human for another human’s gain, which could be in the example where Cale is explaining to Danny that a neurosurgeon is going to saw his skull open and replace his brain with someone else’s brain. Who that someone is, and their status makes much sense with the type of person one would have to be to afford such a procedure or want such a procedure. Cale when addressing the ‘client’ who is taking ownership of Danny’s body says:

“I’m guessing he’s an old fart who claims to feel eighteen in his heart. Or he’s terminally ill in his worn-out crap body. Or he’s just turned fifty, megamillionaire getting paunchy, slow reflexes, losing his hair and his wind, can’t depend on his dick. Your dick-that’s worth the 1.8 million just by itself, Client wants a new body, and if he can afford it, who could blame him? Hey, man, not me” (Oates).

This example definitively shows the type of class that this sort of experiment applies to. Those who have money and that are in higher positions than the average person, however, in this story, the common people turn their face away at the evil in front of them, the cultivation of humans for the sake of selling them, the sake of monetary gain that somehow is seen as an understandable, if not something that people find a desirable, investment.

The fact that Joyce Carol Oates’ story was written around the year 1986, in a year that saw an alarming increase in parentless foster home admissions, and a time where people were arguing the values of body rights and autonomy and what that meant, and how these events and cultural ideas connected so well with “*BD 11 1 86” shows how through Oates’ story we are not merely entertained by a science fiction coming of age story, but of how as a society we view the worth of human lives in the relation to monetary gains and what humanity means, what makes a human’s life their own and what laws and money can do to influence the answers we give to those answers, as seen through our own histories which also have an influence on our self-perceptions and ideas regarding humanity viewed through the lens of class.

Works Cited

Andrews, Lori B. “My Body, My Property.” The Hastings Center Report, vol. 16, no. 5, [Hastings Center, Wiley], 1986, pp. 28–38,

Lynn, Steven. “Chapter 6 Connecting the Text Historical and New Historical Criticism.” Texts and Contexts, 7th ed., Pearson Education Inc., New York, New York, 2017, pp. 145-193.

Wulczyn, Fred H., and Robert M. Goerge. “Foster Care in New York and Illinois: The Challenge of Rapid Change.” Social Service Review, vol. 66, no. 2, University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 278–94,





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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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