“Debbie and Julie” concerns a teenager’s decision not to take on the responsibilities of motherhood. Julie, the adolescent protagonist of the story, gives birth to a baby daughter and, resisting the positive feelings she has toward the infant, abandons her in telephone booth, a place in which she hopes the baby will be quickly found. Relinquishing her own role as a mother is only one of the ways in which Julie learns hard lessons about motherhood over the course of the events that the story describes. The narrative characterizes Debbie, the prostitute who took Julie in when she ran away from home, as a mother figure and compares her to Anne, the respectable but repressed mother in whom Julie dared not confide.
That Debbie is a mother figure is supported by the fact that she recognizes Julie’s vulnerability, takes her into her home, and nurtures her physically and emotionally. Furthermore, Julie speculates that Debbie probably ended a pregnancy or gave up a newborn when she, like Julie, was a vulnerable and impractical teenager. As Debbie is significantly older than Julie, with “wear under her eyes,” Julie might now be just about the age Debbie’s child would have been. This suggests that their relationship fulfills a mother-daughter intimacy that both have felt missing in their lives. Debbie’s maternal qualities are further highlighted through explicit and implicit comparisons between Debbie and Julie’s mother, Anne. Debbie and Anne are both flawed mothers. However, the story centers on the positive lessons Debbie has taught Julie about vulnerability and nurturing. In this essay, Debbie and Anne’s capacities for mothering will be compared, and the language Lessing uses to characterize love and intimacy will be explored.
The contrast between the characters of Debbie and Anne could hardly be stronger: Debbie is an urban prostitute; Anne is a proper suburban wife. Anne is middle-aged and gray-haired but appears “almost girlish” with “blue eyes full of wounded and uncomprehending innocence”; Debbie has “scarlet lips,” “black eyes,” and an assertive, knowing attitude. “She made up her lips to be thin and scarlet, just right for the lashing, slashing tongue behind them.” Anne wears a”pretty pale blue dress with its nice little collar and the little pearl buttons down the front;” Debbie “might answer the door in her satin camiknickers, those great breasts of hers lolling about.” According to these descriptions, Anne probably fits most people’s mental image of a “good mother” much more closely than Debbie does. As Anne’s appearance suggests, she is predictable, emotionally contained, and traditional. Debbie, on the other hand, is tough, passionate, and unconventional. Furthermore, she exudes an overt sexuality that is conventionally seen as antithetical to motherhood. Through Julie’s perceptions, however, Lessing suggests that Debbie’s qualities make her a more fit mother than Anne is.
One of the ways that Lessing expresses the difference between Anne’s ability to take care of Julie and Debbie’s is through their attitudes toward food and feeding, which are closely associated with mothering. When Julie arrives at her parents’ doorstep and, famished after her ordeal, asks for a sandwich, she immediately recognizes that her needs are interfering with her mother’s sense of order and propriety.”She knew what had been on those plates was exactly calculated, not a pea or a bit of potato left over,” Julie says of the dinner that Len and Anne had eaten earlier. She also knew that “the next proper meal (lunch, tomorrow) would already be on a plate ready to cook, with a plastic film on it, in the fridge.” There is nothing in the story to suggest that Julie’s family is so poor that they have to count every pea; rather Anne plans the family meals so carefully in order to give her life the structure and predictability that she considers proper. This sense of “right” behavior overrides Anne’s ability to recognize and respond to her daughter’s particular and changing needs. The coldness and sterility of the imagery in this passage echoes the coldness of the family’s interpersonal behavior. It is as if they interact with a “plastic film” between them. They never touch each other, and they never argue. Thus it is not so much that Anne is callous to Julie’s needs—whether to her hunger (physical or emotional) or to the terrible dilemma presented by her pregnancy—but that she is simply too far removed from her daughter to ever find out about her needs.
As Julie eats the simple snack of bread, jam, and tea that her mother has brought from the kitchen for her, she remembers the “feasts” that Debbie had provided: “the pizzas that arrived all hours of the day and the night from almost next door, the Kentucky chicken, the special steak feeds when Debbie got hungry, which was often.” The word feasts suggests extravagance and celebration, and part of the food’s appeal lay in its variety and spontaneity. Debbie is a woman of appetites— physical, sexual, and emotional. She recognizes Julie’s literal and symbolic “hungers” because she is in touch with her own: “In the little kitchen was a bowl from Morocco kept piled with fruit. . . . ‘You must get enough vitamins,’ Debbie kept saying, and brought in more grapes, more apples and pears, let alone fruit Julie had never heard of, like pomegranates and pawpaws.” In Anne’s kitchen predictability and familiarity are valued; in contrast, Debbie’s offerings are a testament to her willingness to experience life in all of its variety. Her wisdom comes from having taken risks and survived trying times; because of this, she is, unlike Julie’s real mother, able to understand Julie’s plight implicitly and the needs that arise from it.
Anne is responsible in practical ways but inept at intimacy. Though she is as dependable as clockwork in her domestic routine, she is revealed as having been emotionally absent as a mother. Upon returning home, Julie realizes that she has never been able to turn to her mother for the many simple comforts that Debbie spontaneously offered. “I wish I could just snuggle up to Mum and she could hold me and I could go to sleep,” Julie thinks at the end of her harrowing day of labor and her uncomfortable homecoming. “Surely this must have happened when [I] was small,” she goes on to speculate, “but she could not remember it. In this family, they simply did not touch each other.” The only response she can imagine from her mother is embarrassment. The distance and repression in the mother-daughter relationship is echoed in the marriage between Anne and Len.”Each day was a pattern of cups of tea, meals, cups of coffee and biscuits, always at exactly the same times, with bedtime as a goal,” when the husband and wife go to sleep in separate beds. Though they provide what is often valued as an wholesome home environment, Anne and Len seem to have “switched themselves off,” leaving little opportunity for emotional connection between parent and child.
While Debbie presents the world with the face of a wily prostitute, someone who has learned, the hard way, the rules of “what things cost, the value of everything, and of people, of what you did for them, and what they did for you,” she is also, to Julie, a source of the kind of primal maternal comfort her own mother denied her. Julie sometimes spends the night in Debbie’s bed, not at Julie’s request but at Debbie’s, asked there to assuage Debbie’s fear of being alone—a real enough fear for a call girl who is no longer young. Debbie reveals her vulnerabilities to Julie and, in return, is sensitive to Julie’s. This mutuality and openness is the key to the intimacy that they share: “Julie lay entangled with Debbie, and they were like two cats that have just finished washing each other and gone to sleep, and Julie knew how terribly she had been deprived at home, and how empty and sad her parents were.” Likewise, Debbie receives from Julie a kind of closeness of which she is deprived in her relationships with men, whom she relates to in terms of contractual exchange. Thus Debbie represents two diametrically opposed concepts of intimacy—one, in relation to men, that is a set of carefully negotiated conditions, and the other, in relation to Julie, that is spontaneous and mutual. Debbie gives Julie a sky blue coat, some towels, and a safe place to stay. She assigns a price tag to the most intimate physical acts, but she refuses to take a penny in rent from the teenager, seeming to find reward enough in the friendship that they share and in the promise of Julie’s brighter future.
Though Debbie, the amoral prostitute, is revealed as a nurturing woman who teaches Julie some very wholesome lessons about love, she remains a flawed mother figure. Before Julie abandons her infant child in a phone booth, she had been abandoned by her own two mother figures. She has long been abandoned by Anne, by the emotional distance that Anne has established, and she is once again abandoned by Debbie, now in geographical distance. Debbie is out of the country with a client when Julie goes into labor. Though she had promised to help Julie in this time of great need, Debbie is not available for her. She is, instead, catering to her own need to gain security though her sexual relationships with men. Thus, on a cold and rainy night, Julie makes the painful passage into motherhood, alone, in a dirty shed, with only a stray dog for company. Her own shortcomings in fulfilling this momentous role can be attributed to the mother figures that let her down. But it is Debbie’s name Julie cries out in the dark.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Sarah Madsen Hardy, Critical Essay on “Debbie and Julie,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.