When Julie goes into labor, Debbie is not there to help her as she had promised. Instead, she has extended a trip with a client, an American television producer, who seems like a promising prospect. Debbie has always wished for “just one regular customer” or “just one man.”
Anne is Julie’s mother. She and her husband, Len, accept Julie back into their home when she returns after a five-month absence. She encourages Len not to ask Julie any questions about where she has been. Anne is a figure of repressed emotion. Anne and Len sleep in separate beds. They are quiet and seldom express emotion. Anne is frugal with food and physically undemonstrative. She was older when she had Julie, a fact that Julie thinks might explain the lack of vitality and affection in her upbringing. Comparing her with Debbie, the mother figure who took her in, Anne seems “empty and sad” to Julie.
The baby, also known as Rosie, is the name the nurses give to Julie’s baby after she is discovered abandoned in a telephone booth and brought to the hospital. Julie has mixed feelings toward the baby. She tries not to look at her so she will not love her, but when she first holds her, she can’t help feeling proud and happy. She later thinks of the baby by name and tries to imagine a future with her, but cannot.
Uncle Bob is Auntie Jessie’s husband. It is revealed that he married her despite the fact that she had already given birth to another man’s child out of wedlock. Julie sees Uncle Bob as unimpressive, “Auntie Jessie’s shadow, not up to much.” She now understands why her aunt agreed to marry him.
Debbie is a call girl, a high-status prostitute. She does not have a pimp but runs her own business out of the apartment that she shares with Julie. She appears to Julie to be independent and in control, despite the fact that she does not have what she wants out of life. Debbie is considerably older than Julie, with a painful past that she will not discuss. She is worldly and uninhibited—a figure of knowledge, teaching Julie ‘ ‘what things cost, the value of everything, and of people, of what you did for them and what they did for you.” Despite a sharp and savvy exterior, she is warm, protective, and generous toward Julie, giving to her freely and never asking for anything in return.
Debbie extends a trip with one of her clients and is therefore not available to help Julie when she goes into labor as she had promised to do. Julie is disappointed in her and feels lonely, but she also understands Debbie’s needs and priorities. Julie misses Debbie greatly during her labor and after she returns to her repressive family home. An unconventional mother figure, Debbie stands in vital contrast to Julie’s own bloodless, undemonstrative mother. Julie is grateful to Debbie for the wisdom she has imparted.
Derek is Debbie’s “real” boyfriend—not one of her clients. Derek likes Julie, but she does not like him, thinking him not good enough for Debbie.
Freda is Julie’s cousin. Julie learns that she is a ‘ ‘love child,” born out of wedlock to her aunt Jessie when she was a teenager.
Billy Jayson is the boy who impregnated Julie during one brief sexual encounter in their school cloak room. Julie never told him about her pregnancy and assumes that he never suspected it.
Jessie is Julie’s aunt. At the end of the story, Julie’s father reveals to her that Jessie had given birth to her first child, cousin Freda, out of wedlock at age seventeen. This limited her prospects, and she married soon after. Auntie Jessie represents an option that Julie has not taken. Jessie’s noisy, exciting house reminds her in some way of Debbie’s.
Julie is the protagonist of the story. She is a teenager from a London suburb who runs away from home when she is four months pregnant, fearing her father’s wrath and her family’s rejection. She is taken in by Debbie, a call girl, who identifies with her plight and protects and nurtures her during her pregnancy. The story relates the events of Julie’s labor and childbirth and her subsequent return to her family home.
Julie, a “sensible girl” from a conservative family, flees to London, lives with a prostitute, and then gives birth alone in an abandoned shed. She leaves home an innocent and returns with a new ability to understand her family and herself. Though Debbie never appears in the story, the narrative centers on her influence on Julie as she makes this passage. Julie learns from Debbie an attitude of autonomy and toughness but, more importantly, the value of intimacy and emotional expressiveness. Julie has been raised in a cold, repressive family. Her first sexual encounter is devoid of love or meaning. Debbie forges an important emotional connection with Julie, which gives the girl the strength to act in her own best interest and allows her to see her parents’ weaknesses and limitations.
One of the shady figures who hang around at Debbie’s apartment is a Lebanese man who is a drug dealer. Oblivious to her pregnancy, he is there when Julie, in the midst of labor pains, leaves the apartment to give birth and then go home. He had once tried to procure Julie from Debbie for sex, but Debbie refused him. Julie is afraid of him.
Len is Julie’s father. She attributes her original motivation to run away to him, assuming that if he learned of her pregnancy, he would kick her out anyway. She is intimidated by him, seeing him as powerful, but this changes when she returns home after she has given birth. He looks old and gray to her, and she sees him, for the first time, as vulnerable. He cries, and she can tell that she has hurt him. She understands that he feared her moral corruption, and she lets him believe that this fear was groundless by assuring him that she had been staying with a girl, not a boyfriend, for the past months. He accedes to his wife’s admonishments not to ask Julie any uncomfortable questions, but at the story’s end, he reveals a shocking skeleton in the family closet—that Julie’s aunt Jessie had gotten pregnant out of wedlock as a teenager. Topics for Further Study Do you think that Julie made the right choice to abandon her infant daughter? Why or why not? Julie sees Debbie as a positive force in her life and compares her favorably to her own parents. Do you think that Debbie is a positive model for Julie? Explain why. If you do not think Debbie is a positive role model for Julie, explain why you think this. Compare the characters of Julie, Debbie, Anne, and Jessie to female characters in other stories in The Real Thing. What are some of Lessing’s most important points about women’s place in society and their relationships to one another? Do some research about the most prevalent social perceptions of teen mothers in the 1980s, when the story takes place, and compare them to those a generation earlier, when Julie’s Auntie Jessie gave birth. Find some American and British magazine articles from the 1980s about the issue of teen pregnancy. How were public debates about sexual morality different in the two countries?
See The Baby
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2001.