Point of View
“Debbie and Julie” opens with the image of Julie looking in the mirror and closes with her private thoughts as she drifts off to sleep, suggesting that the story is centrally concerned with Julie’s consciousness and self-perception. It is narrated from a third-person point of view. The narrator is not a participant in the events described but has a point of view closely aligned with that of Julie, with full access to her inner thoughts and feelings. This is described in literary terms as limited omniscience. The narrator’s omniscience or “all-knowingness” is limited because it does not extend beyond Julie’s consciousness. For example, readers aren’t given access to Julie’s father’s experience of her homecoming, only Julie’s perceptions of his experience.
“Debbie and Julie” concerns extreme changes taking place in the protagonist’s life and in her outlook, and its plot reflects these changes. Julie is a “plump, fresh-faced girl” who has always done well in her suburban school. Her parents consider her “sensible,” a “good girl.” When she gets pregnant, runs away to London, and becomes part of Debbie’s unconventional lifestyle, she discovers a new part of herself and new ways of understanding other people. The story has two distinct parts, highlighting the strong contrast between Julie’s experiences and identity in London and her experiences and identity at home.
In the first part, Julie has the extreme experience of giving birth alone in an abandoned shed. This terrifying episode concludes her eye-opening, five-month stay in London with Debbie, which is described throughout the story in brief flashbacks and recollections. In the second part, Julie takes a subway ride and returns to the ‘ ‘normal” life she had always known with her parents, who, themselves largely unchanged, remain ignorant of all that she has been through. ‘ ‘It was hard enough for her to believe that she could sit here in her pretty little dressing gown, smelling of bath powder, when she had given birth by herself in a dirty shed with only a dog for company.” Much of the story’s drama is based on the contrast between its two parts, particularly the difference between how Julie now sees herself and how her parents will continue seeing her.
Though the story is narrated in a realistic mode, with attention to concrete detail and closely observed behavior, Lessing also employs understated symbolism to amplify her ideas about the characters and their situations. Like its structure, the symbolism in ‘ ‘Debbie and Julie” is based on contrast. For example, at the beginning of the story, Julie is wearing a once-fashionable sky-blue coat borrowed from Debbie. It reflects her worldly, sometimes shocking, experiences in London, as well as her close friendship with Debbie. Debbie lends her part of her identity, and this helps Julie through her solitary trial of labor and delivery. Julie sheds the coat just before entering her parents’ house, soon taking a bath and changing into a pretty and childish-looking pink dressing gown. This suggests a return to her former identity, which is meant to reassure as well as to deceive her parents. Whereas Debbie and Julie shared everything, from clothes to feelings, Julie and her parents maintain a cautious distance from each other.
Throughout the story, Lessing endows dirt and cleanliness with symbolic meaning. Julie worries about her post-labor bleeding dirtying the “fluffy pink towels, which her mother changed three times a week.” These towels are implicitly contrasted with those she takes freely from Debbie’s apartment just before she leaves, knowing that she will bleed all over them. Dirtiness is an intrinsic part of life in London with Debbie, reflecting Debbie’s “dirty” profession and Julie’s own compromised situation. It is, however, in many ways a relief compared to the clean, orderly, respectable life Julie had always known with her parents, who are cold and rigid. The order and tidiness of Len and Anne’s house is contrasted not only with Debbie’s apartment but also with the more extreme and literal dirtiness of the shed where Julie gives birth. Julie’s parents shy away from the symbolic messiness of intimacy, creating a home that is emotionally sterile.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2001.