Knowledge and Ignorance
”Debbie and Julie” tells of the knowledge that is earned through the trials of life experience. Julie, its teenage protagonist, runs away from her conservative parents in order to hide her pregnancy from them. She is taken in by a kind prostitute and survives the terrifying ordeal of giving birth alone in an abandoned shed. After a five-month absence, she returns home, a more mature and insightful person. Most significantly, she is now able to see her parents with more critical distance and more sympathetic understanding. At the end of the story, she is in a position to consider her future options with greater freedom and realism than she was before her accidental pregnancy.
Julie attributes much of her newfound knowledge to Debbie, the woman who took her in. Debbie is worldly. She has had a hard life as a prostitute but has won a measure of independence with her own business. When Julie arrived in London, she was “innocent and silly.” She has learned from Debbie “the value of everything” and “what had to be paid.” In addition to this lesson in pragmatic self-preservation, however, she has also learned the value of emotional openness and expressiveness. Debbie is uninhibited and nonjudgmental—a stark contrast to Julie’s parents, who live a narrow and repressed existence. Julie realizes that her parents are ignorant of many of life’s pleasures and opportunities and that they choose to remain blinded to some of life’s agonies, as well: “It was as if they had switched themselves off.”
Love and Intimacy
The title names the relationship between Debbie and Julie as the most significant one in the story, despite the fact that Debbie is absent throughout the events of the narrative. The love between Debbie and Julie is stronger than the love between Julie and her mother or her newborn baby, let alone the boy who impregnated her. Debbie helps Julie when she is in need, accepts her without judgment, and is demonstrative and generous in her love. In return, Julie understands Debbie’s vulnerabilities: she ”knew she was the only person who really understood Debbie.” She also holds up Debbie as a model, having learned from her the value of trust and intimacy. There is some irony in this fact, since Debbie—looking out for her own interests— abandons Julie when she is most in need. This can be seen as a thematic echo of Julie’s pragmatic decision to abandon her newborn daughter.
In the months preceding the events of the story, Debbie has taken on a mothering role, protecting Julie and nurturing her physically and emotionally through her pregnancy. Julie longingly recalls Debbie’s warmth and love after she has returned home to her own parents. At several points, she makes explicit comparisons between her mother’s capacity for love and Debbie’s. She recalls curling up with Debbie when she was afraid to sleep alone and the intimate gesture of Debbie’s hand touching her pregnant belly. Upon her return home, Julie reflects that her mother would be embarrassed if Julie asked to share her bed with her. “In this family, they simply did not touch each other.” Julie was not able even to tell her mother about her pregnancy, let alone share mutual emotional vulnerabilities and comfort.
Choices and Consequences
Julie is a character who has faced the difficult consequences of her choices. She becomes pregnant accidentally and decides that she must leave home to avoid having her condition discovered by her parents, an option she considers unthinkable. When Debbie sees Julie arrive on a London train platform, she seems to understand implicitly how narrow and dangerous Julie’s choices are and offers to take her in. Debbie, who has had a difficult past, represents one set of consequences for being a sexually active woman: she has become a prostitute and relies on men for her livelihood, if not for her emotional sustenance. Julie’s Auntie Jessie represents a different set of consequences: as a teenager, she admitted to her parents that she was pregnant, kept the baby, and later married a man who was not good enough for her. She too is dependent on a man, though she lives a “respectable” life, and her options and limitations are very different from Debbie’s. At the story’s close, Julie tries to imagine a range of different options for her future, reassuring herself that she is strong and, perhaps, capable of independence that will be greater than either Debbie’s or Jessie’s. She also recognizes what her choices have cost her; she cannot imagine a way to include her newborn daughter in her future.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2001.