‘‘Debbie and Julie,’’ a matter-of-fact fictional account of teenage pregnancy, opens Doris Lessing’s 1989 collection of stories and sketches about London titled The Real Thing. This volume, written toward the end of Lessing’s long, varied, and prolific career, represents a return to the realistic style with which she first gained her literary reputation in the 1950s and ’60s. Though The Real Thing is not considered to be among Lessing’s most significant works, critics have singled out ‘‘Debbie and Julie’’ for praise as a well-crafted and emotionally wrenching example of Lessing’s talent. The story touches on highly relevant issues, such as teen pregnancy, runaways, and parent-child relationships, and serves as an excellent introduction to Lessing’s lengthy body of work.

The story opens with Julie, the protagonist, in labor and leaving the London apartment of Debbie, a prostitute who took her in when she ran away from home five months earlier. Throughout the dramatic events that follow—Julie’s solitary delivery and abandonment of a baby girl and her return to the cold and conservative home of her parents—Julie thinks about all she has learned from her trusting and frank relationship with Debbie. Throughout her many experiments with fiction, Lessing has shown an abiding interest in how individuals—especially women and girls—cope psychologically and practically with society’s labels, assumptions, and unwritten rules. Lessing portrays Julie’s thought process in an understated, realistic style, using the teenager’s harrowing experience to explore issues of intimacy, morality, and identity in a way that is both accessible and complex.


The story opens with Julie, the pregnant teenager who is its protagonist, looking at herself in the mirror. She is in the London apartment of Debbie, a prostitute who took her in five months earlier, when she ran away from home to hide her condition from her parents. Julie is now in labor, and Debbie, who had promised to help her, is out of the country with a man. Julie is surprised that the other people in the apartment—from whom she has managed to keep her pregnancy a secret—do not seem to notice that her water has broken and that she is soaked with sweat. She leaves a note for Debbie with her home address and gets a bag she had prepared ahead of time. As she is about to leave, she goes back and takes extra towels from Debbie’s bathroom, reflecting on the older woman’s generosity toward her.

According to her plan, Julie takes a bus to another part of town where she knows there is an unlocked shed in an abandoned lot. It is sleeting, and she is in pain. When she gets to the shed, there is a large dog in front of the door. She throws a brick at it, and the dog runs into the shed where she is planning to give birth. She soon realizes that it is a starving stray and allows it to stay with her. She doesn’t know what to do next. She takes off her underwear and calls out quietly for Debbie. She is in agony and feels very lonely. She squats against the wall and soon delivers the baby.

She has supplies for wrapping the baby and cutting its umbilical cord. When she picks up the baby, she is surprised that she feels happy and proud. She examines it, seeing that it is healthy and noticing that it is a girl. She delivers the afterbirth, which she allows the hungry dog to devour. She dresses, puts the bundled baby inside of her coat, and goes out into the street. She goes into a phone booth, puts the baby on the floor, and leaves.

Julie then goes to a nearby pub and uses its bathroom to clean herself up. She watches through the pub’s window as a couple goes into the phone booth, finds the baby, and calls for an ambulance. It had been her plan for...

(The entire section is 852 words.)