Like so many recent college grads, Julian isn't ecstatic to be back home living with his mother. And, like a lot of college grads, he's pretty sure he knows a thing or two that she doesn't.
Julian can't stand a lot of things about his mom, but he particularly can't stand her outdated notions of race and class. (Check out his mom's "Character Analysis" for more about those.) He tells her, "Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. You haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now […]" (17).
But, we have to wonder, is that really all that's bothering Julian? Or is there something more to his angsty, emo outlook on life?
For that, we have to step back and take a look at Julian's life: he's educated, with a degree and everything, yet he's selling typewriters. He's making so little, he can't even afford to buy cigarettes. (Probably a good thing. Don't smoke, Shmoopers.) His dream? To be a writer.
Ouch. That's like wanting to be a pianist and selling pianos—you're always reminded of what you're not doing with your life.
But for all that Julian dreams of being a writer, he's pretty sure he'll never be one. This is one pessimistic guy: he "knew he never would" start making money, and he was "already as disenchanted with [the world] as a man of fifty."
Piece of advice, Julian: maybe you'd have more luck writing if you actually stepped outside of your head and tried to live in the world. He spends most of his time "in an inner compartment of his mind … a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him."
This isn't a great move. If you want to be a writer, most writers would tell you, you have to actually engaged with the world that you want to be writing about. And just like Julian wants to be a writer but can't actually bring himself to experience anything he might actually write about, he has fantasies of having black friends without actually, you know, having any.
Despite going to college with African-Americans and trying to interact with them in public spaces (buses) Julian does not have any black friends. In fact, his interactions with blacks are mostly in his head, with the end goal of teaching his mother a "lesson." We have to ask—is this any better than the way his mom thinks of black people?
Okay, it's probably a little better. But not much.
The thing is, Julian is just as much of a snob as his mom is. In fact, he might be more of a snob. When he thinks about making a black friend, he only images the "better types": professors, lawyers, ministers, and doctors. Unfortunately, in real life Julian has only made contact with an undertaker (not sophisticated enough) and a man who gave him two lottery tickets.
He may be progressive in theory—in his mind—but, in practice, he's as conservative and regressive as any racist. When he describes bringing home a "suspiciously Negroid woman" and calls it the "ultimate horror," we're wondering whether it's his mom who would see it as the ultimate horror—or if part of Julian would, too.
Take a look as his thoughts about the decayed mansion that his mother remembers visiting: "He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing … it was he, not she, who could have appreciated it." Julian not only misses the grandeur of the antebellum south, but he also feels that he deserves it more than the woman he dismisses as outdated and racist.
Without a doubt, Julian's mother is the biggest influence in his life. But instead of being grateful to his mother for continuing to look after him while he finds his way in life, Julian just resents her, even though "she was a widow who had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and put him through school and who was supporting him still" (4).
What does he resent most about her? Probably the fact that, not only does he still live with her, he's totally under her thumb. He takes off his tie to rile her up—and it works. But when she insists that he put it back on, he does. Just like a good little boy.
And check out the way he thinks about her:
instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.
Here, he's reflecting on the way that his intelligence and education has made him better than his surroundings. He thinks that he's miraculously been able to free himself from his upbringing—and, obviously, he's absolutely wrong. That sentence "He was not dominated by his mother" is dripping with irony.
Because look what happens when she collapses on the sidewalk after the black woman attacks her: "He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, 'Mamma, mamma.'"
While Julian is book smart, he's also pretty deluded. And to find out where that came from, we don't have to look much farther than his mother. Like so many kids (ahem), it's hard for Julian to admit that he's anything like his mother. In fact, they're more alike than either would probably admit.
Julian likes to think culture is in the mind, but he only wants to make friends with upper-class blacks. Julian's mother claims that blacks should be equal but separate, yet plays with and dotes on Carver. Both of them live in fantasy worlds, and both of them claim to be in control of their own destinies and worlds. Yet by the end of the story, they're both as helpless as little children.