What is the setting and does it have an influence on the story, "Through the Tunnel"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Doris Lessing's short story, "Through the Tunnel," the setting is an unspecified beach in a foreign country that the single British mother and son visit.  Lessing herself was born in Iran, formerly known as Persia, so Jerry and his mother may be vacationing on the Meditteranean because the boys speak French.  Perhaps they are in one of the North Afican countries such as Tunisia or Algeria. 

At any rate, the bay is described as "wild," indicating a setting that is not a civilized one to which "the young English boy" is accustomed. In fact, the boys on the edge of a small cape that marks the side of the bay that is away from the usual area for the English boy have stripped and run naked down to the rocks.  They dive and, significantly, come up on the other side of a big, dark rock. 

Certainly, the setting of this story is pivotal to the plot.  For, Jerry, who has been protected by his mother, this setting is extremely significant as it is his discovery of the rock through which the other boys swim that leads to his acts of independence.  Once Jerry has seen the wild boy swim through a tunnel, he is determined to find this passage throught the cave, or tunnel, and swim out to the other side just as the others have done because he is shamed by their laughter and their "grave frowning."  Determined to swim through the tunnel, Jerry conditions himself,

exercising his lungs as if everything, the whole of his life, all that he would become, depended upon it.

Finally, on the day before they depart, Jerry determines to swim through the tunnel. His act of assertion--"he must go into the blackness ahead"--is the beginning of his rite of passage into manhood and he struggles physically in the darkness of the water.  But, when Jerry emerges, gasping with a bleeding nose,he glaces at the other boys diving and playing not far away--"he did not want them."  Instead, he returns home, and when his mother suggests he swim no more that day, he does not object:  "It was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay."  For, his having swum through the tunnel indicates that Jerry has passed from boyhood to manhood, from the "safe beach" to the "wild bay."

Setting is intrinsic to the theme of Lessing's story.  Ms. Lessing has used imagery and figures of speech to make the bay fearful and threatening as the underwater tunnel seems like a place of entombment where Jerry "felt he was dying."  Jerry's passage through this forebidding tunnel indicates not only his courage, but his resurrection and rebirth as a man.  The struggle has been a little bloody, but Jerry feels himself now an adult, not an emasculated boy who needs protection from his domineering mother. Thus, the influence of the setting of the "wid bay" is tremendous because the tunnel and the challenge that it presents bring Jerry, who answers this challenge, to manhood.

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