"Through the Tunnel" was first published by the New Yorker magazine in 1955. Lessing had moved from British-controlled Rhodesia in South Africa in 1949. Six years later, little had changed. Apartheid, a legal system of racial segregation structured every aspect of life for both black and white people there, and racism exploded violently in the United States, Europe and many other parts of the globe. White tourists like those in the story were able to afford vacations, while the native black population of many countries, victims of racist economic exploitation, could generally never afford to take such vacations.
In the context of this racist structure, the interaction between Jerry and the ''smooth dark brown'' boys takes on greater significance. Jerry is bested by ''natives,'' an event that contradicts the entire structure of colonial racist supremacy. The British and French, among other nations, justified their colonization of Africa and other nations with a wide variety of scientific and social science that supposedly proved the inferiority of people with darker skin. For decades, European and American scientists and anthropologists had been travelling into Africa to study "primitive man." African societies were not respected as contemporary, viable ways of life, but as throwbacks to an earlier time. All of these assumptions were part of a worldview that allowed white colonists to justify their brutality and economic exploitation of black...
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Point of View
"Through the Tunnel" is written in third-person limited point of view. The narrator describes the feelings of both Jerry and his mother but does not penetrate the thoughts of the local boys. This separation associates the reader more closely with the white tourists who are unfamiliar with the area. By telling the story from the perspective of the English tourists, Lessing heightens the sense of distance between the main characters and the locals Jerry encounters. It also allows the reader to associate more closely with Jerry as he braves the frightening tunnel.
Lessing's depiction of the setting is characterized by a few vivid concrete details and many evocative emotional descriptions. At first, she describes the bay as "wild and rocky," then as "wild" and "wild-looking" in contrast to the "safe beach." The bay's wildness explains both the mother's concern and the boy's excitement. Later, as Jerry nears the bay, the reader is introduced to the bay as Jerry views it. Introducing the setting through Jerry's perspective primes the reader for the intense swim through the tunnel.
In "Through the Tunnel" there is a dynamic tension between the domestic and the wild; between risk and safety. This tension emerges in the first paragraph of the story, when the "wild and rocky bay" is contrasted with, the "safe beach." Repeatedly this difference is stressed, as Jerry leaves the safety of...
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Compare and Contrast
1949: In the aftermath of World War II, millions of young wives worldwide are widowed. Many raise their children alone.
Today: Out-of-wedlock births in the United States rise to 31 percent in 1994. Many of these children will be raised without a father figure present.
1950s: Coming-of-age novels, also known as bildungsromans are popular. One of the most popular is J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
Today: Coming-of-age novels are less popular with young readers than paperback series that emphasize the adventures of adolescents, like R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series.
1948: The National Party in South Africa institutes apartheid—an often violent policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination.
Today: Apartheid ends in 1994. Nelson Mandela, after being released from his 27-year imprisonment, is elected president of South Africa in the first elections open to all citizens of the country.
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Topics for Further Study
Why does Jerry not tell his mother the reason why he wants water goggles? How does his silence on this matter contrast with his interactions with his mother at the beginning of the story?
Do you think that Jerry's determination in achieving his goal is healthy? Why or why not?
By the end of the story, how has Jerry changed? How does Lessing describe the boy's behavior in the beginning of the story in comparison to his behavior at the end?
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What Do I Read Next?
"The Rocking-Horse Winner" (1933), by D. H. Lawrence. In an effort to gain his mother's love, a young boy rides his rocking horse into delirium attempting to divine the winners of horse races.
Reef (1994) a novel by Romesh Gunesekera. An orphaned boy becomes a cook for a wealthy single man on the island of Sri Lanka and takes solace in the discipline of housework. The rising political unrest of the country coincides with the boy's coming of age, and he is ultimately forced to flee his native land for England.
"Flavours of Exile," another of Lessing's stories written in the 1950s, in which a young girl seeks to belong to her adopted African homeland while her mother longs for the familiarity of her English past.
"A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty (1941). An elderly African-American woman perseveres on a long trek into town, encountering many obstacles in order to obtain medication for her grandson.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Didion, Joan. The White Album, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.
Gordimer, Nadine. A review of The Habit of Loving, in Africa South, Vol. 2, July-September, 1958, pp. 124-26.
Hanson, Clare. "Doris Lessing in Pursuit of English, or, No Small, Personal Voice," in In Pursuit of Doris Lessing, edited by Claire Sprague, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 61-73.
Knapp, Mona. Doris Lessing, Frederick Ungar, 1984.
Lessing, Doris. Preface to African Stories, Simon & Schuster, 1981.
Singleton, Mary Ann. The City and the Veld, Bucknell University Press, 1977.
Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing, Twayne, 1965. Biography that traces the major plots and themes in Lessing's early fiction.
Thorpe, Michael. "The Grass Is Singing and Other African Stories," in his Doris Lessing, British Council for Longman Group, 1973. Surveys the themes of Lessing's African stones.
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