Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Tunnel is told in the first person by Professor Kohler, who is seized by some strange paralysis of the soul when he tries to finish his book and instead writes the contorted story of his own embittered life. Kohler realizes that he is engulfed with rage, and he is determined to mine his past in an attempt to expiate it. He is the only child of a disappointed mother whose dreams center on her sulky, obstinate son and an angry, bigoted father.
Time in the novel loops back and forth between personal history and world history as Professor Kohler (whose name means “miner” in German) becomes obsessed with his experiences in Germany in the 1930’s. Kohler finds his colleagues contemptible and taunts Herschel, a Jewish professor at the college, about Nazi motives. Because of a student’s harassment charges, his colleagues convene a faculty meeting to discuss Kohler’s lechery. They bicker peevishly while he alternately lies and confesses. Kohler’s colleagues find him a problem, not only because of his behavior but also because of his earlier book, Nuremberg Notes.
As he tunnels deeper into himself in an attempt to come to terms with his relationship to history, he begins to dig an actual tunnel in the basement of the home that he shares with his wife, Martha. A long interior monologue detailing his failed relationship with Martha leads to a meditation on the quarrels that erupted into World War II and other international...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Tunnel is told in the first person by a middle-aged history professor who has just completed his major work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He now wishes to conclude the project by writing the introduction, but he is seized by some paralysis of the soul and writes, instead, the contorted story of his own embittered life and a meditation on history and the writing of history. The story loops backward and forward to the recent end of his affair with Lou, his family tree, his childhood, his student days in prewar Germany, his loveless marriage, and his present woes.
As Kohler ruminates about his life, he is obsessed with his experiences in Germany during the 1930’s and with the book he has just written. He rereads the manuscript, noting that he has neatly analyzed, explained, tabulated, and encapsulated the history of the Holocaust. He has even “justified” Adolf Hitler. Yet doubts assail him. Perhaps he has completed only half his task; he meditates on his German name and finds nothing German about himself, because he is a fourth-generation American; he taunts Herschel, a Jewish colleague, about Nazi motives. He jokes with Martha about Jewish suffering and enjoys a colleague’s limericks on the subject. He searches within for what he wants from his life, his book, and his current writings, and he muses about his own relationship to history. He decides he wants to feel “a little less uneasy.”
(The entire section is 739 words.)