Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing
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How is Jerry's growth and evolving maturity reflected in his relationship with his mother in "Through the Tunnel"?

Jerry's growth and evolving maturing is reflected in his relationship with his mother by the presence of a new distance between the two. His mother's approval and love is no longer enough for him, and he seeks acceptance in a group of older boys who he meets while on vacation.

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At the beginning of the story, it is evident that Jerry and his mother have been everything to each other. As a widow and a child who has lost his father, the two are extremely close, and both go out of their way to never upset the status quo that exists between them.

On their second morning at the beach, however, Jerry makes it known that he would like to go and explore a different section of the beach, providing a first indication that he wishes to break free, at least to some degree, of the close relationship that he shares with his mother.

Jerry goes swimming, and sees a group of older boys. He immediately wants to be a part of them, which tells us that his relationship with his mother is no longer meeting his social needs, and that he is experiencing a natural need to expand his social horizons.

His inability to keep up with his new friends in the water is greatly upsetting to Jerry, which is a further indication of his social evolution because previously, the only person whose opinion mattered to him was his mother. His determination to be able to hold his breath for as long as the other boys leads him to physical and emotional distress, but his relationship with his mother is, at least for the moment, no longer the center of his world. Jerry is growing up, and there is a new distance in the relationship between him and his mother.

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Jerry's relationship with his mother is a bit unusual in that he is an only child and she is a widow; thus, they are unusually attuned to one another's feelings.  She understands that at eleven years old Jerry is at the very beginning of the stage of development when children begin to separate from their parents and assert their own identity. Although it worries her, she begins the process of allowing him more independence.  

Jerry, the "man" of their tiny family, is attempting to find a way to balance looking after his mom, seen in his "unfailing impulse of contrition—a sort of chivalry" and his eagerness to attain the ability to swim through the tunnel.

As his desire to swim through the tunnel intensifies, so do Jerry's impulses toward independence.  When he realizes he needs swim goggles, he "nag[s] and pester[s]" his mother until he gets them.  Eventually, he stops asking his mother for permission to go to the beach where the the tunnel is; he simply leaves the villa before she does.  Once Jerry achieves his goal of swimming through the tunnel, he hides the evidence of his nosebleed and tears. 

In the story's conclusion, Jerry briefly reverts to a childish behavior when he calls her "Mummy" and blurts out what he has accomplished, clearly looking for her approval.  However, ultimately, he does not argue with her when she puts an end to his swimming on this vacation because he has already proved to himself that he is capable of doing what he sets out to do without her knowledge or consent. 

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When the story begins, Jerry is anxious for some freedom from his mother's watchful and protective eye.  However, "Contrition sent him running after her."  He felt badly for wanting this independence and doesn't leave her on this first day of vacation.  This year, he's much less interested in the "safe beach" they've always frequented in the past; he wants to go to the "wild bay," alone.  

The next day, he gets his chance, and when he looks back at her beach, he feels "relieved at being sure she was there, but all at once very lonely."  He misses her but soon becomes distracted by some older "boys -- men to Jerry" who come along and take turns diving off the rock.  They eventually amuse themselves by swimming through a tunnel in the rock, and since Jerry cannot do it, he begins to clown around to refocus their attention on him.  It doesn't work, and they leave him, crying like a child.  Cried out, he "swam out to where he could see his mother.  Yes, she was still there, a yellow spot under an orange umbrella."  He seems to want to be free of her, but -- at the same time -- he wants to know that she is nearby.

As he begins to grow more confident in the water, he feels that his old beach "now seemed a place for small children, a place where his mother might lie safe in the sun.  It was not his beach."  And next time, when he goes, he does not ask her permission first.  It is at this point that "A curious, most unchildlike persistence, a controlled impatience, made him wait" to attempt swimming through the rock yet.  His ability to delay gratification provides evidence of his growing maturity (he was unable to do so earlier when he accosted her for goggles), as does the fact that it doesn't occur to him to ask her, anymore, if he can go to the bay without her.

In the end, after his experience in the tunnel has seriously frightened him, Jerry does return to her, still a child -- at least, for a while.  He calls her "'Mummy'" and clearly wants her approbation and praise for his new ability to stay underwater for three minutes.  When he tells her this news, "It came bursting out of him."  Jerry has obviously begun the process of maturing, though it seems that one's progress toward maturity is not a straight line, and we can see that in his fluctuating relationship with his mother.

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