Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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In at least 150 words, identify a theme in "Through the Tunnel" and explain how the setting of the story contributes to that theme.

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"Through the Tunnel" is a coming-of-age story of sorts, and as such, one of its primary themes is the innocent child coming to terms with his own mortality. Therefore, there could hardly be a better setting than the open water, a wondrous but dangerous space where children can both play and be in extreme peril.

Even before we see our protagonist getting himself into dangerous situations, Lessing gives us the following description of the sand and the water:

He went out fast over the gleaming sand, over a middle region where rocks lay like discolored monsters under the surface, and then he was in the real sea—a warm sea where irregular cold currents from the deep water shocked his limbs.

Although this quotation gives us a sense that the beach is quite beautiful, it also comes off as rather frightening. After all, the rocks are described as "discolored monsters," and the water rather violently interacts with Jerry's body by shocking his limbs.

This is not the only quote we are given concerning the dangerous nature of the water. Lessing also tells us this:

He swam back to the big rock, climbed up, and dived into the blue pool among the fanged and angry boulders.

Sounds dangerous, right? Luckily, our protagonist learns his lesson—albeit after almost dying. By the end of the story he decides that "it was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay."

In the end, Jerry realizes that his ability to swim through the rock tunnel is trivial. Not only do the other boys not pay him any mind, but he couldn't care less himself. He comes to the realization that putting himself in harm's way to prove something so frivolous is simply not worth the risk.

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One theme that is present in Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" is the attainment of independence.

Jerry is an eleven-year old boy who is the only child of a widow. While he and his mother are on holiday together, Jerry yearns to be more like the older boys that he observes away from the beach where he usually goes with his mother. One day he suddenly blurts, "I'd like to go and have a look at those rocks down there." When she hears her son's words, the mother worries that she has possibly been too possessive, keeping him with her all the time. So, she gives her permission.

Jerry observes that the older boys—"men to Jerry"—dive down and swim through a barrier of rock; then, they emerge on the far side. Afterwards, Jerry yearns to be able to perform this manly feat himself. In order to be able to do so, Jerry practices diving down in the water and holding his breath and using goggles that his mother has bought for him. Through his daring perseverance, Jerry can hold his breath long enough to pass through the narrow end of the tunnel:

His lungs were beginning to hurt. A few more strokes and he would be out. . . . He was at the end of what he could do. . . . He must go on into the blackness ahead, or he would drown. . . . He felt he was dying.

Between lapses of unconsciousness, Jerry succeeds in passing through the rocky tunnel.

After this success, Jerry has gained his independence and individual identity. When he sees the boys diving and playing a short distance away, Jerry no longer desires to join them:

He did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down.

Later, since Jerry feels confident in his new manhood, going to the bay is no longer of any interest to him. Jerry is confident in his individualism.

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In "Through the Tunnel," the negative connotations and dangerous imagery associated with the "wild bay" help to convey the theme that growing up can be a painful and scary process.  Jerry longs to grow up and to fit in with the "older boys -- men to Jerry" who swim and dive at the wild bay rather than remain on the "safe beach" with his mother, a beach later described as "a place for children."  The way to the wild bay is marked with "rough, sharp rock" and the water shows "stains of purple and darker blue."  The rocks sound as if they could do a great deal of damage to the body, and the stains are described like a bruise.  It sounds painful.  Then, "rocks lay like discoloured monsters under the surface" of the water and "irregular cold currents from the deep shocked [Jerry's] limbs."  This place sounds frightening and alarming and unpredictable.  Given that this is the location associated with maturity, with the time after childhood, we can understand that the process of growing up and becoming a man is a time that is fraught with dangers and fear, because Jerry endures both in the "wild bay."

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