How does a reader find the symbolic meaning in a story?The question refers to the selection "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When seeking symbolic meaning in a literary work, the reader looks for objects that are mentioned with some frequency, such as the mother's arm; in addition, the reader examines in what manner and under what circumstances these objects are mentioned, as well as being attentive to the significance of the title and its relationship to the narrative.  Of course, in Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel," the underwater passage is, indeed, significant as it is pivotal to Jerry's attempts to prove to the older boys that he is not childish.  The mother's arm and the tunnel, then, are the two symbols of the short story.  Colors, too, are often symbolic.

The mother's arm

In the exposition of the story, the mother worries that she may be "keeping him too close."  Thus her arm symbolizes Jerry's childish attachment to his mother since mothers of young children usually hold onto their children.  Symbolically,  the mother's arm represents her being disconnected from Jerry "bare" and slightly "reddened from yesterday's sun" as she swings it without Jerry beside her like a small boy.

The tunnel

Because the older boys are able to hold their breaths and swim through the tunnel while Jerry cannot, the tunnel comes to represent a rite of passage into adulthood for Jerry.  Without telling his mother--breaking from her motherhood--Jerry practices until he is successful in going through this tunnel.  After the completion of this act, Jerry feels fulfilled.  For, when he sees the local boys diving and playing, "He did not want them."


Certain colors always carry a significance to them.  Lessing makes use of this significance as Jerry sees his mother on the shore, "a speck of yellow under an umbrella that looked like a slice of orange peel." 

  • Yellow, a color that has negative connotations, is often associated with danger or cowardice.  In this story, Jerry's mother represents a childish security which he now perceives as cowardly, unmanly. 
  • Orange symbolizes a demand for attention.
  • The white sand above the great rock through which the older boys swim represents Jerry's innocence before he makes his rite of passage.
  • The black of the deep tunnel's wall symbolizes mystery, depth,and power, all of which Jerry experiences when he passes through the tunnel's length.