Through the Tunnel by Doris Lessing

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In the short story "Through the Tunnel," why does Jerry make himself swim through the tunnel?

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Jerry is eleven years old, on the cusp of adolescence, and clearly desiring more independence from his mother. Guilt, or "contrition," seems to compel him to remain with her, more so than an actual desire to be with her. For their entire first day of vacation, he stays with his mother, and yet, "he looked back over his shoulder at the wild bay; and all morning, as he played on the safe beach, he was thinking of it." The "safe beach" seems to symbolize childhood and the safety of enjoying the protection of one's parents, while the "wild bay" seems to symbolize maturity and its attendant dangers.

When he finally does get to play at the "wild bay," a group of "big boys—men, to Jerry" comes and begins to dive off the promontory into the water. Jerry begins to swim around and get in line with them, and "He felt he was accepted and he dived again, carefully, proud of himself." It seems of vital importance to him to be accepted by them, and when they begin to lose interest in him and swim through the tunnel in the rock, his childish antics to regain their attention actually drive them away. He seems to feel that being able to swim through the rock would make him like them, make him fit in, and signal that he, too, is "a man." This is the reason that he drives himself to do it, despite its dangers.

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The short story "Through the Tunnel" is a story about the coming of age of the protagonist, Jerry. With the absence of his father, an overprotective mother, and lack of friends, Jerry needs to prove to himself as well as others that he is capable of accomplishing this dangerous act.  In so doing, Jerry's personal challenges is a "rite of passage" and thus gives him the independence he needs to stand on his own and separate from this overprotective mother.  Accomplishing this physical challenge not only separates him from his mother, but allows him the possibility of male championship because  he has proven that he can perform a manly task such as swimming through the tunnel.

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