In Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel," the tension between the mother's protectiveness and authority and Jerry's desire for freedom cuts through the entire narrative. A widow who must struggle to provide for her boy, Jerry's mother suffers from the anxieties of having to raise a child without a father, worrying that she may be doing too much:
Have I been keeping him too close? He mustn't feel he ought to be with me. I must be careful.
These anxieties of the mother and her consequent reactive protection, ironically, cause Jerry to wish to prove all the more that he is a man by asserting his independence.
When the older boys who swim through the tunnel reject Jerry for his childishness, Jerry becomes aware that he is too protected by his mother who has him sit on the "safe beach." He, then,
knew he must find his way through that cave, or hole, or tunnel, and out on the other side.
The tunnel becomes, of course, symbolic of Jerry's rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Without his mother's knowledge, Jerry submerges himself in the tunnel and swims through it, although he almost does not make it without exploding his lungs. But, having made it safely, only suffering a bloody nose, Jerry returns to the villa. Now, he sees the local boys diving, but "he did not want them" because he knows that he is now their equal. Once in his room, Jerry rests until he hears his mother. As they have lunch, Jerry boasts only that he can hold his breath three minutes. But, secretly, he knows that he has proved himself a man.