In The Tunnel by William Gass, the narrator quotes several limericks (page 10, 15, 16, 18). What are the meanings and purposes of all those limericks?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Professor Kohler is the narrator and main character of The Tunnel by William H. Gass. What starts out as Kohler's introduction to an already completed book he has written becomes the ramblings of an angry and dysfunctional man who finds no peace in his search for truth. As a history professor, Kohler is mostly exposed to rational thought and colleagues who base their comments on historical facts. However, his book is history as he sees it and this is the problem because it becomes glaringly obvious that his book, which he is supposedly preparing for publication and hence for which he must prepare an introduction, is not the impartial and factual novel he had thought he was writing about "Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany."

Kohler is antisocial and berates everyone he knows, even his own sons, without considering himself accountable. His own father was a harsh man, his mother an alcoholic, and his wife is lazy. His sons are a disappointment and Kohler feels nothing but contempt, even for himself. This reveals an unstable person and there is nothing normal about him. Gass uses various techniques to get that message across. Kohler creates a world within his mind which he inhabits and which allows him to escape from conformity. 

The fictional (and therefore contradictory) world that exists beneath the illusion of truth as presented by history, or Kohler's version of it, is the perfect escape; the limericks contribute to the utter chaos which pervades his mind. The chaos is the only thing that ultimately makes any sense to Kohler. William Gass has admitted that he uses limericks because they are poetic in nature but not difficult to write, as their form is simple and he will not be judged for his poetic attempts. In Kohler's case the limericks have a political or religious edge without dominating the text. He can again avoid responsibility by writing in limericks. 

In the first of the limericks presented here, Kohler mocks God; it is as if he is quoting a prayer, but he suggests that he is the epitome of failure. The reader may be expecting encouragement and hope but instead "won't mean nuthin." In the second one, Kohler invokes the sense of hearing but he can only hear and not learn from any inherent message. He suggests that only in his mind are the words "appealing." They would not bring comfort or relaxation to anyone else. Finally, the last one lulls the reader into a false sense of security. It has elements of something bare ("bones") but then makes the reader feel cozy enough to "warm itself (his head) upon a pillow." Finally, it destroys the tranquility. Words like "sinks" and "cold" change the tone and make sure that the reader is suitably prepared for what will follow. 

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