What conflicts are in the story "Through the Tunnel"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Doris Lessing's "rite of passage" short story, there are a number of external conflicts (conflicts between or among characters) as well as internal conflicts (struggles within a character). The main focus of the story is upon Jerry, an eleven year old boy who accompanies his widowed mother to the seashore on holiday.

  • One day at the beach Jerry wishes to exert some independence from his mother and swim where "the wild-looking rocks" are [internal conflict], but he just looks and then stays with his mother.
  • The next day, he asks about going over to these rocks; his mother finds them "wild looking" and worries [internal conflict], but gives her permission, telling herself, "he's old enough to be safe without me."
  • Jerry goes, but feels guilty [internal] as he swims out, then looks back at his mother on shore.
  • Seeing a group of boys, "To be with them was a craving that filled his whole body" [internal], so he swims closer. 
  • They turned "watch him with narrowed, alert dark eyes [external].
  • One smiles, so Jerry swims near them, "smiling with desperate nervous supplication." When the others realize he is foreign, they "proceeded to forget him" [external], but Jerry is happy and dives with them.
  • However, when Jerry clowns, they "looked down at gravely, frowning" with disapproval [external].
  • Then, the boys dive into the sea and do not reappear until Jerry has counted to 150; he cannot figure out where they have gone [internal].
  • "They swam back to the shore without a look at him...leaving to get away from him at another promontory. "He cried himself out"[internal].
  • After he returns alone to the villa, he abruptly tells his mother that he wants some swimming goggles and insists that they go to a shop immediately [external]
  • The next time Jerry goes to the promontory, he cannot locate the tunnel through which the boys must have swum [external]; repeatedly, he gropes on the surface of the rock in order to locate the opening.
  • "He knew that he must find his way through that cave, or hole, or tunnel and out the other side" [internal]. Jerry desires to feel himself like the older boys, so he must exercise his lungs: "all that he could become depended upon it [internal].
  • After he returns home a second time with a nose bleed, Jerry's mother makes him go with her the next day [external], and "[I]t was a torment to waste a day of training" for Jerry [internal]
  • For Jerry, too, the beach now seems but a place for little children [external].
  • Continuing his practice by the tunnel, Jerry worries about the feat: "Supposing he turned dizzy...? or died there trapped?" He nearly gives up on his idea, considering postponing it until next summer [internal].
  • Deciding, "This was the moment when he would try. If he did not ...he never would," he yet has a fear and horror of the tunnel under the dark sea [internal].
  • As he descends, Jerry worries about dying. No one would find him until those "boys would swim into it and find it blocked" [internal].
  • But, he perseveres. "He was without light and water seemed to press upon him...his head was pulsing" [external]. He panics some, but kicks forward, ducking his head and swims through the tunnel, still fearful of banging his head [internal]. Jerry knows he must continue despite his swelling head and cracking lungs. "He felt he was dying "[internal] as blood fills his eyes and nose.
  • Still, he makes it through the tunnel [external].
  • His mother is anxious upon seeing him, but counsels herself, "...don't worry. He can swim like a fish"[internal]
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