Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing
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What are conflicts in "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing?

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In this coming-of-age short story entitled "Through the Tunnel," there are internal and external conflicts in the main character, named Jerry, and there are internal conflicts in his mother.

An English eleven-year-old and his mother are on holiday at what is probably Southern Rhodesia in South Africa, a...

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In this coming-of-age short story entitled "Through the Tunnel," there are internal and external conflicts in the main character, named Jerry, and there are internal conflicts in his mother.

An English eleven-year-old and his mother are on holiday at what is probably Southern Rhodesia in South Africa, a British colony (now Zimbabwe) and a spot where the author, Doris Lessing, vacationed in her youth. A widow, Jerry's mother worries that she is too protective. So, when her son indicates that he wishes to explore the rocks at another location from their "usual beach," she ponders his request with some inner conflict:

Of course, he's old enough to be safe without me. Have I been keeping him too close? He mustn't feel he ought to be with me. I must be careful.

Jerry's mother allows him to go, but she worries as she walks to the usual beach alone. After some time, Jerry returns to the villa to wait for his mother. When she enters, a "pant[ing], defiant, and beseeching" Jerry blurts out, "I want some swimming goggles." His mother, however, has seemingly resolved her inner conflict because she responds "casually." Agreeing to purchase the goggles, she says to Jerry, "Well, of course, darling." Then when he "nag[s] and pester[s]" her until she takes him to a shop, his mother does not question Jerry about what he is going to do, thus treating him as a mature youth. Finally, when Jerry succeeds one day in swimming through the opening in the great rocks, his mother greets him with a smile and asks casually, "Have a nice morning?" However, when she observes Jerry's bruised head and his eyes that are "glazed-looking," she becomes rather anxious. Nevertheless, Jerry's mother calms herself, "Oh, don't fuss! Nothing can happen. He can swim like a fish." Clearly, Jerry's mother has resolved to treat Jerry as an older child who has some maturity.

Jerry's character is more complex than that of his mother's as he undergoes both internal and external conflicts. At first, he just wants to swim with the older boys, but because he cannot dive down and swim through the rocks as they do, they reject him. This rejection brings about Jerry's inner conflict of wishing to prove that he is no longer a child.

He struggles and practices holding his breath longer and longer until he can stay underwater for the time required to make passage through the rocks. When he finally succeeds at passing through the tunnel, Jerry resolves his conflict as he completes his rite of passage to young adulthood. He also brings to an end his external conflict of rejection by the other boys. This resolution is evinced as Jerry succeeds in doing what they can do. Also, Jerry no longer needs their acceptance. For when he sees the other boys "diving and playing a half mile away," he is not interested in swimming over to them. "He did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down." Back at the villa, Jerry proudly tells his mother that he can hold his breath for almost three minutes. After this, "it was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay."

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Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" has both internal and external conflicts in the story.  

Externally, the conflict is a man vs. nature conflict. Jerry wants to swim through an underwater tunnel that he saw some native boys swim through. It's not an easy swim. Jerry will need to be able to hold his breath for more than two full minutes. Much of the story is his training to do this swim. Near the end of the story, Jerry finally decides to try it. This conflict is life or death for Jerry. He either makes the swim or dies trying it.  

One internal conflict deals with Jerry's journey toward manhood and independence. When the story first begins, Jerry wants to get some independence from his mom. It's why he so desperately wants to go to the "wild looking" rocks. Jerry's mother struggles with giving permission to Jerry. She worries about his safety, even though she knows he's old enough to take care of himself.

She was thinking, Of course he’s old enough to be safe without me. Have I been keeping him too close? He mustn’t feel he ought to be with me. I must be careful.

Jerry's mother isn't the only character who is internally struggling to come to terms with Jerry's more independent spirit. Jerry struggles with it, too. He feels a bit guilty that he left his mother alone on the beach.

He swam back to shore, relieved at being sure she was there, but all at once very lonely.  

The swim that Jerry is attempting to make is also an internal conflict for Jerry. He's scared. He knows he might die, and getting up the courage to attempt the swim is a major man vs. self struggle for Jerry.

He was frightened. Supposing he turned dizzy in the tunnel? Supposing he died there, trapped?

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