Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

Start Free Trial

What are the internal and external conflicts Jerry faces in "Through the Tunnel"? 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In literature, external conflict refers to the struggle a character has with nature or another character. The opposition that the character experiences, adds to the drama. Internal conflict refers to a struggle that exists within a character's mind. The resolution of such a struggle leads to a new understanding or...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a dynamic change in the character.

In the story, Jerry's external conflicts are firstly with his mother that initially wants him to be at her side. She is clearly very protective of him since she is a widow and he is her only child. Jerry, however, wants to enjoy greater freedom but does, out of duty to, and respect for, his mother acquiesce to her request. Jerry felt quite remorseful and apologetic when his mother asked whether he wanted to be somewhere else and not with her and replied that he did not.

Jerry's mother does realize, though, that he wants to be somewhere else and later allows him to go to the bay where he longs to be. This temporarily brings to an end this conflict. The conflict expresses itself again later, though, when Jerry desperately wants to swim through the tunnel. His mother is clearly concerned when she notices that his nose was bleeding and tells him to spend the day with her, which he does. The next day, however, he leaves early to avoid her scuppering his plan.

A second external conflict Jerry experiences is the obvious contrast between him and the boys he meets. They are natives from the area and that, on its own, is conflicting. Furthermore, he cannot understand their language. Thirdly, they perform a feat that Jerry obviously cannot and they later leave him. 

In addition, Jerry also struggles against the elements, the sea and especially the conditions underwater, when he attempts to swim through the tunnel. He discovers that it is narrow and later finds, almost to his extreme detriment, that the tunnel is quite lengthy. He does later successfully negotiate his way through it eventually and resolves the issue.

Jerry's internal conflict, firstly, arises from his mother's wish and what he wants for himself. He has to choose between doing what he wants or being obedient. At first, his guilt is what compels him to stay with her. He finally resolves this conflict by telling her that he longs to be elsewhere and she allows him.

Secondly, Jerry is caught between deciding whether he is going to continue risking his life to get through the tunnel or give up. He decides to take the risk and is successful. Thus resolving that conflict. The reason for this inner turmoil is informed by the embarrassment Jerry felt when the other boys left him, as if he was not worthy of their attention. He felt much the same as he did when his mother rewarded him with 'grave, embarrassed inspection' when he clowned around, seeking her approval. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Unerscoring the sense of conflict in "Through the Tunnel" is Lessing's use of imagery and figures of speech which create danger in the wild bay where Jerry experiences both internal and external struggles. Away from this is the safe bay where his mother sits "under an umbrella that looked like a slice of orange peel."

  • External Conflicts

The wild bay is filled with a "loose scatter of rocks." There Jerry comes upon some older boys who shout cheerful greetings at him, but while Jerry feels accepted at first, his uncomprehension of French marks him as a foreigner. Later, his clownish attempts to get their attention draws disapproval. Thus Jerry experiences twoexternal conflicts with them. Against the disapproval of his behavior as childish, he seeks to resolve by swimming through the tunnel as they are able to do.

After he returns to the safe bay where the sight of his mother has relieved his inner conflict of worry, he asks his mother for goggles in a pestering manner, indicative of another external conflict:

He nagged and pestered until she went with him to a shop....

Again, with his mother he comes into conflict (external) when she warns him about straining himself and causing bloody noses.

  • Inner Conflicts

But, Jerry's greatest conflict is his inner one in which he 

...knew he must find his way through that cave, or hole, or tunnel, and out the other side.

This inner conflict of Jerry's is resolved after the climax of the story when he is able to swim through the tunnel despite his external conflicts with oxygen loss and the length of the tunnel. 

He struggled on in the darkness between lapses into unconsciousness.

Successfully making it to the surface, Jerry has complete his rite of passage, resolving all conflicts as it is "no longer of importance to go to the bay.

Approved by eNotes Editorial