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Doris Lessing’s 1955 short story Through the Tunnel tells of Jerry, an 11-year-old English boy being raised by his single mother, specified in the story as a widow, which obviously implies a father who is deceased. The boy, Jerry, is struggling to attain a sense of independence from his doting mother, who is struggling herself to define the parameters of her guardianship so as not to figuratively smother her son. As Lessing introduces her characters, “He was an only child, eleven years old. She was a widow. She was determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion.”
Being fatherless enables Lessing to present us with a protagonist whose struggles to attain maturity and independence is better illuminated in the context of a home with a young boy lacking a strong male role model – the type of role model generally best represented by a father. Jerry’s efforts at impressing and insinuating himself among the older boys on the beach is a manifestation of his social alienation and underlying insecurities regarding his role both in his home and in the world at large. In addition, by being fatherless, the over-protective mother provides a better foil against whom Jerry maneuvers for independence. Again, Lessing injects the notion of a loving mother straining for the proper boundaries:
“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.”
While it is certainly within the realm of the possible that a father can be overly protective of his children, Lessing latches onto the notion of a mother-son relationship that, under the right circumstances, can impose constraints upon the child’s freedom of movement that risks undermining that child’s ability to mature into an independent adult. Because the theme of her story is the boy’s struggle to prove himself independent, while hopefully forming bonds of friendship heretofore lacking, the absence of a father simplifies Lessing’s characterizations.
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