Through the Tunnel by Doris Lessing

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"Through the Tunnel" within Lessing's other Works

(Short Stories for Students)

Doris Lessing is known for being a writer whose work affects people. She tackles political issues but refuses to limit herself to being a political writer, and is equally acclaimed for her essays, fiction, and even science fiction dealing with interests ranging from nature to the status of women. "Through the Tunnel," which is ultimately a story about a boy growing up, seems at first glance to stand apart from her usual concerns.

Lessing was born in what is now Iran in 1919 to a German father and British mother, and then moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1924. She embraced Communism and immigrated to England in 1949. Then she returned to Africa in 1956, but was labelled a "prohibited immigrant" because of her political views, and returned to England shortly thereafter. She then quit the Communist Party in protest of Stalin's atrocities.

Just as Lessing has divided her time between living in England and Africa, her stories have been classified as either "British" or "African," the latter having been published together in a volume called African Stories. "Through the Tunnel" appeared in Lessing's collection The Habit of Loving, which was published in 1957, shortly after her return to England. "Through the Tunnel," which presumably takes place in the south of France, is one of her British stories, though Lessing never overtly identifies its location and it has many of the characteristics of her African stories.

In her preface to African Stories, Lessing writes of the need for African writers to be able to write non-politically. "Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages—being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid, dramatic change. But in a long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one's eyes on a fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice, and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it." In "Through the Tunnel," as in other of her British stories, Lessing allows herself to look away from the turmoil of South Africa. As Lessing says later in the same preface, "Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape," and it is this aspect of the African experience that Lessing seems to focus on in "Through the Tunnel," as Jerry, the boy, struggles for survival in an indifferent sea.

Lessing "lays bare the really important problems that face us today: survival, and beyond that, the potential of the human spirit," according to critic Mary Ann Singleton. Certainly this applies to Jerry, who strives to fulfill his human potential and ends up fighting for his life in the tunnel. Jerry's struggle is that of an individual trying to find his place in the world, and is thus about survival and the human spirit in an emotional, personal sense rather than in the larger sense of human extinction. He wants to be accepted by older boys and to leave behind the safe beach of his childhood where his mother watched over him. Jerry wants this so badly that ultimately he is willing to risk his life to demonstrate that he is ready. The personal aspect of a story can be as important as the political, and for that reason "Through the Tunnel" has been included in anthologies such as Great Stories from the World of Sports and Breath of Danger: Fifty Tales of Peril and Fear by Masters of the Short Story.

South African writer Nadine Gordimer also sees the human potential theme in "Through the Tunnel," but with a slightly different emphasis. In her review of The Habit Of Loving , Gordimer highlights "the habit of loving and needing love, of seeking acceptance through achievement, like the boy in "Through the Tunnel." Gordimer would disagree with critic Clare Hanson, who, apparently viewing Lessing primarily as a political writer, says in her essay "Doris Lessing in Pursuit of English, or, No Small, Personal Voice," that...

(The entire section is 6,249 words.)