Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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Historical Context

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"Through the Tunnel" was first published by the New Yorker magazine in 1955. Lessing had moved from British-controlled Rhodesia in South Africa in 1949. Six years later, little had changed. Apartheid, a legal system of racial segregation structured every aspect of life for both black and white people there, and racism exploded violently in the United States, Europe and many other parts of the globe. White tourists like those in the story were able to afford vacations, while the native black population of many countries, victims of racist economic exploitation, could generally never afford to take such vacations.

In the context of this racist structure, the interaction between Jerry and the ''smooth dark brown'' boys takes on greater significance. Jerry is bested by ''natives,'' an event that contradicts the entire structure of colonial racist supremacy. The British and French, among other nations, justified their colonization of Africa and other nations with a wide variety of scientific and social science that supposedly proved the inferiority of people with darker skin. For decades, European and American scientists and anthropologists had been travelling into Africa to study "primitive man." African societies were not respected as contemporary, viable ways of life, but as throwbacks to an earlier time. All of these assumptions were part of a worldview that allowed white colonists to justify their brutality and economic exploitation of black nations.

In 1957, the single mother was a suspicious figure in the United States, as well as in Europe. Authors like Phillip Wylie, who wrote Generation of Vipers, and organizations like the Boy Scouts warned against the feminization of men. Such people believed that domineering, obsessive mothers were destroying men's virility and independence. In movies like The Manchurian Candidate, powerful mothers were portrayed as demonic communists bent on ruining the world. Because mothers were obsessive in protecting their children, these critics argued, men were being emasculated. Groups like the Boy Scouts and summer wilderness camps boomed as parents sought to "toughen up" their children. Many social scientists argued that boys required a strong father to grow up healthy. Thus, when Jerry's mother, "a widow," worries about being ''neither possessive nor lacking in devotion," she is confronting a dilemma that many women faced at this time. The widow's relationship with her son is thus fraught with undercurrents of anxiety that reach far beyond the details of the story.

Literary Style

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Point of View "Through the Tunnel" is written in third-person limited point of view. The narrator describes the feelings of both Jerry and his mother but does not penetrate the thoughts of the local boys. This separation associates the reader more closely with the white tourists who are unfamiliar with the area. By telling the story from the perspective of the English tourists, Lessing heightens the sense of distance between the main characters and the locals Jerry encounters. It also allows the reader to associate more closely with Jerry as he braves the frightening tunnel.

Setting Lessing's depiction of the setting is characterized by a few vivid concrete details and many evocative emotional descriptions. At first, she describes the bay as "wild and rocky," then as "wild" and "wild-looking" in contrast to the "safe beach." The bay's wildness explains both the mother's concern and the boy's excitement. Later, as Jerry nears the bay, the reader is introduced to the bay as Jerry views it. Introducing the setting through Jerry's perspective primes the reader for the intense swim through the tunnel.

Imagery In "Through the Tunnel" there is a dynamic tension between the domestic and the wild; between risk and safety. This tension emerges in the first paragraph of the...

(This entire section contains 276 words.)

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story, when the "wild and rocky bay" is contrasted with, the "safe beach." Repeatedly this difference is stressed, as Jerry leaves the safety of his mother's beach bags and pale skin for jagged rocks. Jerry himself is an intermediate figure between wildness and safety. He risks his life, but does so while wearing swimming goggles, which are symbolic of both his inexperience and his need for protection.

Compare and Contrast

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1949: In the aftermath of World War II, millions of young wives worldwide are widowed. Many raise their children alone.

Today: Out-of-wedlock births in the United States rise to 31 percent in 1994. Many of these children will be raised without a father figure present.

1950s: Coming-of-age novels, also known as bildungsromans are popular. One of the most popular is J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Today: Coming-of-age novels are less popular with young readers than paperback series that emphasize the adventures of adolescents, like R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series.

1948: The National Party in South Africa institutes apartheid—an often violent policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination.

Today: Apartheid ends in 1994. Nelson Mandela, after being released from his 27-year imprisonment, is elected president of South Africa in the first elections open to all citizens of the country.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Didion, Joan. The White Album, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.

Gordimer, Nadine. A review of The Habit of Loving, in Africa South, Vol. 2, July-September, 1958, pp. 124-26.

Hanson, Clare. "Doris Lessing in Pursuit of English, or, No Small, Personal Voice," in In Pursuit of Doris Lessing, edited by Claire Sprague, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 61-73.

Knapp, Mona. Doris Lessing, Frederick Ungar, 1984.

Lessing, Doris. Preface to African Stories, Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Singleton, Mary Ann. The City and the Veld, Bucknell University Press, 1977.

Further Reading Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing, Twayne, 1965. Biography that traces the major plots and themes in Lessing's early fiction.

Thorpe, Michael. "The Grass Is Singing and Other African Stories," in his Doris Lessing, British Council for Longman Group, 1973. Surveys the themes of Lessing's African stones.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide