Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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Analyzing the tone, reader's response, and symbolic meaning in "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing


The tone in "Through the Tunnel" is one of determination and tension as Jerry strives to achieve his goal. Readers respond with empathy and support for Jerry's coming-of-age journey. Symbolically, the tunnel represents a rite of passage, marking Jerry's transition from childhood to adulthood as he overcomes physical and emotional challenges.

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What is the tone of "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing?

Tone is defined as a writer's attitude, or feelings, toward the subject matter or even toward the writer's audience. Tone can be conveyed through a writer's diction and other literary devices (Literary Devices, "Tone").

In the short story "Through the Tunnel," author Doris Lessing's tone  closely matches the feelings of the protagonist named Jerry. The tone is neither judgmental nor critical but is rather fully empathetic of the character's situation and needs and even jubilant.

Early in the story, Lessing shows that she fully empathizes with Jerry's conflict. She portrays that, on the one hand, since Jerry is the only remaining male in the household, though he is young, he feels a sense of duty to his mother. The author expresses empathy with Jerry's sense of duty when she uses the word "contrition" to describe his deep sense of remorse for having wanted to stray from his mother, as seen in the sentence, "Contrition sent him running after her." Lessing even describes him as chivalrous for wanting to uphold his duties.

Yet, on the other hand, throughout the story, the author also portrays Jerry's need to part from his mother to seek adventure. His need for adventure is captured in the description of the rocky bay as a "wild-looking place," which the author juxtaposes with the "safe beach." Yet, though it looks wild, the author also shows that Jerry is relatively safe in the bay since he is a strong swimmer. Lessing's juxtaposition of the wild looks of the bay with Jerry's relative safety help capture the author's tone of empathetic approval of Jerry's decisions and eventual jubilation, showing a very non-judgmental and empathetic tone.

Empathetic approval is also captured in the fact that, though Jerry causes his nose to bleed severely, which is a fairly minor injury, he is successful in his undertakings. He learns to hold his breath to the extent that the older boys do, and he manages to swim through the rock. He is even very sensible in his undertakings, as shown in the fact that he very carefully takes the time to train himself. Lessing shows he knows what he wants to achieve is life-threatening and, therefore, will not foolishly rush into the venture as other boys might. Since he so carefully and wisely teaches himself to undertake a difficult, even life-threatening task and succeeds, we can sense the author's tone is jubilant right along with her character's mood.

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What response does "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing elicit in the reader?

I think it is clear that Lessing wants us to feel that Jerry has been very brave and strong in terms of going through his own coming-of-age initiation. He has proved to himself that he is no longer a child, dependent on his mother, and has grown up. This response is of course linked to the central theme of the story, which is the way that we all need some kind of coming-of-age initiation which shows both ourselves and others that we are no longer children. At the end of the story, we see the mother surprised at an easy victory as she expected a "battle of wills" with her son. However, for Jerry, now that he has completed his own self-imposed task, we are told that "it was no longer of the least importance to go down to the bay." We as readers are left with the impression that now Jerry has done what he set himself to complete, he does not need to exert his independence in the same way as he did, going by himself to the "wild bay." We are left with an impression of a boy who has grown up.

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How does a reader find the symbolic meaning in "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing?

When seeking symbolic meaning in a literary work, the reader looks for objects that are mentioned with some frequency, such as the mother's arm; in addition, the reader examines in what manner and under what circumstances these objects are mentioned, as well as being attentive to the significance of the title and its relationship to the narrative.  Of course, in Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel," the underwater passage is, indeed, significant as it is pivotal to Jerry's attempts to prove to the older boys that he is not childish.  The mother's arm and the tunnel, then, are the two symbols of the short story.  Colors, too, are often symbolic.

The mother's arm

In the exposition of the story, the mother worries that she may be "keeping him too close."  Thus her arm symbolizes Jerry's childish attachment to his mother since mothers of young children usually hold onto their children.  Symbolically,  the mother's arm represents her being disconnected from Jerry "bare" and slightly "reddened from yesterday's sun" as she swings it without Jerry beside her like a small boy.

The tunnel

Because the older boys are able to hold their breaths and swim through the tunnel while Jerry cannot, the tunnel comes to represent a rite of passage into adulthood for Jerry.  Without telling his mother--breaking from her motherhood--Jerry practices until he is successful in going through this tunnel.  After the completion of this act, Jerry feels fulfilled.  For, when he sees the local boys diving and playing, "He did not want them."


Certain colors always carry a significance to them.  Lessing makes use of this significance as Jerry sees his mother on the shore, "a speck of yellow under an umbrella that looked like a slice of orange peel." 

  • Yellow, a color that has negative connotations, is often associated with danger or cowardice.  In this story, Jerry's mother represents a childish security which he now perceives as cowardly, unmanly. 
  • Orange symbolizes a demand for attention.
  • The white sand above the great rock through which the older boys swim represents Jerry's innocence before he makes his rite of passage.
  • The black of the deep tunnel's wall symbolizes mystery, depth,and power, all of which Jerry experiences when he passes through the tunnel's length.

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