Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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How does the setting in "Through the Tunnel" affect its themes and plot progression?

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The foreign, wild, and rugged setting advances the themes of alienation and maturation. This setting helps to advance the plot since the main character's actions and maturation are connected to the wild bay and its underground tunnel. 

While the author provides no specifics regarding the setting, some literary critics have...

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surmised that the "young English boy" and his mother are vacationing on an African coast sinceDoris Lessing herself lived in Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe). She once wrote,

 Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape. [Enotes]

Because he is in a foreign country, Jerry has no friends with whom he can interact; his feelings of rejection at the hands of the French-speaking boys who swim away from him at the wild bay leave him feeling profoundly lonely. Alone, Jerry must wrestle with his feelings and make decisions on his own. He decides to figure out how the boys have reached the far side of the barrier rock because "to be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body." When he is unable to imitate them as they go underwater through a tunnel in the rock, Jerry practices holding his breath until he can do so long enough to swim the length of the tunnel. 

While he feels ready to make the passage through the tunnel, Jerry still undergoes some stress to his body. Nevertheless, he pursues his goal. As he exits the tunnel, Jerry feels victorious. Now "he wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down." No longer does Jerry desire being with the other boys: "he did not want them." He has undergone his rite of passage on his own in the rugged undersea setting. 

Having accomplished his rite of passage on his own, Jerry feels independent. After he returns to where he is staying with his mother, she remarks that he looks a little pale. A more mature Jerry does not reveal what he has done; instead, he only tells her that he can stay underwater for two to three minutes, perhaps, so she will not worry. 

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The setting of the story is fairly straightforward and appropriately vague. Jerry and his mother are on vacation together. Readers are told the vacation destination is a place that has large beaches, a bay, and big rocks at different parts of the beach. Readers are also told the vacation spot is familiar to both Jerry and his mother. That tells readers that the two of them have vacationed there together before.  

Thematically, the story is about a boy's rite of passage toward individualism and adulthood. Jerry desires some time and space away from his mother. Jerry's mother struggles with the concept, but she knows she needs to begin giving Jerry some personal freedom. She does this by allowing him to go the "wild beach" by himself. There, Jerry sees the other boys swimming through the tunnel. He makes it his personal goal to do the same before the vacation is over, and Jerry eventually succeeds.  

The setting is a realistic location that allows Jerry to pursue his independence. A day at the beach is likely relatable for a variety of readers, so the setting is immediately familiar to readers. Additionally, most readers have likely been in Jerry's position before and sought time away from parents. As a parent, I have had both Jerry's and his mother's experiences. I believe Lessing could have chosen a different setting to get the same point across to her audience. All Lessing needs is a setting that allows Jerry the opportunity to have a growing up moment. Camping in the woods or a day at the carnival could have supplied a similar situation.   

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