Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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Jerry's determination to swim through the tunnel and its symbolic significance in "Through the Tunnel."

Summary:

Jerry's determination to swim through the tunnel symbolizes his journey towards independence and maturity. By conquering this physical challenge, he proves to himself that he can overcome obstacles and assert his individuality, marking a significant step in his personal growth and transition from childhood to adolescence.

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Why is it important for Jerry to swim through the tunnel?

Like many kids of his age, Jerry wants to be able to do whatever the older boys do. In fact, he views being able to swim through the tunnel in the huge rock as a rite of passage.

Initially, for Jerry "to be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body." He yearns for acceptance by the older boys. At first, when the others wave and smile at him, Jerry is content because the group seems to have accepted him. However, when they dive and come up on the other side of a dark rock, Jerry again senses alienation.

Jerry at first feels accepted, but when the older boys swim through the great rock, a feat that Jerry cannot do, he feels their rejection since he recognizes that they perceive him as juvenile. The boys' ability to hold their breath and swim through the great rock can be likened to scaling a cliff or making one's first successful dive off the high board. In short, it is a feat that allows them to perceive themselves as more men than boys. Jerry wants to be perceived as more than just a boy as well.

After he is humiliated by the older boys, who swim away, Jerry resolves to be able to perform the feat of holding his breath and swimming through the tunnel. When he is finally successful, "he did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down . . . . It was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay." Jerry does not "want" the other boys because he has proven to himself that he is now their equal by completing his rite of passage.

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Why is it important for Jerry to swim through the tunnel?

It is important for Jerry to swim through the tunnel, on a literal level, because he wants to be able to fit in with the older, local boys who could do it.  These boys seemed "like men to Jerry," and when they came to the wild bay, he wanted nothing more than to be accepted by them.  Initially, the boys made room for him, but once they began to swim through the tunnel, he clowned around to get their attention, and they abandoned him.  In Jerry's eyes, what really separates him from them is their ability to perform this physical feat.  He longs to close the gap between himself and these older boys by erasing this difference.

On a symbolic level, Jerry wants to swim through the tunnel because he longs to grow up.  Swimming through the tunnel feels like an initiation of sorts, as if accomplishing this task will prove, somehow, that he's ready for adulthood. 

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What does Jerry accomplish by swimming through the tunnel in the story "Through the Tunnel"?  

  • By swimming through the tunnel, Jerry completes a rite of passage. He also realizes that even though he can do what the big boys can, he still wants to go home and spend time with his mother.
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What does Jerry accomplish by swimming through the tunnel in the story "Through the Tunnel"?  

Jerry completes a rite of passage by successfully swimming through the underwater tunnel.

When the English boy Jerry, who is on holiday with his mother, first leaves her and goes to the bay, he swims out to where rocks are "like discolored monsters under the surface," and he finds himself out in the real sea. Then, he swims back to a cape with "a loose scatter of rocks" where some older boys, native to the coast, run.

To be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body.

When one of them smiles and waves, Jerry swims in and out of the rocks with them. But, when they realize that he is a foreigner and does not understand them, they ignore him. Still, they part for him to dive with them. Shortly after this, the largest boy dives and does not soon reappear. Worried that something has happened to him, Jerry cries out in warning. However, after some time, this boy resurfaces and the others dive into the water in the same manner. Jerry can see nothing when he plunges under the water, but when he surfaces, the others are all on the first rock in order to repeat their feats. "They looked down gravely, frowning." Jerry is embarrassed and acts silly, splashing the water and yelling in English, "Look at me! Look!" But, as he does this, water fills his mouth and he sinks, then resurfaces; in the meantime, the older boys have all dived down into the water caves of rock. When they resurface, they return to the shore without looking back at him.

So, in his embarrassment Jerry returns to his mother's beach and tells her that he wants some swimming goggles right away. He pesters his mother until she goes with him to a shop. After she makes the purchase, Jerry grabs the goggles and runs to the bay where he can now search for the opening in the rocks through which the older boys have swum. Having found the hole in the great rock, Jerry returns to the hotel, dreaming of it at night. The next day he rushes to the bay and he practices holding his breath so that he can be able to swim through this tunnel.

After four days his mother tells him that they must soon return home. So Jerry decides that he will complete his passage through the underwater tunnel on the day before they depart. He goes to the bay with his goggles and although his lungs are now in condition, Jerry's head pulses. Nevertheless, he perseveres and he successfully swims through the tunnel. "Victory filled him" as he feels more mature. When he tears off his goggles a clout of blood washes into the sea, but he just splashes his face clear of anything. Then, he sees the local boys, but now "he did not want them." He just wants to go home. After he rests, Jerry swims to the shore and returns to his mother with the knowledge that he can do what the older boys can; he merely tells him mother that he can hold his breath for two or three minutes. He has made his rite of passage into adolescence: "It was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay." 

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In the short story "Through the Tunnel," why does Jerry make himself swim through the tunnel?

Jerry is eleven years old, on the cusp of adolescence, and clearly desiring more independence from his mother. Guilt, or "contrition," seems to compel him to remain with her, more so than an actual desire to be with her. For their entire first day of vacation, he stays with his mother, and yet, "he looked back over his shoulder at the wild bay; and all morning, as he played on the safe beach, he was thinking of it." The "safe beach" seems to symbolize childhood and the safety of enjoying the protection of one's parents, while the "wild bay" seems to symbolize maturity and its attendant dangers.

When he finally does get to play at the "wild bay," a group of "big boys—men, to Jerry" comes and begins to dive off the promontory into the water. Jerry begins to swim around and get in line with them, and "He felt he was accepted and he dived again, carefully, proud of himself." It seems of vital importance to him to be accepted by them, and when they begin to lose interest in him and swim through the tunnel in the rock, his childish antics to regain their attention actually drive them away. He seems to feel that being able to swim through the rock would make him like them, make him fit in, and signal that he, too, is "a man." This is the reason that he drives himself to do it, despite its dangers.

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In the short story "Through the Tunnel," why does Jerry make himself swim through the tunnel?

The short story "Through the Tunnel" is a story about the coming of age of the protagonist, Jerry. With the absence of his father, an overprotective mother, and lack of friends, Jerry needs to prove to himself as well as others that he is capable of accomplishing this dangerous act.  In so doing, Jerry's personal challenges is a "rite of passage" and thus gives him the independence he needs to stand on his own and separate from this overprotective mother.  Accomplishing this physical challenge not only separates him from his mother, but allows him the possibility of male championship because  he has proven that he can perform a manly task such as swimming through the tunnel.

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In "Through the Tunnel," why is Jerry determined to swim through the tunnel?

After his rejection by the older native boys, who have perceived him as immature as he splashes foolishly in the water, Jerry sits on the rough rock and cries "openly" because he envies their camaraderie and freedom and daring. So, after having "cried himself out," Jerry swims back to the beach where his mother sits, and demands swimming goggles, nagging her until she takes him to a shop and purchases them.

Equipped with the goggles, Jerry returns to the large barrier rock where he dives down to the base of this rock, but he can find no gap in it. Nonetheless, he perseveres until he does discover the hole that the boys have entered. And, because the rejection of the older boys has made Jerry feel childish and inadequate, he feels he must be able to go through this hole himself as they have done. Therefore, he secretly practices holding his breath until he becomes confident that he, too, can swim through the tunnel and, thus, in this "rite of passage," feel the older boys' equal. In addition, Jerry must prove his manliness to himself as well, so he challenges himself in facing the danger of swimming through the tunnel. 

As he swims through the dark tunnel, "[V]ictory filled him. But, soon his lungs begin to hurt and he know that he must continue in the darkness or drown. Finally, while he lapses in and out of consciousness. Jerry makes his way into the open sea and struggles onto the rock where, exhausted he lies for a time. When his heart quiets down and his eyes clear, Jerry sits up and watches the other boys; this time, however, he does not need them because he has attained maturity and independence:

[H]e did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get home and lie down.

With determination, Jerry has proven to himself that he can do what the older boys do; he, too, is manly and not a child, anymore. He returns home and proudly tells his mother that he can hold his breath for nearly three minutes.

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In "Through the Tunnel," why is Jerry determined to swim through the tunnel?

In Doris Lessing's short story "Through the Tunnel," Jerry keeps his swimming accomplishment to himself perhaps because he doesn't want his mother to know what he has been doing (so she doesn't scold him or worry) and perhaps also because this feat has been a personal achievement that he wants to reflect on for a while.

First, Jerry definitely has a sense that if his mother knew what he has been doing, she would stop him. After Jerry spends time with the local boys and realizes that they are swimming through an underwater tunnel, he decides that he must do it, too. He cries at first because he can't and because the boys seem to reject him for it. But then, the idea takes hold of him, and he actually begins a training regime that is unusual for an eleven-year-old boy. He builds up his ability to hold his breath underwater, working at it gradually over several days. Yet he never tells his mother about it and downplays the problem of the bloody nose he gets at night. One day, his mother insists that Jerry stay with her, and this drives home the point that he should not tell her. After all, Jerry's mother worries about him. He is an only child, and his father is dead.

Jerry doesn't even tell his mother after the fact, for again, he realizes that she wouldn't like what he has done. She may not allow him any future freedom (for she has struggled enough with letting him go on his own this time around). At the very least, she would probably give him a sharp scolding for taking such a risk, and she would worry all the more about him next time. Jerry does seem to love his mother, so he would want to avoid that.

Further, Jerry wants to keep his accomplishment to himself so that he can reflect on it for a while. He has done something major here by swimming through that tunnel, yet it has scared him a bit, too. He realizes both his new-found strength and the danger in which he has placed himself, and he needs some time to process both. He must meditate on his reaction to his achievement (which is likely not quite what he has expected) and decide what it might mean for him in the long run; and this is something no one else, not even his mother, can tell him.

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In "Through the Tunnel," why is Jerry determined to swim through the tunnel?

Jerry's having swum through the tunnel is his rite of passage into manhood, and that is enough. 

By overcoming great obstacles and by facing danger alone, Jerry has acquired greater maturity and independence. In fact, telling his mother what he has accomplished could mitigate, or reduce, Jerry's personal pride in his newly acquired manhood. For one thing, she might display anxiety about his having tried such a dangerous feat, and then Jerry could feel some guilt about his actions. So, when he and his mother sit down to have lunch together right after she has "looked at him closely" and has seen that he is "strained," Jerry probably perceives the worry and anxiety in his mother's face. Feeling the need to relieve her anxiety, as well as having a child's need to tell his parent about an accomplishment, Jerry does reveal to his mother that he can now hold his breath for at least two or three minutes.

This revelation brings from his mother both praise and concern:

"Can you, darling?" she said. "Well, I shouldn't overdo it. I don't think you ought to swim any more today."

Jerry perceives from this response that he has made the right decision in choosing not to inform his mother of his feat. He wants his rite of passage to remain free of emotional and parental entanglements so that he can maintain his newfound independence.

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In "Through the Tunnel," why is Jerry determined to swim through the tunnel?

In the end, Jerry doesn't tell his mother about swimming through the tunnel because what he seems to want, at that point, is her approval and praise, and he likely knows that she would not approve of his decision to put his life in danger in order to do something so completely unnecessary and stupid.

In the beginning, Jerry understands that his mother worries about him.  "He was very familiar with that anxious, apologetic smile" of hers that signaled her twin worries: worrying about giving him too much freedom and worrying that she doesn't give him enough.  Therefore, in the end, to tell her that he had done something so dangerous would absolutely confirm that she has erred by allowing him too much independence.  He does not want to make her worry because he feels somewhat "chivalr[ous]" towards her and experiences the pangs of "contrition" when he thinks he's letting her down.

Further, he does want her approval and praise, and so he impulsively tells her that he can "'stay under water for two minutes -- three minutes, at least.'"  The narrator says that "It came bursting out of him" as some such news would from a little child.  This is an achievement that he feels safe telling her because it wouldn't endanger him or cause her to worry.  Like a child, he longs for her praise, and this is an achievement that she can (and does) praise.

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In "Through the Tunnel," why does Jerry not tell his mother that he swam through the tunnel?

Jerry doesn't tell his mother of his accomplishment for two reasons. She is very protective of him. She treats him as a small child, even though he is eleven years old. She would be frightened and upset to learn that he swam through the tunnel. She might possibly watch him even more closely in the future. One theme in the story is Jerry's need to become more independent of his mother--to grow up.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, Jerry does not tell her because he does not need to tell her. Swimming through the tunnel is something he has done for himself to gain self-respect. He still wants or needs his mother's approval to some extent, however. At the end of the story, he does share with her how long he can now hold his breath.

By the conclusion of the story, Jerry has grown up in an important way. He has acted independently and proved to himself that he has discipline, strength and courage. Because this knowledge has now become a part of him, Jerry does not need to share it with his mother or prove it to the other boys.

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In "Through the Tunnel," why is Jerry determined to swim through the tunnel?

Jerry does not tell his mother about the feat he has accomplished—swimming all the way through the underwater tunnel through the rock—because he understands it would make his mother very worried about him. He recognizes the somewhat difficult position she is in (as the single mother of a growing son), and he understands her ambivalence about giving him increased independence.  Early in the story, Jerry can tell that his mother is thinking through what he may or may not want to do and whether he might want to go to the beach alone, without her.

She frowned, conscientiously worrying over what amusements he might secretly be longing for, which she had been too busy or too careless to imagine. He was very familiar with that anxious, apologetic smile. Contrition sent him running after her.

Jerry knows his mother feels anxiety over him, and he has no wish to add her to worry; in fact, he seems to feel an obligation to soothe and assure her. Telling her about the tunnel would only make her worry more.

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What does Jerry's tunnel swim symbolize in "Through the Tunnel"?

Jerry's swim through the tunnel symbolizes a rite of passage from boyhood to young manhood.

A coming-of-age story, Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" uses symbols to represent Jerry's state of being and his rite of passage. The tunnel of the large rock under the water out in the "wild bay" symbolically represents this rite because swimming through this long passage requires manly discipline and stamina.

Certainly, an examination of Jerry's behavior when he first witnesses the older boys' feat of diving into the dark water and emerging some time later indicates his immaturity. For instance, after plunging down a few times in search of the opening, Jerry sees the other boys preparing to dive again:

And now, in a panic of failure, he yelled up, in English, "Look at me! Look!" and he began splashing and kicking in the water like a foolish dog.

Jerry's childish clowning receives only disdain from the older boys, and his failures to compete with them causes them to swim back to shore without even looking at him. Once on shore they gather their clothes quickly and run to another promontory. Feeling their rejection, Jerry immaturely "cried openly, fists in his eyes."

But, after he swims to shore and returns to the villa and his mother, Jerry demands that she purchase swim goggles for him as he has resolved that he will discover the opening to the tunnel and train himself to make the passage. After days of increasing his lung power, Jerry is finally able hold his breath long enough to swim through the hole that he has succeeded in discovering. When he emerges from the tunnel, Jerry "wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down," even though he sees the older boys some distance away. "[I]t was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay" because Jerry has proven himself the equal of the older boys; he has accomplished his rite of passage.

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In "Through the Tunnel," what does the tunnel symbolize to Jerry?

At first, the tunnel is simply something that is in his way of his friendship with the native boys where he is vacationing. However, as the story progresses, the tunnel becomes an obstacle that he must overcome for his own self-esteem. Once his is able to get through the tunnel on his own, "He could see the local boys diving and playing a half mile away. He did not want them." Knowing that he can work hard and overcome an obstacle in life is enough for Jerry.

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In "Through the Tunnel," what does Jerry's trip represent and why is it a powerful symbol?

I answered this question yesterday, but here it is again. 

In Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel", the two beaches symbolize the two parts of Jerry that are in conflict.  The safe beach, where his mother relaxes, represents the safety and maternal protection Jerry experienced as a child.  The wild beach represents the part of Jerry that wishes to break away from his mother's sheltering watch and become more independent.  It is at the wild beach that he sees the boys swimming through an underwater tunnel, and he decides to prove himself so that he can feel a sense of "belonging" to a group of peers, even though he never actually joins in with them.  He sees what they can do, and he challenges himself, through intense self-training, to be like them.  The tunnel represents Jerry's Rite of Passage as he moves from childhood toward becoming more independent.

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Why does Jerry desperately want to join the boys in "Through the Tunnel"?

At its core, "Through the Tunnel" is a coming of age story.  Jerry and his mom are on vacation together, and like most teenage boys Jerry wants some freedom and independence from his mom.  At least that's how I felt as a teenage boy. Jerry loves his mom just as much as he ever did, but he feels that his mom's presence makes him appear less independent. It even makes him feel less independent. He sees the other boys going about their fun without any mothers around and Jerry wants some of that. He wants to prove to himself and to the other boys that he is no longer a boy. He sees himself as a young man, and he wants the other boys to see him that way too.  

They looked down gravely, frowning. He knew the frown. At moments of failure, when he clowned to claim his mother’s attention, it was with just this grave, embarrassed inspection that she rewarded him. Through his hot shame, feeling the pleading grin on his face like a scar that he could never remove, he looked up at the group of big brown boys on the rock
and shouted. . .

You can see from the quote that Jerry is sick of the patronizing "little kid" look that he normally gets. That's why he trains so hard to make the swim. The tunnel is a metaphorical gateway to becoming a member of the young man group that the other boys belong to. 

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Why does Jerry persist in swimming through the tunnel instead of swimming back?

Like most boys his age, Jerry is desperate to fit in. He wants to prove himself in front of the other boys to show them that he is not what they would regard as a sissy. Swimming through the tunnel is an important rite of passage, one that will represent an important checkpoint on Jerry's long, complicated journey to manhood. Although it will present quite a challenge—and a potentially dangerous one at that—Jerry knows that if he is to prove himself to the other boys, there is simply no way that he can turn back.

But as the story progresses, Jerry no longer wants to swim through the tunnel to impress the other boys; he now wants to do it for himself. In completing the challenge, Jerry has not just matured considerably, he has also become an individual. This rite of passage is essential to his identity and self-worth. But more than that, it is been an assertion of Jerry's individuality—something special and unique that does not depend on the approval of others.

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Why does Jerry persist in swimming through the tunnel instead of swimming back?

Once Jerry is far into the tunnel, there really is no choice but to continue pressing forward. The tunnel is fairly narrow, so there is not enough space to move his arms in the wider way he would need to in order to move backward. Moreover, the tunnel is dark and he cannot see for most of the early part of his swim, so he would not be able to tell where he was going, especially moving backward (and against intuition). Swimming backward would take so much longer that he would waste precious air. Further, completing this task is a major point of pride for Jerry. He doesn't want to back out and give up—he wants to make it all the way through to prove something to himself: that he is as capable, independent, and brave as the older boys who did it before him.

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