Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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What is Jerry's mother's motivation in "Through the Tunnel" and how does it advance the plot?

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Jerry's mother does not want to be the smothering type; she is worried that because she is the sole parent she has been "keeping him too close" to her. So, she tries to be loving, but provide him certain freedoms.

When Jerry and his mother walk toward the customary beach one day on their vacation, she notices that Jerry looks over his shoulder, and as he plays on the "safe beach," he thinks of the other one. So, the following day when it is time for their swim, she asks Jerry if he would like to go to another spot. At first, Jerry says "no" because he does not want to hurt her feelings, but then he blurts out that he would like to explore the rocks. So, she gives her permission for Jerry to go to the other beach alone. With this action Jerry's mother provides her son the opportunity to be more independent.

Another way in which Jerry's mother affords him chances for independence is by purchasing swim goggles, and not questioning him about his reason for wanting them. Further, when she talks to Jerry, she says things "casually" without dictatorial tones. On the day that Jerry completes his rite of passage through the tunnel, he returns home and rushes into the bathroom so that his mother will not see the bloodstains or tear stains on his face. After Jerry comes out, his mother just asks him, "Have a nice morning?" and she lays her hand on his shoulder momentarily. Then, she examines him more closely and is concerned, "How did you bang your head?" When Jerry answers "Oh, just banged it," his mother catches herself, thinking,

"Oh, don't fuss! Nothing can happen. He can swim like a fish."

By catching herself, Jerry's mother allows her son to retain his sense of maturity. As a result, he volunteers information on what he has been doing, "Mummy, I can stay under water for two minutes--three minutes, at least." She affirms his accomplishment, "Can you, darling?" But, she also cautions him lightly, "Well, I shouldn't overdo it. I don't think you ought to swim any more today." 

By allowing Jerry the opportunity to make his own decisions, Jerry's mother provides her son room to mature. This freedom advances the plot because she encourages Jerry to make every effort to go through the tunnel and complete his rite of passage. Perhaps, without the trust of his mother, Jerry might not have had the perseverance to have swum through the tunnel.

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I've read this story many times, and my understanding of Jerry's mother has changed as my life's stages have changed. When I was kid, I thought that Jerry's mom was being far too overprotective and "motherly;" however, now that I am a parent, I completely understand her motivation. She wants to protect Jerry. As his parent, she wants to protect him from anything and everything that might cause him physical or emotional pain, but she knows that isn't possible. Furthermore, she also knows that it isn't good parenting. Jerry is growing up, and she knows that he needs to make his own decisions and experience his own freedoms and the possible pitfalls of that freedom.

She was thinking, Of course he’s old enough to be safe without me. Have I been keeping him too close? He mustn’t feel he ought to be with me. I must be careful.

He was an only child, eleven years old. She was a widow. She was determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion. She went worrying off to her beach.

To Jerry's credit, he is somewhat aware of his mother's struggle. He knows that she desperately doesn't want him to go to the wild beach, but he really wants that independence too. Jerry worries about his mother multiple times.

She walked away, that bare arm, now slightly reddened from yesterday’s sun, swinging. And he almost ran after her again, feeling it unbearable that she should go by herself, but he did not.

That internal conflict in Jerry, combined with his mother's protective doting, drives Jerry to dangerously experiment with his life on a long underwater swim that almost kills him.

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Jerry's mother is motivated by the dilemma that every parent faces as his or her child begins to grow up.  In fact, her "every mother" status seems to be confirmed by the fact that she is never named in the story: she is only ever known as "Jerry's mother."  When she agreed to let him go to the "wild bay" instead of the "safe beach" with her,

"She was thinking, Of course he's old enough to be safe without me.  Have I been keeping him too close?  He mustn't feel he ought to be with me.  I must be careful." 

Because he is eleven, Jerry is at the age where he wants increased independence, and his mother is keenly aware that she must begin to grant it.  However, she "conscientiously worr[ies]" about giving him too much freedom and what he might do with it if he had it.  On the other hand, she doesn't want to keep him "too close" or he might begin to resent the responsibility he feels toward her. 

Jerry's mother's internal conflict and her motivation to retain his love are what compel her to allow him to go to the wild bay instead of accompanying her to their usual "safe beach."  Therefore, it is actually her dilemma (and her mistake in granting him what seems like too much freedom given the terrible judgment he exercises for the next several days) that allows the remainder of the story to take place.

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