Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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The influence of the setting on the themes and plot progression of "Through the Tunnel."


The setting of "Through the Tunnel" significantly influences its themes and plot progression. The contrasting environments of the safe beach and the dangerous underwater tunnel symbolize the protagonist's journey from childhood to adulthood. The physical challenge of swimming through the tunnel mirrors his internal struggle for independence and self-discovery, driving the story forward and deepening its thematic exploration.

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Identify a theme in "Through the Tunnel" and explain how the setting contributes to it.

"Through the Tunnel" is a coming-of-age story of sorts, and as such, one of its primary themes is the innocent child coming to terms with his own mortality. Therefore, there could hardly be a better setting than the open water, a wondrous but dangerous space where children can both play and be in extreme peril.

Even before we see our protagonist getting himself into dangerous situations, Lessing gives us the following description of the sand and the water:

He went out fast over the gleaming sand, over a middle region where rocks lay like discolored monsters under the surface, and then he was in the real sea—a warm sea where irregular cold currents from the deep water shocked his limbs.

Although this quotation gives us a sense that the beach is quite beautiful, it also comes off as rather frightening. After all, the rocks are described as "discolored monsters," and the water rather violently interacts with Jerry's body by shocking his limbs.

This is not the only quote we are given concerning the dangerous nature of the water. Lessing also tells us this:

He swam back to the big rock, climbed up, and dived into the blue pool among the fanged and angry boulders.

Sounds dangerous, right? Luckily, our protagonist learns his lesson—albeit after almost dying. By the end of the story he decides that "it was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay."

In the end, Jerry realizes that his ability to swim through the rock tunnel is trivial. Not only do the other boys not pay him any mind, but he couldn't care less himself. He comes to the realization that putting himself in harm's way to prove something so frivolous is simply not worth the risk.

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Identify a theme in "Through the Tunnel" and explain how the setting contributes to it.

One theme that is present in Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" is the attainment of independence.

Jerry is an eleven-year old boy who is the only child of a widow. While he and his mother are on holiday together, Jerry yearns to be more like the older boys that he observes away from the beach where he usually goes with his mother. One day he suddenly blurts, "I'd like to go and have a look at those rocks down there." When she hears her son's words, the mother worries that she has possibly been too possessive, keeping him with her all the time. So, she gives her permission.

Jerry observes that the older boys—"men to Jerry"—dive down and swim through a barrier of rock; then, they emerge on the far side. Afterwards, Jerry yearns to be able to perform this manly feat himself. In order to be able to do so, Jerry practices diving down in the water and holding his breath and using goggles that his mother has bought for him. Through his daring perseverance, Jerry can hold his breath long enough to pass through the narrow end of the tunnel:

His lungs were beginning to hurt. A few more strokes and he would be out. . . . He was at the end of what he could do. . . . He must go on into the blackness ahead, or he would drown. . . . He felt he was dying.

Between lapses of unconsciousness, Jerry succeeds in passing through the rocky tunnel.

After this success, Jerry has gained his independence and individual identity. When he sees the boys diving and playing a short distance away, Jerry no longer desires to join them:

He did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down.

Later, since Jerry feels confident in his new manhood, going to the bay is no longer of any interest to him. Jerry is confident in his individualism.

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Identify a theme in "Through the Tunnel" and explain how the setting contributes to it.

In "Through the Tunnel," the negative connotations and dangerous imagery associated with the "wild bay" help to convey the theme that growing up can be a painful and scary process.  Jerry longs to grow up and to fit in with the "older boys -- men to Jerry" who swim and dive at the wild bay rather than remain on the "safe beach" with his mother, a beach later described as "a place for children."  The way to the wild bay is marked with "rough, sharp rock" and the water shows "stains of purple and darker blue."  The rocks sound as if they could do a great deal of damage to the body, and the stains are described like a bruise.  It sounds painful.  Then, "rocks lay like discoloured monsters under the surface" of the water and "irregular cold currents from the deep shocked [Jerry's] limbs."  This place sounds frightening and alarming and unpredictable.  Given that this is the location associated with maturity, with the time after childhood, we can understand that the process of growing up and becoming a man is a time that is fraught with dangers and fear, because Jerry endures both in the "wild bay."

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What is the purpose of the setting in "Through the Tunnel"?

The setting of the story allows Jerry a chance to grow up away from his well-meaning but somewhat over-protective mother. In his battle to be able to swim "Through the Tunnel" Jerry must fight his own physical weakness by learning to hold his breath under water, and he must fight against his embarrassment at being left behind by the native boys. His determination to be able to swim through the tunnel marks the beginning of his passage from boyhood to young adulthood.

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

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 surmised that the "young English boy" and his mother are vacationing on an African coast since Doris 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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How does the setting in "Through the Tunnel" affect its themes and plot progression?

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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What is a theme in "Through the Tunnel" and how does the setting contribute to it?

One of the themes in "Through the Tunnel" highlights the developing individualism of a young boy. To that end, the setting in Lessing's story contributes to the development of this theme.

Setting is defined as the place, time, and/or duration of important events in a story which culminate in a resolution; setting is often conveyed to readers through the use of rich imagery.

In the story, Jerry is vacationing at the beach with his mother. Even from the very beginning, Jerry wants to go off by himself to 'have a look at those rocks down there.' He wants to explore the area by himself, to assert his growing curiosity about the world of his childhood vacations. His mother thinks that the area where he wants to explore is 'a wild-looking place' with no visible vacationers in sight, but this is precisely what Jerry likes about the place: it is unknown, vast, and possibly even dangerous. In fact, it is a 'steep descent to the bay.'

We feel Jerry's sense of accomplishment as he swims past a 'middle region where rocks lay like discolored monsters under the surface' to arrive at 'the real sea, a warm sea where irregular cold currents from the deep water shocked his limbs.'  The irregular, cold currents represent uncertainty; even the rocks look surreal, perhaps concealing latent, undefined threats to this courageous adventurer. Lessing cleverly uses the imagery of setting to highlight both the euphoria and the emotional conflict present in her young protagonist as he breaks away from his mother to explore his surroundings. The 'break' is as emotional as it is psychological. Even Jerry's mother senses that this 'break' is necessary to her son's maturing individuality: 'she was determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion.'

Lessing further carries this theme of individualism into subsequent images of another setting. This time, Jerry comes across a group of boys who are 'diving again and again from a high point into a well of blue sea between rough, pointed rocks.' Apparently, this individualism carries with it a high price. Jerry must and wants to earn his right to swim with the older boys. However, he soon discovers that he must conquer the long, dark, and ominous tunnel under a great barrier rock if he wants to accomplish the same swimming feat as the bigger boys. Once again, the imagery presents an imposing portrait of challenge and peril characteristic of a theme which explores courageous individualism.

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How does the setting of "Through the Tunnel" support the theme?

The first theme, rite of passage, deals with Jerry's transition from boyhood to adolescence.  This is reflected in his physical passage through the tunnel underwater.  When he first approaches it in view of the local boys, he is not only unable to coss it, but he is also very fearful of it, showing his immaturity.  However, he keeps working at it until he is finally able to cross straight through and achieve, quite possibly, the biggest goal he has ever set for himself.

The second theme is individualism.  Jerry is an individual moreso at the end than at the beginning.  At the start of the story, Jerry is trying to fit in with the local boys; however, his goal of passing through the tunnel at the end is moreso for his own individual desires than to show off to the boys.

The final theme, alienation and loneliness, also is tied in with the other two themes in that all he did was initially propelled by his desire to fit in.  He was unable to do this and instead his immaturity caused him to be alienated by the boys, thus making him feel lonely.  Later on, he embraces this alienation and uses it to his advantage to complete the task he has set forth for himself.

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What is the setting of "Through the Tunnel" and does it influence the story?

In Doris Lessing's short story, "Through the Tunnel," the setting is an unspecified beach in a foreign country that the single British mother and son visit.  Lessing herself was born in Iran, formerly known as Persia, so Jerry and his mother may be vacationing on the Meditteranean because the boys speak French.  Perhaps they are in one of the North Afican countries such as Tunisia or Algeria. 

At any rate, the bay is described as "wild," indicating a setting that is not a civilized one to which "the young English boy" is accustomed. In fact, the boys on the edge of a small cape that marks the side of the bay that is away from the usual area for the English boy have stripped and run naked down to the rocks.  They dive and, significantly, come up on the other side of a big, dark rock. 

Certainly, the setting of this story is pivotal to the plot.  For, Jerry, who has been protected by his mother, this setting is extremely significant as it is his discovery of the rock through which the other boys swim that leads to his acts of independence.  Once Jerry has seen the wild boy swim through a tunnel, he is determined to find this passage throught the cave, or tunnel, and swim out to the other side just as the others have done because he is shamed by their laughter and their "grave frowning."  Determined to swim through the tunnel, Jerry conditions himself,

exercising his lungs as if everything, the whole of his life, all that he would become, depended upon it.

Finally, on the day before they depart, Jerry determines to swim through the tunnel. His act of assertion--"he must go into the blackness ahead"--is the beginning of his rite of passage into manhood and he struggles physically in the darkness of the water.  But, when Jerry emerges, gasping with a bleeding nose,he glaces at the other boys diving and playing not far away--"he did not want them."  Instead, he returns home, and when his mother suggests he swim no more that day, he does not object:  "It was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay."  For, his having swum through the tunnel indicates that Jerry has passed from boyhood to manhood, from the "safe beach" to the "wild bay."

Setting is intrinsic to the theme of Lessing's story.  Ms. Lessing has used imagery and figures of speech to make the bay fearful and threatening as the underwater tunnel seems like a place of entombment where Jerry "felt he was dying."  Jerry's passage through this forebidding tunnel indicates not only his courage, but his resurrection and rebirth as a man.  The struggle has been a little bloody, but Jerry feels himself now an adult, not an emasculated boy who needs protection from his domineering mother. Thus, the influence of the setting of the "wid bay" is tremendous because the tunnel and the challenge that it presents bring Jerry, who answers this challenge, to manhood.

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