Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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What are the conflicts in Through the Tunnel?

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There are two major conflicts in this story, one interior and one exterior. Both have to do with the growing maturity of Jerry. Jerry is a young boy when the story opens who has evidently lost his father and whose main companion appears to be his mother. When the native boys trick Jerry and swim through the tunnel, Jerry determines that he will train himself to be able to swim through the tunnel also. This is the exterior conflict. He must train his body to be able to hold his breath long enough and be physically strong enough to do what the native boys had done. Jerry finally succeeds and is victorious in this conflict. However, there is a symbolic meaning to Jerry's accomplishment. This is the interior conflict. Jerry, who up until this time has been considered a boy attached to his mother, Jerry trains and succeeds without his mother's help or knowledge. He is beginning to detach from his mother and learn to fight his own battles. So, when Jerry is physically able to swim "through the tunnel" he has also crossed a barrier into manhood. He has been able to leave the safety of his mother and swim, both literally and metaphorically, into the "wild and rocky" waters of young adulthood.

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What are conflicts in "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing?

In this coming-of-age short story entitled "Through the Tunnel," there are internal and external conflicts in the main character, named Jerry, and there are internal conflicts in his mother.

An English eleven-year-old and his mother are on holiday at what is probably Southern Rhodesia in South Africa, a British colony (now Zimbabwe) and a spot where the author, Doris Lessing, vacationed in her youth. A widow, Jerry's mother worries that she is too protective. So, when her son indicates that he wishes to explore the rocks at another location from their "usual beach," she ponders his request with some inner conflict:

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.

Jerry's mother allows him to go, but she worries as she walks to the usual beach alone. After some time, Jerry returns to the villa to wait for his mother. When she enters, a "pant[ing], defiant, and beseeching" Jerry blurts out, "I want some swimming goggles." His mother, however, has seemingly resolved her inner conflict because she responds "casually." Agreeing to purchase the goggles, she says to Jerry, "Well, of course, darling." Then when he "nag[s] and pester[s]" her until she takes him to a shop, his mother does not question Jerry about what he is going to do, thus treating him as a mature youth. Finally, when Jerry succeeds one day in swimming through the opening in the great rocks, his mother greets him with a smile and asks casually, "Have a nice morning?" However, when she observes Jerry's bruised head and his eyes that are "glazed-looking," she becomes rather anxious. Nevertheless, Jerry's mother calms herself, "Oh, don't fuss! Nothing can happen. He can swim like a fish." Clearly, Jerry's mother has resolved to treat Jerry as an older child who has some maturity.

Jerry's character is more complex than that of his mother's as he undergoes both internal and external conflicts. At first, he just wants to swim with the older boys, but because he cannot dive down and swim through the rocks as they do, they reject him. This rejection brings about Jerry's inner conflict of wishing to prove that he is no longer a child.

He struggles and practices holding his breath longer and longer until he can stay underwater for the time required to make passage through the rocks. When he finally succeeds at passing through the tunnel, Jerry resolves his conflict as he completes his rite of passage to young adulthood. He also brings to an end his external conflict of rejection by the other boys. This resolution is evinced as Jerry succeeds in doing what they can do. Also, Jerry no longer needs their acceptance. For when he sees the other boys "diving and playing a half mile away," he is not interested in swimming over to them. "He did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down." Back at the villa, Jerry proudly tells his mother that he can hold his breath for almost three minutes. After this, "it was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay."

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What are conflicts in "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing?

Doris Lessing's "Through the Tunnel" has both internal and external conflicts in the story.  

Externally, the conflict is a man vs. nature conflict. Jerry wants to swim through an underwater tunnel that he saw some native boys swim through. It's not an easy swim. Jerry will need to be able to hold his breath for more than two full minutes. Much of the story is his training to do this swim. Near the end of the story, Jerry finally decides to try it. This conflict is life or death for Jerry. He either makes the swim or dies trying it.  

One internal conflict deals with Jerry's journey toward manhood and independence. When the story first begins, Jerry wants to get some independence from his mom. It's why he so desperately wants to go to the "wild looking" rocks. Jerry's mother struggles with giving permission to Jerry. She worries about his safety, even though she knows he's old enough to take care of himself.

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.

Jerry's mother isn't the only character who is internally struggling to come to terms with Jerry's more independent spirit. Jerry struggles with it, too. He feels a bit guilty that he left his mother alone on the beach.

He swam back to shore, relieved at being sure she was there, but all at once very lonely.  

The swim that Jerry is attempting to make is also an internal conflict for Jerry. He's scared. He knows he might die, and getting up the courage to attempt the swim is a major man vs. self struggle for Jerry.

He was frightened. Supposing he turned dizzy in the tunnel? Supposing he died there, trapped?

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What conflicts are in the story "Through the Tunnel"?

In Doris Lessing's "rite of passage" short story, there are a number of external conflicts (conflicts between or among characters) as well as internal conflicts (struggles within a character). The main focus of the story is upon Jerry, an eleven year old boy who accompanies his widowed mother to the seashore on holiday.

  • One day at the beach Jerry wishes to exert some independence from his mother and swim where "the wild-looking rocks" are [internal conflict], but he just looks and then stays with his mother.
  • The next day, he asks about going over to these rocks; his mother finds them "wild looking" and worries [internal conflict], but gives her permission, telling herself, "he's old enough to be safe without me."
  • Jerry goes, but feels guilty [internal] as he swims out, then looks back at his mother on shore.
  • Seeing a group of boys, "To be with them was a craving that filled his whole body" [internal], so he swims closer. 
  • They turned "watch him with narrowed, alert dark eyes [external].
  • One smiles, so Jerry swims near them, "smiling with desperate nervous supplication." When the others realize he is foreign, they "proceeded to forget him" [external], but Jerry is happy and dives with them.
  • However, when Jerry clowns, they "looked down at gravely, frowning" with disapproval [external].
  • Then, the boys dive into the sea and do not reappear until Jerry has counted to 150; he cannot figure out where they have gone [internal].
  • "They swam back to the shore without a look at him...leaving to get away from him at another promontory. "He cried himself out"[internal].
  • After he returns alone to the villa, he abruptly tells his mother that he wants some swimming goggles and insists that they go to a shop immediately [external]
  • The next time Jerry goes to the promontory, he cannot locate the tunnel through which the boys must have swum [external]; repeatedly, he gropes on the surface of the rock in order to locate the opening.
  • "He knew that he must find his way through that cave, or hole, or tunnel and out the other side" [internal]. Jerry desires to feel himself like the older boys, so he must exercise his lungs: "all that he could become depended upon it [internal].
  • After he returns home a second time with a nose bleed, Jerry's mother makes him go with her the next day [external], and "[I]t was a torment to waste a day of training" for Jerry [internal]
  • For Jerry, too, the beach now seems but a place for little children [external].
  • Continuing his practice by the tunnel, Jerry worries about the feat: "Supposing he turned dizzy...? or died there trapped?" He nearly gives up on his idea, considering postponing it until next summer [internal].
  • Deciding, "This was the moment when he would try. If he did not ...he never would," he yet has a fear and horror of the tunnel under the dark sea [internal].
  • As he descends, Jerry worries about dying. No one would find him until those "boys would swim into it and find it blocked" [internal].
  • But, he perseveres. "He was without light and water seemed to press upon him...his head was pulsing" [external]. He panics some, but kicks forward, ducking his head and swims through the tunnel, still fearful of banging his head [internal]. Jerry knows he must continue despite his swelling head and cracking lungs. "He felt he was dying "[internal] as blood fills his eyes and nose.
  • Still, he makes it through the tunnel [external].
  • His mother is anxious upon seeing him, but counsels herself, "...don't worry. He can swim like a fish"[internal]
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What are some of the internal conflicts in the short story "Through the Tunnel"?

Jerry's mother feels very conflicted in terms of how much freedom she should allow her eleven-year-old son. She would prefer to keep him with her on the safe beach, but she also realizes that she needs to allow him greater independence than she used to because he will require this freedom in order to learn how to operate in the world. She thinks, 

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 [....].  She was determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion.  She went worrying off to her beach.

On the one hand, she wants to protect Jerry from the world (and from himself and the possibility that he will make poor decisions). Such a concern seems justified given Jerry's decision to swim through the rock at all costs, a move which nearly kills him. On the other hand, Jerry's mother knows that a child his age needs freedom from her, and she "conscientiously worr[ies] over what amusements he might secretly be longing for which she had been too busy or too careless to imagine."  

Her internal conflict seems pretty typical of any parent of a child this age. Parents want so much to protect their children, but simultaneously realize that their children must experience independence in order to learn how to live in the world. 

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