Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of Jerry swimming through the tunnel?

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Jerry is the eleven-year-old protagonist of Doris Lessing's short story "Through the Tunnel." This is a rite of passage story in which Jerry challenges himself to a physical test. Swimming through the tunnel is, for Jerry, a test of manhood. In ancient and some contemporary cultures, boys are often tested by a dangerous physical endeavor. In ancient Sparta, boys were trained to fight and often had to overcome physical tests of strength and pain. In aboriginal Australian culture, a boy goes on a walkabout where he spends several months alone in the wilderness to prove that he can survive under any conditions. For Jerry, a modern male, there is no formal physical test, so he devises one while on vacation with his mother. He challenges himself to stay underwater while swimming from one area to another through an underwater tunnel. He commits himself to this idea after seeing some older boys diving and then emerging on the other side of a rocky outcrop in the ocean.

For Jerry, the biggest benefit of passing the test is a sense of accomplishment and proving of his physical prowess. It is a test on the way to manhood. This success will bolster confidence for the rest of his life. Other challenges will pale in comparison to the death-defying swim through the tunnel. Another benefit for Jerry is a symbolic proving of himself to his mother. He never specifically describes the challenge to her, but does brag to her in the end that he could hold his breath for two or three minutes.

On the other hand, the nosebleeds and light-headedness could have led to Jerry's death either by drowning or from a brain aneurysm. The reader may think that had the mother known of the extremity of Jerry's challenge, she might have stopped him. In the end, however, the pros definitely outweigh the cons for the boy as he proves to himself he can accomplish a difficult and dangerous task.

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