Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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What is the significance of Jerry being called the "English boy" in "Through the Tunnel"?

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Doris Lessing wrote "Through the Tunnel" in 1955, a few years before Great Britain had completely relinquished all its colonies in Africa. Lessing herself lived in Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe). About this country, Lessing wrote,

"Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape."

Criticisms point to this aspect of the African experience as what Lessing focuses on in "Through the Tunnel." The main character, the boy who is named Jerry, "struggles for survival in an indifferent sea." [Enotes]

With this knowledge of Lessing's story, the reader may assume that the setting of the story is probably an African beach, and Jerry is the foreigner who belongs to a race that has been one of the "oppressors." Since the native boys speak French, the colony in which the story takes place may be one belonging to France rather than England. Nevertheless, Jerry is a European interloper and is "a small creature...in a large landscape." 

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By referring to Jerry as the "English boy," the narrator immediately identifies him with his home country, as opposed to the country in which he and his mother are vacationing.  Later, despite the fact that his name had already been used, Jerry is referred to in this way again when he is attempting to fit in with the older boys who were "of that coast" and "burned smooth dark brown" and speaking a language that Jerry cannot understand.  That Jerry later attempts French with them seems to indicate that they are in the French Riviera, a popular holiday destination for Britons. In other words, then, identifying him as "the English boy" makes Jerry's outsider status clear.  He is not only a foreigner, but he is also younger than they are, and this makes it that much more of a triumph when the boys seem to accept him, at least for a while.

Further, by referring to Jerry as "the English boy," Lessing directs our attention away from what might make Jerry an individual and helps us to understand that he can be interpreted as a sort of "every man" (or, in this case, every boy) character.  Everyone goes through this process of wanting to grow up and perhaps taking on things they aren't quite ready for in an effort to prove their maturity.  We all come of age, just like Jerry begins to do in this story.

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