Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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What are the themes of "Through the Tunnel"?

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One theme of Doris Lessing's short story, "Through the Tunnel," is that growing up is a difficult and sometimes painful process. We see Jerry mature throughout the story, at first nagging and pestering his mother for goggles and later being able to delay gratification for the things he wants. He practices holding his breath with very adult diligence, he stops asking permission to go to his "wild bay," and, the narrator says,

A curious, most unchildlike persistence, a controlled impatience, made him wait. 

Although he believes it is likely that he could make it through the tunnel on this day, Jerry waits. He can now wait to gratify his wishes, something associated with emotional maturity. However, after he successfully swims through the tunnel the next morning, his feelings have changed. He could see the boys he so wanted to impress earlier in the week, the boys who seemed like men to him, but now,

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

He has endured several bloody noses, and now he has a banged up head. In fact, Jerry nearly died in the tunnel and felt certain that his eyeballs had burst when he finally reached the water's surface. In the end, his mother tells him not to swim anymore today, and though "she was ready for a battle of wills . . . he gave in at once."

We see then that Jerry has, in fact, matured as a result of his experiences, and that they are symbolic of a child's transition to adulthood.  It is an arduous and taxing process, one that is difficult for both parent and child. 

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There are at least three themes in "Through the Tunnel":

  • Maturation 

In the beginning of the narrative, the eleven-year-old Jerry is attached to his mother, watching for the "yellow speck" on the beach under the orange umbrella, even when he swims with the native boys on the wild bay.  But, when they disapprove of antics that have previously humored his mother, Jerry realizes he must assert his independence from his her. So, he swims to shore and demands swim goggles, nagging and insisting until he procures them. Later, when he desires the acceptance of the older boys and wants to feel mature himself, Jerry swims in the bay independently, and he practices going under water so that he can be like them.

  • Rite of Passage

Sensing that the older boys find him childish because they can do things he cannot, Jerry practices until he, too, can pass through the long underwater tunnel. When he finally attempts to pass through this tunnel, Jerry senses that his life is in danger because his lungs ache. Nevertheless, he perseveres,

He struggled on in the darkness between lapses into unconsciousness....His hands, groping forward, met nothing....

Finally, Jerry reaches the surface, "gasping like a fish." Successful, he knows he has matured.

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

  • Alienation

Apparently without a father, Jerry spends most of his time with his mother. At least on this vacation, Jerry lacks friends, and his attempt to impress the native boys seems to indicate that Jerry is often alone. At the end of the story, more confident with himself, Jerry does not seem to mind being alone, however.

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What is the theme of Lessing's short story "Through The Tunnel?"

There is more than one!

This is a "mini" 'coming of age' story where a young eleven-year-old puts his life at risk to prove to himself that he can "win." The challenge he sets up for himself and confronts is to swim the length of an underwater tunnel and make it to the other end. This is not just a survival test but a kind of self-made initiation rite into manhood.

The need to "prove" oneself is a necessary part of growing up, for acceptance into a group, perhaps, but especially for oneself. Self-estime is largely based  on self-confidence, and self-confidence needs reference points of challenges and accomplishments. In this story the boy never tells what he has done, but there is no need to do so. He has tested his own limits, even depassed them, and for him knowing that is enough.

Check out the references below for more themes found in this short story. An' interesting read' concerning the necessity for adolescents to confront danger is a book entitled Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce - if you've got the interest and the time.

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In "Through the Tunnel," what is the specific theme in the story?

You are only allowed to ask one question - I will answer your question by looking at the theme of this excellent short story. By the end of the story Jerry has gone through a journey from childhood to manhood, symbolised most stridently in his journey through the tunnel.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to a character who is on the cusp of adolescense, and very clearly feels responsible for his mother due to their enforced intimacy. Yet despite his feelings of responsibility towards his mother, he nonetheless feels drawn to the "wild beach", which is away from the "safe beach" and his mother's attentive care. The wild beach here can be said to symbolise independence and life away from the protection of a parent figure - note how Lessing describes the two beaches to draw out this comparison.

His discovery of the tunnel and the challenge that the French boys set him through swimming through the tunnel spur Jerry on to train hard and eventually succeed in his attempt to go through the tunnel. Although certainly at the beginning of the story it is Jerry's need to be accepted by the older group of French boys that drives his desire to go through the tunnel, it is interesting that at the end of the story he no longer feels this is the case, as he is happy to go back home and spend time with his mother. This indicates that the tunnel was more about a process of self-acceptance and doing something to show he could do it for himself rather than for any other reason.

His relationship with his mother likewise has changed by the end of the story. Jerry deliberately witholds his triumph, only relating his ability to hold his breath. The dramatic irony in his mother's response ("I wouldn't overdo it, dear") indicates the independence that Jerry has achieved in his journey through the tunnel - he has now entered an arena where he has secrets from his mother and is able to engage in activities, dangerous activies, away from his mother's protection.

Therefore, when we think and consider the theme of this excellent tale, it is important to realise how Jerry changes through the course of the story and passes from being a child to an adult, symbolised most stridently through his voyage through the tunnel.

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