The Tunnel Summary
by William H. Gass

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The Tunnel Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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The Tunnel is told in the first person by Professor Kohler, who is seized by some strange paralysis of the soul when he tries to finish his book and instead writes the contorted story of his own embittered life. Kohler realizes that he is engulfed with rage, and he is determined to mine his past in an attempt to expiate it. He is the only child of a disappointed mother whose dreams center on her sulky, obstinate son and an angry, bigoted father.

Time in the novel loops back and forth between personal history and world history as Professor Kohler (whose name means “miner” in German) becomes obsessed with his experiences in Germany in the 1930’s. Kohler finds his colleagues contemptible and taunts Herschel, a Jewish professor at the college, about Nazi motives. Because of a student’s harassment charges, his colleagues convene a faculty meeting to discuss Kohler’s lechery. They bicker peevishly while he alternately lies and confesses. Kohler’s colleagues find him a problem, not only because of his behavior but also because of his earlier book, Nuremberg Notes.

As he tunnels deeper into himself in an attempt to come to terms with his relationship to history, he begins to dig an actual tunnel in the basement of the home that he shares with his wife, Martha. A long interior monologue detailing his failed relationship with Martha leads to a meditation on the quarrels that erupted into World War II and other international conflicts. This sets the pattern for the novel: long sections of stream-of-consciousness narration interspersed with stories of the characters told with a more detached viewpoint by the narrator. The novel is not broken up into chapters, but the stories often have titles, such as “Learning to Drive,” “Aunts,” and “Do Mountains.”

True to his midwestern background, Gass sets the novel in Indiana. A visit to an abandoned country farm with Martha and his two children segues into memories of the country drives of his childhood with his disapproving father. His thoughts drift to the failure of his marriage, his own young adult children who disappoint when they do not disgust him, and his father’s death. His father brings back thoughts of his student days in Germany and his relationship with Magus Tabor, the charismatic professor whom Kohler worshipped. Tabor, who is entranced by the glorious sweep of history, is indifferent to individual death, falsifies historical facts, adores the German fatherland, despises truth and Jews, and loves conquest. Kohler recalls tossing bricks during the infamous Kristallnacht of November, 1938, and smashing the windows of Jewish shops. He adds a long defense of Adolf Hitler to his history of Germany and returns to excavating the tunnel, the debris of which he dumps into Martha’s collection of antique bureaus and sideboards. At the end of the novel, Martha discovers the debris and dumps a drawer full of it on the manuscript lying on Kohler’s desk. In some ways, The Tunnel is a long meditation on the difficulty of determining historical truth through language.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Tunnel is told in the first person by a middle-aged history professor who has just completed his major work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He now wishes to conclude the project by writing the introduction, but he is seized by some paralysis of the soul and writes, instead, the contorted story of his own embittered life and a meditation on history and the writing of history. The story loops backward and forward to the recent end of his affair with Lou, his family tree, his childhood, his student days in prewar Germany, his loveless marriage, and his present woes.

As Kohler ruminates about his life, he is obsessed with his experiences in Germany during the 1930’s and with the book he has just written. He rereads the manuscript, noting that he has neatly analyzed, explained, tabulated, and encapsulated the history of the Holocaust. He has even “justified” Adolf Hitler. Yet doubts assail him. Perhaps he...

(The entire section is 1,247 words.)