Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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William Gass spent almost thirty years writing The Tunnel. The most obvious theme is an exploration of the antihero’s life, much of it written so masterfully that every vignette from his early years completely engages the reader. While the focus is on the narrator, a subtle family portrait emerges that traces the lives of the family members and the ways they react to each other’s strengths and weaknesses in both obvious and hidden ways. The use of the tunnel as the overarching metaphor of the novel is a symbol of Kohler’s digging into his life and into history, although it takes on humorous overtones as a sexual metaphor. By depositing the dirt in Martha’s massive and beloved bureau drawers, Kohler performs a symbolic act, as she does when she empties a drawer of dirt on his manuscript.

The tunnel points to a much larger theme as well. In his youth, Kohler gave up his ambition to be a poet because he believed truth could be found only in history. Yet he finds written history is not reliable. At the beginning of the novel, the distinguished historian has finished his magnum opus only to question if it is true, or even if it is possible to dig through the ambiguity and chaos of the past to arrive at the truth. His subsequent ramblings on the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust indicate that his personal history and biases have had a stronger influence on his book than any objective research. One critic describes the book’s theme as “fascism of the soul.” With all its contradictions and confusions and deliberate darkness, The Tunnel is a long meditation on the difficulty of determining historical truth and the impossibility of representing such truth in language.