Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
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 has completed only half his task; he meditates on his German name and finds nothing German about himself, because he is a fourth-generation American; he taunts Herschel, a Jewish colleague, about Nazi motives. He jokes with Martha about Jewish suffering and enjoys a colleague’s limericks on the subject. He searches within for what he wants from his life, his book, and his current writings, and he muses about his own relationship to history. He decides he wants to feel “a little less uneasy.”
He finally realizes that he is engulfed with rage, and he is determined to mine his past in an attempt to expiate it. Kohler is the only child of a disappointed mother whose dreams center on her sulky, obstinate son and an angry, bigoted father. Vivid scenes from his childhood and student days come back to Kohler, leading to the novel’s autobiographical set pieces. In the midst of this psychological tunnel, Kohler, whose name means “miner” in German, begins to dig a tunnel in his basement, clearing dirt, rust, and coal, and finally assaulting the mortar with a pick. He is strangely exhilarated by this activity, particularly since it provokes his unloved wife, whom he has no desire to placate. A long interior monologue called “The Quarrel” ensues, detailing his failed relationship with Martha and leading to a meditation on the quarrels that erupted into World War II, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts.
As further childhood injustices occur to Kohler, more grievances against his wife surface. A visit to an abandoned country farm with Martha and their two sons segues into memories of country drives of his childhood, particularly one that ended in the family’s witnessing a horrible car crash that narrowly avoided missing them. Memories of his disapproving father bring back his student days in Germany and his relationship with Magus Tabor, called “Mad Meg,” the charismatic professor who is Kohler’s idol. Tabor is interested in the glorious sweep and force of history, but individual deaths mean nothing to him. He demeans his students, encourages them to falsify historical facts, adores the German fatherland, despises truth and Jews, and loves conquest. Kohler remembers tossing bricks during the infamous Kristallnacht of November, 1938, when he joined some of his fellow students in wandering the streets and smashing the windows of shops inscribed with the names of their Jewish owners. Kohler’s thoughts now drift to the failure of his marriage, his father’s death, and his own young-adult children, who disappoint when they do not disgust him. He finds his colleagues contemptible. Because of a student’s harassment charges, his colleagues convene a faculty meeting to discuss Kohler’s lechery. They bicker peevishly while Kohler alternately lies and confesses. At home, he adds a long defense of Hitler to his biographical writing and goes back to excavating his tunnel, the dirt of which he now deposits into Martha’s collection of sideboards and bureaus that she hopes to turn into an antique business.
Kohler continues to dig and pick at his life, unearthing more grotesque scenes of his childhood, including the placing his own mother in an asylum when he was fifteen. A climax of sorts occurs at the end of the novel, when Martha, having just discovered where he was putting the dirt, barges into his study with a drawer full and dumps it over the desk on which his manuscript lies. The novel, Kohler’s inquiry, and the tunnel find no resolution.
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