Girl, Interrupted


Susanna Kaysen

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The Tunnels Symbol Icon

On a snowy day, rather than walking Susanna to her therapist’s office through the wintry weather outside, a nurse leads her through a series of underground tunnels which connect the separate buildings of the McLean psychiatric facility. Susanna has already been in the hospital for a long time, so she is surprised to learn of the tunnels’ existence. She knows the tunnels “weren’t news to anybody else,” though “they made such an impression on [her] that [she] felt [she’d] conjured them into being.” She marvels at the length and complexity of the passageways, and the nurse accompanying her warns her that it’s “easy to get lost” due to the consuming signage throughout. To properly navigate the tunnels, the nurse says, one has to internally and intrinsically “know the way.” From that point on Susanna becomes obsessed with travelling through the tunnels, asking a nurse about once a week to bring her down there to explore them. When Susanna tries to explain her fascination with the tunnels to her analyst, Melvin, he assumes Susanna sees the tunnels as a womb-like place. Susanna argues, however, that despite being warm and cozy and quiet, the tunnels are the “opposite of a womb,” as a womb does not lead anywhere. The tunnels, to Susanna, represent the goal of her treatment: the ability to feel safe, ensconced, and contained within oneself without being stuck. Susanna wants badly to get better and leave the ward, but as her stay there has progressed she has become concerned that she is actually insane. She fears leaving the relative safety of the “loony bin,” where nothing is expected of her and where nothing ever changes. When Susanna encounters the tunnels toward the end of her stay at the hospital, she finds in them a symbol for how she must make her way forward in the world. That is, she must intuit her path naturally, be careful not to get tripped up and become lost, and remain attached to the feeling of security and self-assuredness that her stay at McLean has given her, rather than returning to the unstable behavior she exhibited in the years and months before her hospitalization.

The Tunnels Quotes in Girl, Interrupted

The Girl, Interrupted quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Tunnels. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Isolation and Seclusion Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Girl, Interrupted published in 1994.
Chapter 26 Quotes

In February I asked Melvin, "You know those tunnels?"

"Could you tell me more about the tunnels?" He didn't know about them. If he'd known about them, he would have said, "Yes?"

"There are tunnels under this entire hospital. Everything is connected by tunnels. You could get in them and go anywhere. It's warm and cozy and quiet."

"A womb," said Melvin.

"It's not a womb," I said.

"Yes." When Melvin said Yes without a questioning intonation, he meant No.

"It's the opposite of a womb," I said. "A womb doesn't go anywhere.”

Related Characters: Susanna Kaysen (speaker), Melvin (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tunnels
Page Number: 121-122
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Tunnels Symbol Timeline in Girl, Interrupted

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Tunnels appears in Girl, Interrupted. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 26: The Shadow of the Real
Women and Medicine Theme Icon
Manipulation, Restriction, and Control Theme Icon
...Soon, Susanna is upped even further to grounds privileges, and in December, she discovers the tunnels. On one of her trips to Melvin’s office on a snowy day, a nurse suggests... (full context)
Perception vs. Reality Theme Icon
Women and Medicine Theme Icon
Sanity vs. Insanity Theme Icon
The nurse tells Susanna that the tunnels allow one to get anywhere in the hospital, but can often be confusing—you “just have... (full context)
Isolation and Seclusion Theme Icon
Women and Medicine Theme Icon
Manipulation, Restriction, and Control Theme Icon
One day, Susanna asks Melvin if he knows about the tunnels. Melvin asks Susanna to tell him more about them, and she explains that they run... (full context)