Through the Tunnel


Doris Lessing

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Through the Tunnel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Doris Lessing's Through the Tunnel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Doris Lessing

Born in Iran to two British expatriates, a former military officer and a former nurse, Doris Lessing led a travel-filled life from an early age. In 1925, her family moved to the British Colony of Southern Rhodesia so they could farm on a large plot of land that her father had purchased. Lessing attended a Roman Catholic school in the capital of Salisbury (now Harare), but dropped out when she was 13. From that point on, Lessing was entirely self-educated. She started to write shortly thereafter and held a number of odd jobs for many years. By 1943, she had already married, had two children and gotten divorced, after which she became active in Socialist politics. Lessing met her second husband through the famed Left Book Club, had another son and got a second divorce in 1949. She moved to London with her youngest son that same year and decided to seriously pursue a writing career. After many years of selling short stories to magazines, Lessing published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, in 1950. Over the course of her career, she published over 50 novels, which moved between social realism to science fiction and many styles in between, all the while focusing on political themes. At the age of 88, Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the oldest winner in that category and only the eleventh woman to ever win the prize.
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Historical Context of Through the Tunnel

Although the events of the wider world never explicitly enter into the story’s somewhat removed setting of a tranquil vacation at the beach, the era in which “Through the Tunnel” was published was a time of great transitions across the globe. When the story was published in 1955, the aftermath of the Second World War could still be felt throughout Europe. How or when Jerry lost his father is never mentioned within the story itself, but it is entirely feasible that he was one of the nearly half a million British casualties from that war and that Jerry’s mother is one of the many war widows who suddenly became single mothers afterward. Throughout her life, Lessing was attuned to global politics, which she confronted both as a writer and as an activist. She had moved to London from her native Rhodesia six years before the publication of “Through the Tunnel,” yet remained concerned with the racial inequalities of neighboring South Africa’s apartheid policies within much of her early fiction. In this story, apartheid is never mentioned, though Lessing notes the “burned smooth dark brown” skin of the local boys in the unnamed seaside town where Jerry and his mother are vacationing. The setting is presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean or a coastal region of France, but the dynamic between the well-off British vacationers and the natives takes on a different angle knowing Lessing’s deep concern with racial politics and European imperialism.

Other Books Related to Through the Tunnel

Throughout her multi-decade career of writing novels, short stories, plays and poems, Doris Lessing covered a wide variety of styles and genres. Many of her books, in fact, would be difficult to categorize into any single genre at a time. “Through the Tunnel,” however, fits into the time-tested genre of the coming-of-age story. Most often, this genre is affiliated with the novel form—where it is often given the German term Bildungsroman, “Bildung” meaning “education” and “roman” meaning “novel.” There are countless examples of coming-of-age novels, including James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, among many others. The coming-of-age narrative is a somewhat less common genre within the constraints of the short story, but “The Flowers” by Alice Walker, “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield and “I Want to Know Why” by Sherwood Anderson are all narratives that depict a person grappling with the struggles of passing from childhood into adulthood.
Key Facts about Through the Tunnel
  • Full Title: “Through the Tunnel”
  • When Written: 1955
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1955
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Realism
  • Setting: A foreign seaside
  • Climax: After many days of training, Jerry swims through the underwater tunnel
  • Antagonist: There is no traditional antagonist, though Jerry is working against his own fears and physical limitations throughout the story
  • Point of View: Close third-person

Extra Credit for Through the Tunnel

Pen Names: To demonstrate the difficulty that new authors face in getting their work published, Doris Lessing used the pen name “Jane Somers” while writing two novels midway into her career. The manuscripts were rejected by her normal publisher in the United Kingdom but were later picked up by another publisher in England.

Rejecting Awards: When offered damehood by the British government in 1992, Lessing declined, stating that it was only an honor “in the name of a non-existent Empire.” She had also rejected an OBE designation in 1977. Decades later, when she was told of her Nobel Prize, Lessing told reporters “I couldn’t care less.”