The story begins with Jerry and his mother on vacation from their native England to a coastal town in an unnamed foreign country. It is clear that they have visited the area many times before, as they already have a routine in place of visiting a certain popular beach. On the stroll down to this beach, Jerry notices the “wild and rocky bay” which is set apart from their usual area, down a separate fork in the path. Jerry’s mother is walking in front of him, carrying a striped bag in one hand and letting the other “white naked arm” swing at her side.
From the opening sentence, there are two initial thematic splits in the story: one between Jerry and his mother, another between the overcrowded beach and the rocky bay. As they walk to the beach and Jerry sees the rocky bay, there is both a physical and metaphorical fork in the path: the beach is tame and familiar, while the rocky bay is rugged and unknown.
Jerry eyes move from his mother’s white arm, then to the rocky bay, then back to his mother. Noticing that he hasn’t stayed directly behind her on their stroll down the path, Jerry’s mother turns around and asks if he’d rather not go with her to their usual sunbathing beach. Sensing her displeasure at the thought that he may not want to join her, Jerry’s feeling of contrition keeps him alongside his mother as they go to the safe beach. The whole time that he plays on the safe beach that day, though, Jerry thinks about the wild and rocky bay.
As Jerry deliberates between following his mother’s arm, still bright white from a lack of exposure to the sun, and the rocky bay, he is also contemplating whether to stay with his comfortable routines or explore a new territory. As she wants to make her son happy but also protect him, Jerry’s mother is torn between letting him decide what he wants to do and wanting to keep him close at all times. An obedient son, Jerry doesn’t want to upset his mother, so he fights his growing curiosity and follows her to the beach. Yet the sight of the wild and rocky bay was so intriguing that he can’t stop thinking about what it might be like to swim and play there.
The next day, Jerry’s mother, whose white arm has noticeably reddened since the day before, asks outright if he’s tired of their normal beach routine. At first Jerry says that he isn’t but as they continue to walk toward the beach he announces that he wants to check out the rocky bay. Jerry’s mother, with some hesitancy at the thought that her son would spend the afternoon alone at a “wild-looking place” and then some worry that she is being too overbearing with her son, agrees that Jerry can go explore on his own. She tells him to join her at the big beach once he tires of the rocky bay.
After only one day of sunbathing, Jerry’s mother’s arm has noticeably reddened, which demonstrates how foreign the climate and geography are for these British tourists. Jerry is tempted again on this second day to follow his mother out of a guilty sense of duty but ultimately can’t contain his desire to explore. His mother again wants to protect him from the potential threats of the “wild-looking place” but also wants to grant him some degree of independence as he gets older. As a kind of compromise for herself, telling him to come back to the sunbathing beach when he is done with the rocky bay is a way of satisfying both of her conflicting instincts.
A sense of guilt at the idea that his mother will be all alone at the beach almost forces Jerry to follow her again. Readers then learn that Jerry is an only child and that his mother is a widow. She goes on to the beach, concerned as always about Jerry’s well-being, and he descends to the rocky bay once he sees that his mother makes it down the path to the beach.
As an only child, Jerry feels some responsibility for looking after his widowed mother, just as she feels the need to keep him safe at all times. This need to care for his mother’s well-being is shown when he doesn’t immediately run down to explore on his own, but watches after her first.
Already a strong swimmer, Jerry goes directly into the water of the rocky bay and drifts far enough out that he can see his mother in the distance, just a small dot on the crowded beach. On his way back to the rocks, Jerry sees a group of local older boys who are diving and playing in the water. They motion for him to join them, so he does. Once the boys realize that he can’t speak or understand their native language, though, they ignore him.
Excited to explore on his own, but still feeling the need to make sure that his mother is doing well without him nearby, Jerry is compelled to check in on her from a distance. The local older boys at the rocky bay show that what seemed wild to him at first is familiar to the locals. Jerry badly wants to be a part of their group, and can seemingly swim as well as they can, yet his inability to speak their language makes him not only inferior to them in age and stature, but in ability. Nevertheless, the boys represent an attainable form of maturity for Jerry, even if they want nothing to do with him.
The biggest boy dives into the water and doesn’t come up. Jerry is surprised and yells out to the others, who don’t seem concerned about the other boy’s disappearance. When he comes out of the water on the other side of a large rock, the rest of them follow the same routine and dive down. Jerry goes in after them but can only see the surface of the rock. When they suddenly reappear on the other side, Jerry realizes that they must have passed through an underwater tunnel.
The biggest boy, and the apparent leader of the group, is the first to attempt the daring feat of swimming through the underwater tunnel, which Jerry can’t see. Shocked by this novel trick, and still desperate to be accepted into their group, he dives after them. Yet, as he is unsure of what they are doing, he doesn’t know where to swim and his body is unaccustomed to this new physical challenge. Unable to communicate with the boys, he will have to teach himself if he hopes to be able to do as they do.
As the older boys prepare to perform the feat again from the diving rock, Jerry is desperate for their approval. He flails about and tries speaking to them in broken French, but they are unimpressed. One by one, the boys dive into the water and seemingly disappear. Jerry counts off the minutes, shocked at the length of time they are underwater. When he gets to one hundred and sixty, the boys reappear on the other side of the rock again and go back to the shore, ignoring him all the while. After Jerry returns to the diving rock, the boys leave to another area on the shore and he cries to himself.
As a last effort at earning the older boys’ respect, Jerry frantically moves about to get a laugh from them and then, not knowing their native language, tries speaking a few phrases in French. Choosing to ignore him altogether instead, they escape from his childish behavior by diving through the tunnel again, which they know he is unable to do. Paying closer attention this time, he counts the seconds they are underwater and is surprised at their advanced skill at holding breath. With this, Jerry has been definitively rejected from their small community, by dint of a gap in physical ability as well as their disdain for him as an outsider.
Jerry gets his mother to buy him a pair of goggles, determined to swim through the tunnel on his own. After searching around underwater and unable to see the opening of the tunnel, Jerry is eventually able to feel it far beneath him with just his feet. To more easily reach the hole again, Jerry grabs a large stone to help sink himself deep to the sea floor. He is finally able to see the tunnel directly.
Though he understands that he may never befriend the group of boys, Jerry still wants to figure out the mystery of swimming through this tunnel. As an outsider to the area, he has to use goggles to see where the boys already know to swim, and a heavy rock to reach a depth they have no trouble diving to. Using these tools, he begins to slowly teach himself how to approximate what the boys did.
After making note of its dimensions, Jerry drops his rock and tries to wedge himself into the hole but has some difficulty fitting himself inside, getting in only as far as his wrists. The space is pitch black. He feels a piece of seaweed drift against his face and imagines an octopus waiting for him in the dark of the tunnel.
In this early stage of exploring both the tunnel and his newfound freedom, Jerry still has a rather childish imagination, as when he assumes an underwater plant could be a threatening octopus. Pushing through these fears, though, Jerry still wants nothing more than to accomplish exactly what the older boys could perform with ease.
After discovering the tunnel and struggling to fit inside its opening, Jerry goes back to the shore and stares at the rock, thinking about how he can make his way through it without any guidance. He decides that learning how to control his breath will be the only way to accomplish the task. Jerry takes another large stone and sinks to the bottom of the water, holding his breath for as long as he possibly can. He counts to fifty-two and floats back to the surface.
Unable to physically fit into the hole yet, Jerry pieces together what he’ll need to do if he wants to safely swim into the unknown darkness of the tunnel. Holding his breath for long periods of time, he determines, is necessary for him to navigate this natural environment. Thus, growth and learning are integral pieces of the process of maturation.
Jerry returns to the villa, where he finds his mother eating her dinner. That night, Jerry dreams of the tunnel and returns to it immediately the next morning. He continues his process of training himself to hold his breath underwater. That night Jerry gets his first nosebleed and dizzy spell. His mother tells him not to physically overdo it during his time at the bay.
After only a day of not being under his mother’s close care, Jerry is now significantly less concerned with being an obedient son. He slowly becomes obsessed with his new task of getting through the tunnel. Jerry’s mother notices his nosebleeds but doesn’t know what he is doing when he is at the rocky bay, highlighting that part of the process of maturation, for Jerry, is this growing distance between mother and child.
Over the following few days, Jerry continues his routine of underwater training and also continues to get nosebleeds at night. Worried about his well-being, his mother insists that she join him at the crowded beach. Following her orders, Jerry accompanies his mother but realizes that the old beach is no longer suitable to his needs and desires. He misses the rocky bay and his daily training regimen to get through the tunnel.
As he continues to improve his abilities to hold his breath, Jerry’s health begins to deteriorate, which partly justifies his mother’s earlier worries about him being alone. Though he had a small taste of independence and freedom during his previous days at the rocky bay, Jerry quickly reverts to a more child-like mode when his mother makes him go to the overcrowded beach. While there, he finally understands that he has outgrown the doting care of his mother and has grown to have more autonomy than ever before.
Without asking for permission, the next day Jerry runs off to the rocky bay by himself. While he sets off on his routine, Jerry is surprised that he can hold his breath for ten whole seconds longer than his previous attempts. He thinks he could probably make his way through the tunnel at this point, but decides to wait. Instead, Jerry sits at the ocean floor and studies every aspect of the tunnel. At the villa, he times his breath and realizes that he can hold it for two full minutes.
Eager to regain what he lost the day before (i.e., both his sense of autonomy and his physical training regimen), Jerry re-establishes his base at the rocky bay. His increased ability to hold his breath has proved that there is something tangible to be earned from his otherwise hard-to-describe feeling of growing independence. By studiously surveying the details of the tunnel, Jerry is making a place that was once quite foreign to him into one that is quite familiar.
One morning, Jerry’s mother tells him that they will be leaving to go back home in four days. This makes Jerry realize that he has to make his swim through the tunnel soon. Two days before they are set to leave, Jerry holds his breath for longer than ever before and also gets one of his worst nose bleeds. After recovering, Jerry wonders if he should wait until the next summer to try swimming through the tunnel. Instead, in a quick turn, he spontaneously decides that he needs to swim right then.
Until the point when his mother set an end-date to their vacation, all of Jerry’s physical accomplishments were somewhat abstract. Once there is a determined end in sight, though, he realizes that he needs to finally put into practice all that he had been training for thus far. He loses confidence again when he gets his worst nosebleed, but is still determined to reach his goal.
Nervous about his decision, Jerry grabs a stone, holds his breath and plunges down to the tunnel. He squeezes his body into the opening and slowly makes his way through. In the process of swimming through the tunnel, he bumps his head against the ceiling of the tunnel, but feels confident about his breathing. He again imagines a threatening octopus lurking in the dark. Jerry sees a light and feels relieved that he has accomplished his goal, but is quickly dismayed when he realizes that it’s only a crack in the outer rock.
As determined as he is to fulfill his self-determined rite of passage of swimming through the tunnel, Jerry’s nervousness and shaky confidence make him seem to revert, at least partially, to his earlier child-like state of fear when he first began exploring the tunnel. Just as he imagined an octopus in that earlier episode, he imagines it again here. As he feels close to the tunnel’s end, he regains his confidence, only to lose it yet again when he realizes that he’s only partway through the tunnel. In this way, the natural world and its many surprises mirror Jerry’s internal state with its many ups and downs.
After reaching the crack and seeing the darkness still ahead of him in the tunnel, Jerry passes the two-minute mark of holding his breath. Just as he begins to feel like he might lose consciousness and die in the tunnel, Jerry sees the bright green light of the open ocean and scrambles to the surface of the water, gasping for air as he emerges. He climbs onto the shore, unable to see anything, and tears off his goggles, thinking that he might be blind. His nose is bleeding heavily, and the blood fills up his goggles.
Though Jerry ultimately achieves his goal of swimming through the tunnel, which had been in his sights for several days, he also physically suffers a great deal in the process, This pain is perhaps the ultimate mark of Jerry’s new, hard-won endurance and general sense of confidence, as though the only way he can truly earn his maturity is through these physical setbacks.
Once he fully regains his ability to see and catches his breath, Jerry sees the group of local older boys playing down the shore, but he is no longer concerned with them. He only wants to go back to the villa and rest.
By finally completing his rite of passage and emerging into a newfound sense of maturity, Jerry loses the desire to compare himself to the group of older boys. What began as a campaign to prove himself to others ends as an affirmation of the importance of proving oneself to oneself, first and foremost.
Jerry reaches the villa before his mother returns from her daily trip to the beach. He immediately falls asleep. He wakes up when he hears his mother walking up to the front door and quickly washes the blood and tears from his face. Jerry’s mother remarks that he has a gash on his head and that his face has paled, but he doesn’t tell her about his adventure through the tunnel—only that he can hold his breath for up to three minutes. She tells him again not to overdo it, but it doesn’t matter because Jerry is no longer interested in going to the rocky bay.
Unaware of what Jerry had been doing out of her sight at the rocky bay, his mother is only able to notice the injuries that he sustained while swimming through the tunnel. Jerry’s maturity, confidence and autonomy are all concealed away from her view, accessible only to Jerry himself. Jerry’s loss of interest in visiting the bay shows that the obstacle it represented for him no longer looms so large in his mind, having proven himself capable of rising to a challenge through determination, perseverance, and hard work.