“Through the Tunnel” is the story of Jerry, a young boy who is training to make a physical passage through an underwater tunnel, but it is also a story about a boy preparing (unbeknown to him) to make the passage from childhood into young adulthood. As the story opens, in the time before Jerry has attempted to swim beneath the rock and through the tunnel, he is still a boy. By the time the story has ended and he has accomplished this grueling task after a long period of preparation, and has made a significant step toward maturity.
Making his way through the tunnel is one way for Jerry to test himself and prove that he is no longer merely a child, but a young adult who can withstand physical pain and emotional strife. When Jerry first observes the group of older boys swimming, Lessing notes that “they were big boys—men, to Jerry.” Jerry fails to impress them with his simple swimming and diving. After watching the boys dive deep into the water and re-emerge on the other side of a massive rock after a long stretch of time, Jerry understands that only by performing this trick himself will he find acceptance among their ranks. After an extensive training period, Jerry makes his final attempt to swim through the tunnel. He experiences a long, head-numbing darkness while making his way through the tunnel, but eventually emerges into the sunlit green water on the other side, a newly self-actualized person. Making his way home afterwards, Jerry “could see the local boys diving and playing half a mile away. He did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down.” Once he has accomplished the difficult task all on his own, he no longer feels compelled to impress the other boys—suggesting that self-assurance relies not on proving oneself to others, but rather to oneself.
Jerry’s growth is marked not only by this physical feat, but also by his increasing physical and emotional distance from his mother. In the beginning of the story, Jerry’s existence is defined by his proximity to his mother, but as the story progresses, she essentially disappears from the narrative. The story’s opening paragraph sets up Jerry’s relationship with his caring, if overly concerned, mother. They are walking along a path that forks in two: one direction goes toward the “crowded beach he knew so well from other years” and the other leads to a “wild and rocky bay.” For the remainder of the story, the familiar beach represents Jerry’s life under his mother’s watch and the rocky bay represents Jerry’s desire for independence. Lessing writes that, after stopping for a moment to ponder the rocky bay, “contrition sent [Jerry] running after [his mother]. And yet, as he ran, he looked back over his shoulder at the wild bay; and all morning, as he played on the safe beach, he was thinking of it.” During his first day alone at the bay, he occasionally swims out to check in on his mom to make sure she’s still on the beach. Yet once Jerry is absorbed with the activities of the older boys, his thoughts about his mom all but disappear. From that moment onward, he is only focused on improving his swimming abilities.
After seeing that the group of local boys are able to pass through the cave because of their ability to hold their breath underwater for long stretches of time, Jerry is determined to improve his own endurance. Lessing tells readers early on that he is already a good swimmer, but learning how to hold his breath, sink easily to the bottom of the seafloor, and squeeze his body through the tunnel are all necessary skills for Jerry to safely make his way through the tunnel. After having his mother buy him goggles, he begins to explore the underwater tunnel. He uses heavy stones to help him sink down to the opening of the tunnel and then sets to work on improving his breathing. He spends time practicing on land, and is “incredulous and then proud to find he [can] hold his breath without strain for two minutes.” The very thought of this stokes his excitement for “the adventure that was so necessary to him.”
At the opening of the story, the reader sees Jerry as a young boy under the close supervision of his mother. During his training period, he suffers from occasional nosebleeds and dizzy spells. By the story’s end, when Jerry ultimately does make it through the tunnel, he emerges from the water unable to see, with his nose gushing blood and his head visibly banged-up. Each of these minor physical ills is a sign of his strenuous journey from innocence to young adulthood. Jerry’s struggle to swim through the tunnel sets him on the path to gaining the confidence of a mature young adult. Having proven himself in this way, he loses his desire to impress the other, older boys, signifying a newfound self-assurance in himself and his own abilities. Confirming the symbolism of the bay as a proving ground for Jerry on a physical as well as deeply personal level, Lessing finally writes that, after this point, “it was no longer of the least importance to go to the bay.”
Childhood and Maturity ThemeTracker
Childhood and Maturity Quotes in Through the Tunnel
Going to the shore on the first morning of the vacation, the young English boy stopped at a turning of the path and looked down at a wild and rocky bay and then over to the crowded beach he knew so well from other years.
She was thinking, Of course he’s old enough to be safe without me. Have I been keeping him too close? He mustn’t feel he ought to be with me. I must be careful.
He ran straight into the water and began swimming. He was a good swimmer. He went out fast over the gleaming sand, over a middle region where rocks lay like discolored monsters under the surface, and then he was in the real sea—a warm sea where irregular cold currents from the deep water shocked his limbs.
When he was so far out that he could look back not only on the little bay but past the promontory that was between it and the big beach, he floated on the buoyant surface and looked for his mother. There she was, a speck of yellow under an umbrella that looked like a slice of orange peel. He swam back to shore, relieved at being sure she was there, but all at once very lonely.
He got his head in, found his shoulders jammed, moved them in sidewise, and was inside as far as his wrist. He could see nothing ahead. Something soft and clammy touched his mouth; he saw a dark frond moving against the grayish rock, and panic filled him. He thought of octopuses, of clinging weed.
Again his nose bled at night, and his mother insisted on his coming with her the next day. It was a torment to him to waste a day of his careful self-training, but he stayed with her on that other beach, which now seemed a place for small children, a place where his mother might lie safe in the sun. It was not his beach.
He was without light, and the water seemed to press upon him with the weight of rock. Seventy-one, seventy-two. There was no strain on his lungs. He felt like an inflated balloon, his lungs were so light and easy, but his head was pulsing.
He could see nothing but a red-veined, clotted dark. His eyes must have burst, he thought; they were full of blood. He tore off his goggles and a gout of blood went into the sea. His nose was bleeding, and the blood had filled the goggles.
After a time, his heart quieted, his eyes cleared, and he sat up. He could see the local boys diving and playing half a mile away. He did not want them. He wanted nothing but to get back home and lie down.