Aside from a few short passages that are set in the villa, this story takes place entirely outside at the seashore. More than acting as a mere backdrop for human action, though, the natural world has an integral relationship to Jerry’s psychological development within the narrative. The ocean, as Lessing describes it, is both beautiful and unforgiving, a site for tranquility and for risk-taking adventure. Lessing’s language lyrically captures both the scenery of the coast and the potential dangers lurking beneath the surface of the water. As Jerry’s emotions toggle between joy and fear, doubt and confidence, the surrounding environment plays an important role as it reflects his varied emotional states on his path toward a newfound maturity.
The crowded beach and the rocky bay represent two approaches to appreciating not just the ocean, but the natural world at large. The beach is a site of leisure and easy relaxation, while the rocky bay—at least as Jerry experiences it over the course of the story—is a place of adventure and exploration. Early in the story, Lessing writes that going to the beach revolves around a “routine of swimming and sunbathing,” which Jerry’s mother seems perfectly happy with, while Jerry has grown somewhat bored with this routine through his many repeated visits to the area. When he first reaches the rocky bay on his first day alone, Jerry uses his time to aimlessly swim and relax. It’s only when the older boys arrive to dive to the bottom of the rock and through the tunnel that Jerry begins to see the bay as a site for adventure and pushing the limits of his physical abilities—marking a shift in his own relationship to the natural world from a passive one to one that is much more active and engaged.
The ocean, as Lessing frequently depicts it throughout the story, is a potentially harsh environment—one that can inflict pain on humans who don’t take its threat seriously. As he begins to train for his swim through the tunnel, the fear and uncertainty that Jerry experiences are mirrored in the variety of physical dangers lurking just beneath the surface of the water. In his earliest stages of acquainting himself with the rock and trying to find the tunnel, Jerry experiences the immensity of the obstacle before him: “he could see nothing through the stinging salt water but the blank rock,” Lessing writes. It takes some experimenting for him to figure out that he needs to use a heavy rock to sink to the opening of the tunnel and then swim through it. As he makes his first attempt at entering the tunnel, he encounters darkness and a further sense of confusion when something “soft and clammy” touches his mouth, and he sees “a dark frond moving against the grayish rock;” panic fills him, as he thinks “of octopuses, of clinging weed.” This sensation of panic and confusion accompanies him on his successful swim through the tunnel, as well; he feels the slimy ceiling of the tunnel and again imagines an octopus waiting for him inside. In this way, the natural environment reflects Jerry’s fearful and vulnerable state of mind.
Throughout the story, Lessing describes the ocean in vivid poetic language that emphasizes the beauty of the environment surrounding Jerry’s adventures and also conveys the sense of freedom that he gradually gains through his exploration of the rocky bay. Lessing’s lyricism helps convey to the reader that Jerry’s process of self-discovery is not only concerned with physical challenges and emotional turmoil, but also with his increasing awareness of the natural world outside of himself. When Jerry first goes into the water with his new goggles, Lessing helps readers see through his eyes with her crisp descriptive writing: “It was as if he had eyes of a different kind—fish eyes that showed everything clear and delicate and wavering in the bright water.” Moments like this help the reader inhabit Jerry’s perspective as it widens to encompass more of the world around him. Similarly, when Lessing writes of the small fish populating the water—ones that might go unnoticed by characters in other stories—she shows Jerry completely immersed in a new and alien environment in a moment of nearly ecstatic observation: “Fish again—myriads of minute fish, the length of his fingernail—were drifting through the water, and in a moment he could feel the innumerable tiny touches of them against his limbs. It was like swimming in flaked silver.” If his life before setting out to swim the tunnel was relatively closed under his mother’s supervision, once Jerry sets out on his own at the rocky bay, he is able to expand his understanding of the natural environment and his own position within it.
Through her stylistic choices, Lessing makes the complex exterior world of the ocean mirror Jerry’s inner developments through the story. Just as the setting can be tranquil and picturesque one moment, then harsh and somewhat violent the next, Jerry goes through a full range of corresponding emotions as he moves through the environment. This gives readers the opportunity to experience both the challenges and the rewards of his task, as Jerry struggles to venture through the darkness of the narrow tunnel and ultimately make it out into bright, open ocean on the other side with an ecstatic sense of accomplishment. Rather than acting as a mere backdrop for Jerry’s activities, the natural world both influences and reflects his psychological maturation through the arc of the story.
Nature 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.
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.
Soon the biggest of the boys poised himself, shot down into the water, and did not come up. The others stood about, watching. Jerry, after waiting for the sleek brown head to appear, let out a yell of warning; they looked at him idly and turned their eyes back toward the water. After a long time, the boy came up on the other side of a big dark rock, letting the air out of his lungs in a sputtering gasp and a shout of triumph.
Under him, six or seven feet down, was a floor of perfectly clean, shining white sand, rippled firm and hard by the tides. Two grayish shapes steered there, like long, rounded pieces of wood or slate. They were fish. He saw them nose toward each other, poise motionless, make a dart forward, swerve off, and come around again. It was like a water dance.
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.
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.