From the story’s first sentence, when Jerry’s attention is split between going to the crowded beach with his mother or to the rocky bay by himself, Lessing creates a sharp contrast between solitude and community. Throughout the story, Jerry seems to be privately weighing the burdens and benefits of being surrounded by others in a community against the difficulties—and, he discovers, the joys—of being alone.
Although Jerry decides to explore the isolated strip of rocky bay without the supervision of his mother, he immediately encounters a group of older boys whom he watches with admiration and awe. He tries to impress them in a variety of ways and gain admission into their tight-knit group of friends. When he first sees the boys swimming, he feels a strong desire to be among them. “To be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body,” Lessing writes. He experiences a few fleeting moments of camaraderie swimming with the boys, and although they quickly go off without him, the urge to be included is what initially drives Jerry to train himself to swim into the tunnel. When Jerry first sees the group of local boys, it is observed that they are “burned smooth dark brown”. No mention is made of Jerry’s skin tone, but readers know that his mother’s naked arm is “very white in the sun,” so it’s likely that the young English boy’s complexion is similar. At the end of the story, after the end of a vacation spent swimming outside, the mother lays “her hand on [Jerry’s] warm brown shoulder,” subtly suggesting that he has “earned his stripes,” so to speak—becoming more like the daring locals.
Like the various physical injuries that he receives in the process of training to swim through the tunnel, Jerry also experiences a deep sense of loneliness that shades his time alone at the wild bay. When he first floats out to get a look at the crowded beach from his side of the promontory, Jerry searches the crowd for the sight of his mother. “There she was,” Lessing writes, “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.” Jerry is excited to be all alone, even as he is nervous and perhaps even frightened about the independence that he has obtained in that moment.
Jerry and his mother are from England, and are vacationing in a foreign country. When Jerry encounters the older boys, he is left out of their group not only because of his inability to swim beneath the rock and through the tunnel, but also because of his lack of understanding their native language. In a panic, Jerry “look[s] up at the group of big brown boys on the rock and shout[s], ‘Bonjour! Merci! Au revoir! Monsieur, monsieur!’” It remains unclear whether the boys are in fact French, but they decide to ignore Jerry’s unimpressive attempts to communicate with them. In this way, Jerry’s time spent at the bay is characterized by his solitude—partially willed as he cautiously distances himself from his mother, partially unwilled as he yearns for inclusion among the locals.
Although he is initially hesitant to explore the rough and unfamiliar landscape of the rocky bay without the guidance and support of his mother, Jerry’s decision to venture forth on his own shapes his eventual transformation over the course of the story. He experiences a succession of rich feelings—isolation, camaraderie, struggle, and accomplishment—that he wouldn’t have necessarily felt if he had taken the comfortable route of going to the beach with his mother. In writing Jerry’s narrative in this way, Lessing suggests that true inner development can only happen when a person is able to directly confront their physical or emotional boundaries on their own, without the comforts—or constraints—of community.
Solitude vs. Community ThemeTracker
Solitude vs. Community Quotes in Through the Tunnel
The English boy swam toward them but kept his distance at a stone’s throw. They were of that coast; all of them were burned smooth dark brown and speaking a language he did not understand. To be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body.
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.
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.
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.