Doris Lessing is known for being a writer whose work affects people. She tackles political issues but refuses to limit herself to being a political writer, and is equally acclaimed for her essays, fiction, and even science fiction dealing with interests ranging from nature to the status of women. “Through the Tunnel,” which is ultimately a story about a boy growing up, seems at first glance to stand apart from her usual concerns.
Lessing was born in what is now Iran in 1919 to a German father and British mother, and then moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1924. She embraced Communism and immigrated to England in 1949. Then she returned to Africa in 1956, but was labelled a “prohibited immigrant” because of her political views, and returned to England shortly thereafter. She then quit the Communist Party in protest of Stalin’s atrocities.
Just as Lessing has divided her time between living in England and Africa, her stories have been classified as either “British” or “African,” the latter having been published together in a volume called African Stories. “Through the Tunnel” appeared in Lessing’s collection The Habit of Loving, which was published in 1957, shortly after her return to England. “Through the Tunnel,” which presumably takes place in the south of France, is one of her British stories, though Lessing never overtly identifies its location and it has many of the characteristics of her African stories.
In her preface to African Stories, Lessing writes of the need for African writers to be able to write non-politically.”Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages—being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid, dramatic change. But in a long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one’s eyes on a fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice, and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it.” In “Through the Tunnel,” as in other of her British stories, Lessing allows herself to look away from the turmoil of South Africa. As Lessing says later in the same preface,”Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape,” and it is this aspect of the African experience that Lessing seems to focus on in “Through the Tunnel,” as Jerry, the boy, struggles for survival in an indifferent sea.
Lessing “lays bare the really important problems that face us today: survival, and beyond that, the potential of the human spirit,” according to critic Mary Ann Singleton. Certainly this applies to Jerry, who strives to fulfill his human potential and ends up fighting for his life in the tunnel. Jerry’s struggle is that of an individual trying to find his place in the world, and is thus about survival and the human spirit in an emotional, personal sense rather than in the larger sense of human extinction. He wants to be accepted by older boys and to leave behind the safe beach of his childhood where his mother watched over him. Jerry wants this so badly that ultimately he is willing to risk his life to demonstrate that he is ready. The personal aspect of a story can be as important as the political, and for that reason “Through the Tunnel” has been included in anthologies such as Great Stories from the World of Sports and Breath of Danger: Fifty Tales of Peril and Fear by Masters of the Short Story.
South African writer Nadine Gordimer also sees the human potential theme in “Through the Tunnel,” but with a slightly different emphasis. In her review of The Habit Of Loving, Gordimer highlights “the habit of loving and needing love, of seeking acceptance through achievement, like the boy in ‘Through the Tunnel.'” Gordimer would disagree with critic Clare Hanson, who, apparently viewing Lessing primarily as a political writer, says in her essay “Doris Lessing in Pursuit of English, or, No Small. Personal Voice,” that “critics agree we read [Lessing] for content not style.” Gordimer sees “Through the Tunnel” as a story “of great beauty and the style that comes of itself from a synthesis of theme and the background in terms of which it is worked out.”
According to critic Mona Knapp in her book Doris Lessing, nearly all the British stories focus on “a modern European individual. These protagonists are steeped in civilization and culture, thus in radically different circumstances from their solitary African counterparts, but they share with them the fight against existential, if not demographic, isolation. … Each protagonist comes into conflict with a given collective force, and wrests from the ensuing battle her or his identity and self-definition.” Young Jerry can be viewed as a “modern European individual, wresting his self-definition from his battle with the tunnel.” He is not of this place. Unlike the French boys, he is not adapted to the sea and must buy goggles before he is able to see underwater. Moreover, he ends up altering the environment in order to make it through the tunnel: the white sand under the water is “littered now by stones he had brought down from the upper air.” As soon as he achieves his goal he wants “nothing but to get back home and lie down.”
On the other hand, Jerry’s actions fit in with the characteristics of the African stories as well. According to Knapp, what is common to all 30 African stories is the theme of the “individual’s collision with an oppressive environment. While the young may emerge temporarily unscathed from this skirmish, the adults, whose strength is already eroded by poverty and hardship, are nearly always doomed.” While Jerry’s “collision” with the ocean is voluntary, the aquatic environment can still be viewed as “oppressive” to the extent that Jerry’s determination to conquer it puts him at risk of dying and determines the course of his activities throughout his stay, bloody noses and all. Not only that, but it also distances him from his widowed mother who tries not to interfere with his life. Likewise, as a widow, her strength can be seen as having been somewhat”eroded by hardship.” It is interesting to note that Jerry swims out twice to check that she is safely on the beach, while she never checks on him; maybe she knows that he must go off and face certain challenges and that he is doing so on her behalf, too.
Most of the African stories focus on the lives of the white settlers with the natives in the background. Knapp notes that many of these stories are told from the point of view of a white child,”who is at one with the teeming veld and nature itself. The child’s eyes focus on three major subject groups: the color bar and native custom, the social hierarchy among the settlers, and, most important, the basic workings of life and death within unadulterated nature.” While there is no overt “color bar” guiding the interactions between Jerry and the older boys as he watches them diving, he is a pale-skinned intruder, intent upon observing “native custom,” while they are “of that coast… burned smooth dark brown and speaking a language he did not understand.” Similarly, the wild sea teeming with fish can be viewed as analogous to the African veld; Jerry is not quite one with it—hence the fierceness of his struggles—but that is what he is striving to become. That he loses interest as soon as he achieves his aim demonstrates that he is more a child of the city than of nature.
One story included in African Stories that is an example of a white child at one with the veld and which has many striking parallels to “Through the Tunnel” is “A Sunrise on the Veld.” The boys in the two stories seem to be so similar that the country each story is set in seems to be the primary difference between them. The boy in “A Sunrise on the Veld,” a white settler, pushes himself physically and mentally as Jerry does, training himself to wake at half-past-four every morning, delighting in controlling his brain and “every part” of himself. “He had once stayed awake three nights running, to prove that he could, and then worked all day, refusing even to admit that he was tired.” Upon waking, he walks outside with his shoes in his hands to avoid waking his parents, pushing past pain as Jerry does in order to achieve his freedom: “his hands were numbed … and his legs began to ache with cold.” This boy wakes to go hunting out on the veld; he feels there is “nothing he couldn’t do, nothing!” Like Jerry this boy confronts the possibility of death, and gains the “knowledge of fatality, of what has to be.” He comes upon an injured buck; seeing its carcass devoured by black ants, he realizes that he may, on any given morning, have caused similar anguish to an animal that he has shot and not followed. Jerry inflicts no cruelty, but he does worry his mother and risk his life needlessly.
Singleton writes of Lessing’s protagonists who encounter the veld that they are not “separated from creation as a whole but [take] part in the cyclical repetition of life and death…. If the result is the loss of Eden, it is the gain of full humanity with consciousness, and its corollary, responsibility. It is Milton’s Adam and Eve leaving the Garden.” Both Jerry and the boy in “A Sunrise on the Veld” gain maturity from their encounters with mortality, and this helps explain why afterwards Jerry is entirely ready to leave.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale, 1997.
Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.