“Through the Tunnel” was first published by the New Yorker magazine in 1955. Lessing had moved from British-controlled Rhodesia in South Africa in 1949. Six years later, little had changed. Apartheid, a legal system of racial segregation structured every aspect of life for both black and white people there, and racism exploded violently in the United States, Europe and many other parts of the globe. White tourists like those in the story were able to afford vacations, while the native black population of many countries, victims of racist economic exploitation, could generally never afford to take such vacations.
In the context of this racist structure, the interaction between Jerry and the “smooth dark brown” boys takes on greater significance. Jerry is bested by “natives,” an event that contradicts the entire structure of colonial racist supremacy. The British and French, among other nations, justified their colonization of Africa and other nations with a wide variety of scientific and social science that supposedly proved the inferiority of people with darker skin. For decades, European and American scientists and anthropologists had been travelling into Africa to study “primitive man.” African societies were not respected as contemporary, viable ways of life, but as throwbacks to an earlier time. All of these assumptions were part of a worldview that allowed white colonists to justify their brutality and economic exploitation of black nations.
In 1957, the single mother was a suspicious figure in the United States, as well as in Europe. Authors like Phillip Wylie, who wrote Generation of Vipers, and organizations like the Boy Scouts warned against the feminization of men. Such people believed that domineering, obsessive mothers were destroying men’s virility and independence. In movies like The Manchurian Candidate, powerful mothers were portrayed as demonic communists bent on ruining the world. Because mothers were obsessive in protecting their children, these critics argued, men were being emasculated. Groups like the Boy Scouts and summer wilderness camps boomed as parents sought to “toughen up” their children. Many social scientists argued that boys required a strong father to grow up healthy. Thus, when Jerry’s mother, “a widow,” worries about being “neither possessive nor lacking in devotion,” she is confronting a dilemma that many women faced at this time. The widow’s relationship with her son is thus fraught with undercurrents of anxiety that reach far beyond the details of the story.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale, 1997.