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In Doris Lessing's Through the Tunnel, the story begins with an eleven year old boy, Jerry, vacationing on a beach with his widowed mother. Later, he leaves this "usual beach" towards the "wild bay" where he witnesses the French boys diving through an underwater tunnel. After being cast off by the French boys, he has a strong persistence in passing through the tunnel in which he is eventually successful in doing so by following a strict training regime. Undeniably, one of the themes that Lessing portrays in this story is that of the rite of passage that Jerry undergoes. However, the question arises as to what prompts this rite of passage and the kind of change it brings to Jerry eventually. Through the characterization of Jerry as an isolated character, Lessing portrays his rite of passage as one that begins in search of acceptance and belonging with the French boys and eventually concludes in self-acceptance.
In order to effectively isolate Jerry, Lessing first portrays him to be within a circle of maternal protection. By doing so, Jerry is characterized as being isolated from interaction with other people and burdened by the protection; hence, he desires to be part of the seemingly free-spirited French boys. In the story, Lessing begins with the setting of a beach. However, this beach seems to be unusually empty as only "the young English boy", Jerry, and his mother are mentioned. As the story progresses, there is also no mention of any other character that Jerry may possibly interact with neither is there any mention of other patrons of the beach. Through Lessing's deliberate attempt to leave out other characters, it depicts Jerry's mother as his only companion and his world seems to only consist of himself and his mother.
Moreover, Lessing establishes an emotional protection Jerry's mother has over him. As a mother, she has a natural need to protect her child and this becomes especially conscientious as he lacks a father. However, she is not outwardly protective of Jerry as "[s]he was determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion." Even so, her emotional protection of Jerry stands strong as reflected through her actions and thoughts, whereby she meticulously and constantly worries about him -she "looked impatient, then smiled" as if suddenly remembering the need to make an effort to be patient and "devoted" to Jerry and also "frowned, conscientiously worrying over what amusements he might secretly be longing for which she had been to busy or too careless to imagine."
Her protection, although unspoken, is something Jerry can sense and recognize as "[h]e was very familiar with that anxious, apologetic smile". Faced with her tacit protection, Jerry is filled with "[c]ontrition" and finds an obligatory need to reciprocate as his smile is "out of that unfailing impulse of contrition - a sort of chivalry" and "almost ran after her again, feeling it unbearable that she should go by herself, but he did not." With Jerry feeling an obligation to stay by his mother as well as the emotional protection Jerry's mother has over him, it draws a circle of maternal protection bounding Jerry. This, in turn, limits his experience and he is isolated from interaction with other people. Judging from the guilt he feels towards his mother, such obligation and forceful intimacy is evidently a burden to a growing child like Jerry.
Hence, when Jerry sees the seemingly free-spirited French boys, "[t]o be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body." The portrayal of the French boys "stripping off their clothes" and "running naked, down to the rocks" suggests that they are not tied down to anything. In contrast to Jerry, they are unconstrained. Given that he has been burdened by his relationship with his mother, he is extremely drawn to the novelty of being free and unbounded. Also, because of his isolation from interaction with other people, it becomes natural for a child like him to yearn for their companionship and to be accepted by them. Later on, when he recognizes his inability to pass through the tunnel as the reason of being rejected, he finds a maddening need to prove that he is worthy of their acceptance and belongs with him and this prompts him to persist in passing through the tunnel.
Besides drawing a circle of maternal protection, Lessing also portrays Jerry as being detached from male figures. The absence of male characters and the feminine portrayal of the "safe beach" characterizes Jerry as being isolated from a figure of masculinity; hence, he is drawn towards the French boys whom he perceives to be 'men' and desires to cross the tunnel as they did to gain acceptance and fit in with them. As the story unfolds, we quickly gather that Jerry's mother "was a widow". Jerry's lack of a father implies that he is isolated from an important male role model. Moreover, there is no mention of any other male companion that Jerry may possibly have, which leads us to believe that Jerry has limited interaction with other males. Also, Lessing establishes a feminine portrayal of the "safe beach" whereby his mother is described as "carrying a bright-striped bag in one hand" and "[h]er other arm, swinging loose, was very white in the sun." Later on, as Jerry looks back to the "safe beach", his mother is described as "a speck of yellow under an umbrella that looked like a slice of orange peel." Items such as the "bright-striped bag" and "umbrella" are objects usually used by females rather than males. Moreover, bright colours such as "orange" and "yellow" are cheery and light-hearted and are considered by many as feminine colours. Also, his mother's white arm adds to the femininity as white generally denotes purity associated with females. Such recurring feminine portrayal of the "safe beach" underscores Jerry's isolation from masculinity.
In contrast, the French boys are portrayed as masculine figures. As Jerry "swam towards them", the French boys are described through his perspective as being "burned smooth dark brown" and later he sees them as "boys blowing like brown whales." The colour brown, compared to the colours used earlier, gives a sense of stability and security and is considered a masculine colour. Also, when Jerry sees the French boys, they are "big boys - men to Jerry." Hence, we can infer that Jerry perceives these French boys as 'men'. Because of his isolation from a figure of masculinity, Jerry is drawn towards the 'manliness' of the French boys and yearns to be "with them" and "of them" as supported by how "[h]e was happy" because he "felt he was accepted" and "was one of them." When he is denied of their recognition as they "looked down gravely, frowning", and were "leaving to get away from him", it accentuates the need for him to prove that he is worthy of their acceptance by passing through the tunnel.
Clearly, Lessing sets up the story by portraying Jerry as being isolated and in search of acceptance and belonging with the French boys. Eventually, Lessing makes use of this isolation and search to fuel Jerry's determination to overcome the tunnel and his success garners him self acceptance such that there is no longer a need for confirmation from a third party. Because of Jerry's isolation and desire to be accepted, it equips him with a "curious, most unchildlike persistence". His determination, as seen from his unrelenting training in "control[ling] his breathing", enables him to successfully pass through the tunnel. Eventually, his success brings about self-acceptance as even when "[h]e could see the French boys diving and playing half mile away"; their acceptance is no longer important and "[h]e did not want them." Jerry's success in overcoming the obstacle, and most importantly in doing so alone, allows him to prove his capability to himself and accept himself for who he is. It was "no longer of the least importance to go to the bay", implying that Jerry no longer finds a need to seek acceptance and belonging from elsewhere. Rather, he gains self-acceptance.
What begins as a search for belonging and acceptance ultimately concludes in self-acceptance for Jerry. Initially, Lessing cleverly sets up the case by portraying Jerry as a child isolated from a figure of masculinity as well as being under his mother's emotional protection. Together with the draw that the French boys provide, Lessing makes use of the very same isolation as a driving force for Jerry to feel the need to cross the tunnel. However, we see that his eventual gain defers from the third-party belonging and acceptance he searches for initially. No longer do we see a Jerry desperate for the attention of the French boys. No longer do we see a Jerry seeking acceptance from the French boys. No longer do we see a Jerry desiring to belong with the French boys. What we do see, though, is a Jerry who accepts himself for who he is.