The Symbolism of Tunnels in Literature
Anyone who has ever read Stephen King’s “The Stand” likely has an eerie image seared forever in his brain: a darkened Lincoln Tunnel with bodies strewn like cordwood and a determined protagonist trying to make it to the other side. Tunnels make frequent appearances in literature, serving as symbolic representations of journeys and passages. At least as far back as the Bible, tunnels are invested with symbolic meaning, as people even cut ”a channel through the rock” in search of what is truly precious in Job 28:10.
In its simplest form, symbolism is the use of a person, place, or thing to represent something other than itself. The concrete becomes the abstract: It is not a dove, it’s peace. It isn’t merely a loaf of bread, it’s all food and common sustenance. Symbolism is rife in all forms of literature and can be found in objects, characters, and even colors. In “A Dictionary of Literary Symbols,” Michael Ferber notes that the color black has a negative connotation, whereas “blue is traditionally the color of heaven, of hope, of constancy, of purity, of truth, of the ideal.”
Each writer ascribes her own meaning to her work and the symbols that lie within, as do the readers of each work. The ideas that a tunnel represents in one piece may be completely different than the meaning of tunnels in another’s work. However, one common association of a tunnel is a journey from one place to another, both physically and symbolically -- for example, from a place of darkness and doubt to a place of light and confidence. In the case of both Job and Stephen King’s Larry, one meaning of the tunnel is the journey itself.
Light at Its End
At the end of every tunnel is the other side, often bursting with light and hope. Equal to the journey is the outcome in its symbolic results. In Ayn Rand’s “Anthem,” the protagonist, Equality 7-2521, lives underground in a darkened tunnel. However, he emerges, possessing both the symbolic light of his intelligence and an actual light bulb, as he has discovered electricity and feels compelled to share what cannot be contained. It is the contrast of the tunnel’s darkness that gives light its power and resonance. Light has long been a symbol of good, hope and God.
While tunnels certainly represent journeys, they more often symbolize the passage from one phase of life to another. In its most primal meaning, the tunnel symbolizes the birth canal. Just as a baby evolves and journeys outward, so do characters of a story. The metamorphosis of Jerry in the short story “Through the Tunnel” is apparent when he comes out the other side of his tunnel as an adult. Likewise, in the novel and movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the tunnel represents the protagonist’s growth. The movie’s director, Stephen Chbosky, said that “the tunnel scene is a symbolic rebirth, whether people look at it as a spiritual rebirth or a coming of age.”
Linda Emma is a long-standing writer and editor. She is also a digital marketing professional and published author with more than 20 years experience in media and business. She works as a content manager and professional writing tutor at a private New England college. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University.