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Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles’ Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky


Despite the significant developments in science during the 19th century, the two devastating wars of the following century dismantled human faith in scientific and rational thinking. This negative outlook on society was first observed in philosophy by authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre. As a result, twentieth-century literature is deeply influenced by existentialism that focuses on the character’s consciousness rather than following the traditional unfolding of the plot. In this way, contemporary literature makes the psychology of the individual its nucleus, yielding to the exploration of topics such as absurdity, mortality or freedom. Therefore, this 101 series will analyse some of the most important existentialist works of literature from the 20th century to explore how the authors have intertwined their motivations with the widespread pessimism of the time.

This 101 series is divided into the following sections:

6. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles’ Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky

Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles’ Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky is a travel novel that subverts the expectations of its genre. Contrary to the usual plot, Bowles frames the narrative as a self-destruction story in which neither of the main characters is redeemable. This outlook is profoundly influenced by the Western vision of the East and how conventional mainstream characters react when confronted with otherness and wilderness.

The Sheltering Sky reached immediate commercial success at a particular moment in American literary history, “when both high and mass-culture institutions began to realise the salability of the idea of the avant-garde or art novel” (Brier, 2006, p. 188). After World War II, the entertainment business made small but loyal audiences the perfect target for products branded as art rather than enjoyment. In this way, Bowles was the ideal author for this kind of enterprise since he was a well-known author in refined artistic circles in the United States. The novel is about travellers and the phenomenon of travelling. This should not come as a surprise since the image of travel embodied by a road has always been commonplace in American literature. Nevertheless, Bowles erases the self-affirmation the protagonist usually acquires in this type of narration and, in turn, creates a version of travel that is not triumphant. Thus, he does not present the protagonist as “conquering the wilderness and their own self,” but as becoming “mad in the wilderness” (Zidan & Al-Ghalith, 2020, p. 2). This version of a travel novel usually takes place in oriental surroundings and is profoundly linked to Western consciousness.

Figure 1. Le Désert (Ernst, 1929)

The Sheltering Sky was written amid Bowles’ trip across North Africa. Thus, the novel analyses the consequences of immersing oneself in a world previously idealised from a safe distance. The novel tells the story of three Americans who innocently venture into the Sahara Desert and live various adventures. For example, one of them, Port, suffers from a terrible typhoid illness and later dies from this disease. In contrast, his wife, Kit, undergoes a once-in-a-lifetime experience and refuses to return to Western society. Apparently, the novel’s setting is the desert, but it is usually considered a metaphor for the characters’ psychological mindset (Weik von Mossner, 2013).

The characters’ trip seems doomed from the beginning: several elements indicate that the world they will explore is not hospitable. The threatening nature of the Other is shown very early in the travel, when Port and Kit come across a huge mechanical crane that beggars inhabit. The crane symbolises the process of modernity that Algeria is undergoing, but it turns out to be a broken machine in a state of disrepair. The image of modernity becomes an illusion and creates a thin veil of the conflict between reality and appearance (Shamma, 2011). The adventure that the novel proposes does not affirm the self but rather “leads to self-destruction, an adventure where any kind of refuge disappears” (Zidan & Al-Ghalith, 2020, p. 2). Port is not the stereotypical adventurer and is not looking for a specific destination. Just like Antoine Roquentin in French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Port is the target of different adventures that happen to him, but he does not willingly search for them.

Figure 2. The Disquieting Muses (De Chirico, 1918)

The process of disenchantment usually takes place when the characters leave the outside (apparently modern and known) and reach the inside (primitive and unknown) (Shamma, 2011). This does not mean that the characters’ adventures are completely negative since there is a sense of freedom in their affairs. From the novel’s beginning, the author mentions Port’s mapping of his journey in North Africa, that “evokes the metaphorical journey of self” (Movaghati, 2017, p. 237). However, if the outside and the inside journey are equal, attention should be paid to the geographical setting of the novel, the Sahara. The Sahara could be defined as a protagonist or antagonist since it is a prevailing entity that dominates all the other forces in the novel. The connection between nature and human identity in the story is essential because the former shapes the latter: our persona

“lingers with us from the very moment of our birth, and from that point, we constantly annex the mundane appendages of the temporal world to it” (Movaghati, 2017, p. 238).

The interplay between humans and their surroundings does not only resort to reason and perception but also to feel. The relationship and the influence work in both directions: the physical interaction shapes our perception of nature, and our consciousness also has a biased idea of a certain environment. Both interactions are essential to understand the novel since emotions like dread, love or anxiety continuously

“operate between individual protagonists and their physical environment, and these emotional relationships not only inform the protagonists’ understanding of the landscape around them but are also of central importance for character and plot development” (Weik von Mossner, 2013, p. 223).

Thus, the desert serves as a metaphor for the characters’ mindset, but their relationship with their surroundings also determines the outcome of their internal conflicts. In the novel, landscapes have a primitive effect on the identity of the protagonists and the Sahara Desert not only offers a “sheltering sky” but also greatly impacts people’s choices, thinking and death. This is a key point in the fictional world of the novel, but also in the narrative itself.

Figure 3. Napoleon in the Wilderness (Ernst, 1941)

The reason for travelling, at least from Port’s point of view, is the union with his ancestors. Therefore, rather than travelling to developed regions, he goes to developing territories to look for his real identity (Movaghati, 2017). Nevertheless, the characters’ heroism is ambivalent because it is related to a refusal of their culture: leaving Western values away, they can become free individuals. Their rejection of Western society is paradoxical because it is their condition as members of the bourgeoisie which enables them to travel and explore the world. For example, Port detests America, but his American passport is very important, and he tries not to forget it. Thus, the passport is an embodiment of nation and civilisation (Zidan & Al-Ghalith, 2020). Despite the ambivalence, the story clearly criticises capitalism which usually hides behind the veil of civilisation and modernity. At the end of the novel, the author seems to parody mainstream American culture when each character is introduced with titles (Mr Evans or Mr Clarke). Bowles shows that the stereotypical American is an example of capitalism when Miss Ferry expresses her rejection of a poor American. This criticism goes as far as detesting Kit for buying her clothes in Paris (Zidan & Al-Ghalith, 2020).

Port likes North Africa because it is the counterpoint of the middle-class American way of life. The region’s otherness makes it attractive to him, although his reasoning is profoundly Western. He compares himself and his wife to early European pioneers coming across the American wilderness looking for shelter (Weik von Mossner, 2013). That is why he thinks of the Sahara as a vast space where he feels sheltered because of its bright sky that hides him from the night. When answering his wife’s question about the elements that hide behind the sky, he responds: “Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night” (Bowles, 2002, p. 76). Port dreads the night, which is also something in his and his wife’s minds:

“You know what?” he said with great earnestness. “I think we’re both afraid of the same thing. And for the same reason. We’ve never managed, either one of us, to get all the way into life. We’re hanging on to the outside for all we’re worth, convinced we’re going to fall off at the next bump. Isn’t that true?” (Bowles, 2002, p. 76).
Figure 4. The Forest (Ernst, 1928)

During the novel’s first part, Ports seems relaxed with the light of the desert and its silence. This emotional comfort makes him disconnected from any kind of connection with another human being. For example, his wife cannot understand her husband’s obsession with constant movement and the Sahara. Contrary to Port, her reaction to the desert is absolute fear during the story’s first half. After all, it is her first journey to Africa, and she is utterly unprepared for the demanding conditions of her surroundings. This is partly her husband’s fault, who would willingly withhold information from her and only show her photos of attractive landscapes or markets. Consequently, the environment Kit expected to encounter was carefully crafted by her husband to purposefully mislead her into believing there would be no wilderness. In this way, Kit feels betrayed, and she does not share her husband’s love for the desert by far. Port, in turn, reacts violently since he believes that the travel would heal their damaged marriage. He will get sexually involved with natives, which will lead to him getting ill with typhoid fever, whereas Kit will develop a sexual affair with another travelling companion, Tunner, the stereotypical American character. Apart from him, she also enjoys Western activities and goods, which distracts her from the trip (Weik von Mossner, 2013). When Port returns to one of their many hotel rooms one day, it looks “like a bazaar: there were rows of shoes on the bed, evening gowns had been spread out over the footboard as if for a window display, and bottles of cosmetics and perfumes lined the night-table” (Bowles, 2002, p. 123).

Once her husband dies from typhoid fever, Kit feels lost because he embodies security for her, and, thus, she is condemned to wander in the desert. She is lost physically and mentally because she does not belong to the West anymore, but she is neither a part of the Sahara. Port’s reason for going to North Africa is part of his selfish desire to escape from modern society and reunite with his ancestors, whereas Kit’s motivation to get lost in the desert is caused by her madness, which is also selfish in its own way. Rather than caring for her husband’s body, she tries to escape the scene as soon as possible. Her disappearance takes place at the last French checkpoint in Algeria before entering the Sahara (Martino, 2006). This attitude shocks the French official who thinks that “only an American could do anything so unheard of as to lock her sick husband into a room and run off into the desert, leaving him behind to die alone” (Bowles, 2002, p. 196). This is an essential part of the novel because not only does Kit leave her husband, but she also regrets her duty to care for him. In Western civilisation, caring for the male body by the woman is well-represented in Greek tragedy. Therefore, when abandoning her husband, Kit refuses Western society and becomes a “vagrant, a wanderer, but in a totally different way than Port” (Martino, 2006, p. 95). Port is the lost soul condemned to wander forever, looking for the meaning of life, while Kit escapes from the meaning of her husband’s death and his destiny (Martino, 2006).

Figure 5. The Two Masks (De Chirico, 1926).

In conclusion, The Sheltering Sky perfectly embodies Western imagery about the Sahara Desert. Contrary to other travel narratives, those that present the Western outlook on Orientalism usually feature a loss of identity that cannot be reclaimed. Rather than experimenting with a true transformation in their personas, the characters of this narrative usually embark on a self-destructive journey. Port and Kit never manage to find their true identity for different reasons: on the one hand, Port suffers from a paradoxical dilemma, since he rejects Western society but is never able to let it go whereas his wife tends to escape from any meaningful experience, which leads her to madness.

Bibliographical References

Bowles, P. (2002). The Sheltering Sky. The Library of America: New York.

Brier, E. (2006). Constructing the Postwar Art Novel: Paul Bowles, James Laughlin, and the Making of “The Sheltering Sky.” PMLA, 121(1), 186–199.

Martino, A. (2006). The Vanishing Point: The Dis-Integration of Female Identity in Paul Bowles’s “The Sheltering Sky.” South Atlantic Review, 71(2), 87–114.

Movaghati, S. (2017). What happened in the Sahara? A transition over the bound of semi-consciousness in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 6(3), 234-242. doi:

Shamma, T. (2011). Horror and Likeness: The Quest for the Self and the Imagining of the Other in The Sheltering Sky. Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies, 25(2), 242–258.

Weik von Mossner, A. (2013). Encountering the Sahara: Embodiment, Emotion, and Material Agency in Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 20(2), 219–238,

Zidan & Al-Ghalith, A. (2020). An Existentialism-Sheltered Orientalism: Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. The International Journal of Literary Humanities, 19(1), 1–13.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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