Places: The Sheltering Sky

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1949

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: After World War II

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Northwestern Africa

*Northwestern Sheltering Sky, TheAfrica. Vast arid region overlapping modern Algeria and Mali in which the novel is set and where author Paul Bowles spent a year touring before writing this, his first novel. He later traveled extensively through the Sahara and eventually settled in North Africa, the scene of most of his later fiction.

*Oran

*Oran. Algerian port city on the Mediterranean coast in which the novel opens. The freighter on which the Port and Kit Moresby arrive spews them out onto hot docks and into a cluttered and disorganized city. When the husband, Port, awakens from an afternoon nap, he is initially aware only of being “somewhere” after experiencing a vast “nowhere.” This duality of his mental landscape makes place essential to the novel. Port considers himself a “traveler” and not a “tourist,” one who lives by moving from place to place; however, he also seems foolishly unaware of the dangers of the North African climate and alien culture ahead.

Port walks alone in the native Algerian section of the French-ruled city, wandering toward the outskirts of town, observing crowds of impoverished people, whom he finds merely repetitive, spiritless beings. He passes through dark, narrow streets lined with increasingly dilapidated shacks. At the city’s edge, he slides down a hillside dump through a litter of fish bones and similar garbage. From there he sees the glistening salt beds (“sebkas”) stretching out into the desert below, illuminated by a “giant rift” in the sky–the Milky Way, from which a filtered white light emanates.

*Sahara

*Sahara. Great desert expanse that stretches from the northwestern coast of Africa to the Red Sea and across the Arabian Peninsula. As the Americans venture ever deeper into the desert, both societal and natural conditions steadily worsen; hotels grow shabbier and travel more difficult. The people they meet–other travelers, French military officers, and Algerians alike–regard them with a mixture of tolerance, indifference, and hostility. The desert itself becomes increasingly fierce, barren, and oppressive.

Boussif

Boussif. Desert town in which Port, Kit, and their American companion, Tunner, find a treeless, modern collection of square blocks, mud-filled streets, and inhabitants shielded from the violent sun by tightened burnouses or cloaks that cover their heads. A wasteland surrounds the town, its emptiness stretching to mountains of “raw, savage rock without vegetation.” In spite of tension in their marriage, Port and Kit enjoy observing a sunset together, though it reveals to each of them their extreme differences: The vast emptiness and silence of the desert fulfills Port’s expectations but simply terrifies Kit.

Aïn Krorfa

Aïn Krorfa. Algerian desert town, the approach to which is verdant, thanks to plentiful “seguias” or watercourses. However, the air is clotted with flies and the Grand Hotel’s courtyard has a dried-up fountain filled with garbage, children with bursting sores, hairless pink dogs, and a dead fig tree whose branches are looped with barbed wire. Kit complains about the heat and squalor, and even Port is experiencing nervousness, bad dreams, and chills. Hoping to improve his relations with Kit, he persuades Tunner to continue on to Messad with other travelers.

*Bou Noura

*Bou Noura. Algerian fortress town in which Port and Kit stay in the second segment of the novel, “The Earth’s Sharp Edge,” when Port becomes ill. From there, they travel on to El Ga’a, where, despite Port’s weakened condition, they cannot find lodging. Arriving in Sbâ, they are given a room in a fortress where Port, expecting in his last moments to achieve the repose he envisions beyond “the sheltering sky,” dies of fever.

*French Sudan

*French Sudan. West African colony that became independent as Mali in 1960. In the final section of the novel, “The Sky,” Kit flees from Bou Noura by joining two men in a camel caravan. Forced to travel as a sexual slave through the Sahara to the French Sudan, she is placed in a harem and loses her sanity.

BibliographyBertens, Johannes. The Fiction of Paul Bowles: The Soul Is the Weariest Part of the Body. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1979. Examines the work in light of Bowles’s nihilism and attempts to connect the writer to a Calvinist tradition in American literature.Bowles, Paul. Conversations with Paul Bowles. Edited by Gena Dagel Caponi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, c. 1993. Bowles discusses the genesis of The Sheltering Sky. Interesting background information for study of the novel.Caponi, Gena Dagel. Paul Bowles: Romantic Savage. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Interpretive biography that examines the parts of Bowles’s life that provide insight into his work. A section on The Sheltering Sky examines its influences, its critical reception, and the central characters’ relationship. Bibliography and index.Patteson, Richard F. A World Outside: The Fiction of Paul Bowles. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. Examines this novel and others through formal and thematic architectural concepts: the story as shelter, both necessary and fragile. Considered the most comprehensive of the full-length studies. Includes bibliography.Pounds, Wayne. Paul Bowles: The Inner Geography. New York: Lang, 1985. Using psychological theories, the author compares The Sheltering Sky to Bowles’s other works and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838).
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