The Sheltering Sky | Paul Bowles

The Sheltering Sky | Paul Bowles

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327 pages | Ecco Press

Set in the aftermath of WWII and infused post-war existential angst, The Sheltering Sky (1949) tells a story of three Americans whose lives come unraveled in the harsh and unforgiving desert of North Africa. The manuscript was initially rejected by Doubleday, which claimed it was "not a novel." And indeed the story and its characters look unconventional even today, more than fifty years after its original publication. 

While students may be attracted to the novel's exotic desert setting and intrigued by the daring lifestyle of its two protagonists, Port and Kit, they may also be baffled by The Sheltering Sky's larger meaning, if it may be said to have one. Within the novel itself, Kit and Port represent two poles of meaning, or the impulse to find or create meaning in their experience. For Kit, the world is suffused with significance, which reveals itself to her in signs and omens, and she tries to order her life according to her interpretation of these omens. For Port, the world has been drained of meaning. He sees the sky as sheltering, protecting them from what lies behind it, but when Kit asks him what does lie behind it, he replies: "Nothing. Just darkness." For Port, there is no God in the sky and no revelation lurking beneath the surface of things.

Readers of the book are thus given two examples of interpretive strategies: to find meaning in everything or in nothing.