The Sheltering Sky and Kit’s Breakdown

In The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, I see an irony in the way that Kit feels like she is embracing life in the desert. After her husband’s death, Kit leaves Tunner behind and flees into the Sahara. She says she feels like “Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through the window at it” (241). Up until this point, she had been traveling as a sort of tourist with Port. Now that she’s lost one of her traveling companions and left the other, she suddenly feels this revelation that she is fully immersed in life here. The ability to view life in another country from the outside is a sort of privilege that citizens of the colonizing countries have. They have the ability to cross borders and stay in a place that they do not consider their home. Kit’s in a remote city and has lost her husband to disease. For her to suddenly feel like a part of existence now glorifies the entrapment that most disease-fearing citizens of Sbâ might feel. Kit’s narrative gives me the impression that Sbâ broke her a little bit. This thought is more of a mental breakdown than a revelation.

This can be seen in her relationship with the men whom she travels with through the Sahara. When her desert traveling companions rape her, Kit considers them with affection. The people are abusing her and she doesn’t acknowledge it. When she asks Belqassim why he let another man sleep with her, he calls her “habibi,” a term of endearment. (268) He talks as if he has affection for her too, even though he treats her like property. This is a sort of reversal of roles for the main characters: Port always treated every city they traveled to before Sbâ as if it was placed there for his own entertainment, creative muse, and enlightenment. He spoke of these places with affection, but picked and chose parts of each place that he liked and rejected all other aspects of it. Kit is now the object of these travelers’ entertainment, though they claim that she is their habibi. She feels helpless to stop them because “even had they had a language in common, [they] could never understand her” (267). For someone who has become so in tune with life in the Sahara, she can’t understand people who arguably would be more in tune with this life.

Kit then claims that “with the heavy tan she had acquired during the past weeks she looked astonishingly like an Arab boy. The idea amused her” (272). The ability to blend in perfectly in a foreign town is a cosmopolitan fantasy that Kit hasn’t let go of. She talks as if a tan is the only noticeable physical feature of Arab boys. Her naïveté is still there, as it was before Port’s death. She just tries to believe that Port’s death has awakened her ability to somehow be one with the land and its people. More than anything, Kit is suffering from a period of trauma caused by recklessly traveling from city to city. She only sees it as a moment of clarity and oneness with life because she can’t accept that otherwise she would be completely lost.

-Freddy Bendekgey

3 thoughts on “The Sheltering Sky and Kit’s Breakdown”

  1. I would agree that in the end it does not seem like Kit is having a profound revelation, or that she truly grows to understand her surroundings. I think that it might be interesting to consider it in comparison to some of the other works we have read, particularly those that involves people immigrating to the US, such as We Need New Names or The Third and Final Continent.

    Immigrants to the US are expected to learn about the language and culture of that country – to assimilate. However, Kit appears to enjoy privilege in the sense that she is not really expected to do so. She might temporarily be made to look like an Arabic boy, and her lack of understanding of the culture might create issues in the novel, but fundamentally, she is not expected to change, even if she is planning to stay in the country for a long time.

    -Tanya

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  2. I agree with Tanya along the lines of “expectation”, differing for someone like Kit versus someone like Darling; and I wonder how much of that has to do with differences in the amount of formation time these “expectations” have been alotted, given two disparate time periods. It was mentioned in class that “The Sheltering Sky” places its determinedly American characters in the Sahara in an era when borders are shifting and maps becoming useless, and America still trying to orient itself to be a recognized world power. Maybe it is simply too early for either American “travelers” or the occupants of other nations to divine “expectations” for these foreigners, who meanwhile privilege themselves with vacillation between assimilation and differentiation, or fantasies about both. In Darling’s period, and especially given the role reversal taking place in her traveling to a prosperous United States from struggling Zimbabwe, the concept of migration in this manner is better established and expectations better inculcated. One expects her to leave origins behind and become “American”, now richly defined (however unstable the definition may in fact be.)

    I also thought it was interesting the way that Kit’s “revelation” describes Port as if he was some kind of barrier to her full immersion in the places they traveled to, when as Freddy points out, Port was her sole tether to these places to begin with. His avid interest in constantly transitioning from nation to nation never read as an overshadowing of some reserved longing in Kit to be one with the people – because such a longing never really existed. Maybe it was in an attempt to cope with Port’s loss that she, in this “lucid” moments, regards his existence as an impediment to her lived experience.

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  3. Kit definitely seems to have some sort of “awakening” after Port’s death, however, I also agree that it appears especially shallow. It is less of an awakening than a new beginning, in the sense that a realization or enlightenment never fully unfolds. Kit is suddenly tossed out in the world on her own, yet this seems to stun her rather than inspire her to embrace her surroundings and new life. It is almost as if the foreign environment around her allows her to walk through life in a stupor, for she is able to disengage from all she previously knew, starting afresh in a world that does not appear real to her. A stark contrast is drawn between her previous westernized and civilized life and her new solitary existence in the desert, which appears as a place with no attachments, obligations or worries due to its distinct foreignness. By viewing her remote location as a mode of escape, Kit seems to be disavowing its legitimacy as a place in the “real” world, evidence to her westernized, unenlightened mindset.

    -Audrey

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