Sally Bowles is the most renowned of Isherwood’s famous “Berlin stories,” a “loosely-connected sequence of diaries and sketches,” as he called them, that together form the novel Goodbye to Berlin. Both the story and the character Sally Bowles brought Isherwood his first fame. That fame was attributable in large part to the role of Sally as played by Julie Harris in the play I Am a Camera.
Sally Bowles is a young Englishwoman, living in Berlin, who is befriended by the narrator (whose name is Christopher Isherwood, though he is not to be identified completely with the author). Sally is a cabaret artist of little talent but much charm. Indeed, she lives primarily by her charm, wit, and peculiar beauty. Christopher soon learns that her Bohemian lifestyle involves entertaining gentlemen, but he does not pass judgment on her.
In fact, Christopher finds Sally to be the most attractive of his Berlin friends because watching her is like watching “a performance at the theater.” Sally’s performances are certainly eccentric and, to a degree, pretentious, yet these pretensions do not bother the narrator. He rather likes her masquerades and disguises. In this sense, Sally has much the same effect on Isherwood that Norris had on Bradshaw. Nevertheless, she is more ingenuous than Norris, and this ingenuousness makes her more transparent. Her charm thus mitigates her obvious dishonesty and artificiality. Sally uses people without compunction, but she is also innocent and childlike. This childishness is the source of her appeal.
In a way, Sally is a peripheral character. Her upper-class connections allow her to escape from Berlin when life there becomes tiresome or boring. While she is unquestionably one of the “lost” characters in Berlin (“The Lost” was Isherwood’s working title for Goodbye to Berlin), she somehow manages to escape from the impending devastation that the other Berliners must confront. Great disasters leave her unchanged. Despite rejection from lovers, robberies, and an abortion, Sally remains strangely untouched, and indeed she recovers nicely from these setbacks. She is a misfit and a sexual outcast, but she is also a survivor, untouched by the disease and death attacking the Berliners. Isherwood’s novella presents a successful character study and raises questions about those human qualities that can prevail in desperate and degenerate circumstances.